Ann Ravel and Dave Cortese Spar Over COVID-19, Housing and Proposition 15

South Bay state Senate candidates Ann Ravel (left) and Dave Cortese (right) at a candidate forum in February 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

South Bay state Senate candidates Dave Cortese and Ann Ravel aired their differences on COVID-19 response, housing, property taxes, criminal justice reform and more in a Monday debate on KQED Forum.

The two Democrats also litigated campaign attacks that have flared in one of the most closely watched legislative races in the state, in a district which covers most of San Jose along with Cupertino, Saratoga, Campbell and Los Gatos.

Cortese, a Santa Clara County supervisor, finished first in the March primary. He has been a constant presence in South Bay politics for more than two decades: He ran for mayor of San Jose in 2014 and served on the City Council for eight years before his election to the Board of Supervisors in 2008. His father Dominic also served in the state Assembly from 1980 to 1996, helping to make Cortese a familiar name to voters here.

Ravel is making her first run for office after a distinguished career as a political watchdog. She led California’s Fair Political Practices Commission under Gov. Jerry Brown before being appointed to the Federal Election Commission in 2013 by President Barack Obama.

Voters in the 15th District have been inundated with ads and mailers from political interest groups. Spending from independent expenditure groups (known as Super PACs) during the general election has surpassed $4.5 million, the most of any legislative race in California, according to the California Target Book.

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The support has broken along lines familiar to recent intraparty general elections: The California Chamber of Commerce, representing business, has spent heavily in support of Ravel, while organized labor, including the United Food and Commercial Workers and the California Federation of Teachers, have been active in support of Cortese.

On Monday, the two candidates debated for an hour in a conversation moderated by KQED Forum host Michael Krasny. Here are some key areas of disagreement that emerged between Cortese and Ravel during the debate.

COVID-19 Response

Santa Clara County has been among the most cautious in the state in allowing businesses to reopen following the regional stay-at-home order.

Ravel agreed that the risk of spreading the coronavirus warranted a cautious approach, but raised issue with the way the county chose to draw lines on certain business activity.

"The health aspects of the policies have been good, the political aspects have not," said Ravel. "We know that throughout the state there have been differences in what people can do and can’t do and the same was true in Santa Clara County, where the first orders said you could engage in construction of affordable housing but not of market rate housing or any other kind of housing, which is not a health concern."

Cortese defended his work on the Board of Supervisors in prioritizing virus mitigation. Santa Clara County was home to the first known death from the coronavirus, and Cortese said he has worked as a liaison between business groups and county health officials.

"I think the county has done a good job," he added. "I think we’re generally recognized throughout the country as having done a good job."

Ann Ravel speaks during a forum at the Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Housing

Cortese reiterated his support for statewide reforms to residential zoning. In the primary, he was the only candidate to support Senate Bill 50, the controversial legislation that would have legalized more dense housing across the state, particularly around transit hubs and job centers. The bill was defeated in the Legislature in January.

"We need to do things like that to expedite housing, make sure it goes in the right places, make sure it's along transit corridors," said Cortese, who is endorsed by the pro-housing group California YIMBY.

Ravel said her focus in the Legislature would be on affordable housing, which she said "has not been prioritized."

She proposed the state hand over excess land for housing development, while investing in cheaper, factory-built housing.

"The state should be investing in modular housing and other mechanisms that we'll be able to build more quickly and less expensively, rather than doing what has been done in the past, which is just help compensate big developers," Ravel said.

Both Ravel and Cortese expressed support for new taxes to fund housing construction — with Ravel suggesting a head tax on employers and Cortese proposing a surcharge on companies whose employees are forced to make long commutes.

Dave Cortese speaks during a forum at the Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020.

Proposition 15 

The two Democrats are split on one of the most controversial measures on the November ballot: Proposition 15, which would tax commercial properties at their market rate, while exempting owners who have fewer than $3 million in property. The divide over the "split-roll" tax is the clearest example of how Cortese and Ravel occupy the labor and business-friendly wings of the party.

Cortese describes the measure as a lifeline for education, as the increase in commercial property taxes could raise billions for K-12 schools.

"Where are we going to get the money to educate our kids?" Cortese asked. "Especially in a period of time when we're talking about having to possibly teacher-up even more because we have to keep kids in smaller cohorts as long as we don't have a vaccine. I don't think we can wait anymore."

Ravel opposed the commercial property tax hike even before the pandemic, but argued the current recession is an especially bad time to raise taxes on businesses, who might pass along the costs to tenants.

"Timing is so important in this case because those people can't afford it now, they're closing now and people are dependent on those jobs," Ravel said. "And so this is not going to be helpful."

Criminal Justice and Policing Reform

Ravel slammed Cortese's record on policing and jail reforms — questioning the supervisor's independence from law enforcement groups. She said Cortese has been too quick to sign off on a variety of items on the law enforcement wish list and was too allied with Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith after the 2015 murder of inmate Michael Tyree in the county jail.

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"It's astounding if you actually look at not only the amount of money he's received from the police unions over his career, but also the actual actions that he's taken and the actual votes that he's taken," Ravel said.

Cortese said that unlike Ravel, he has a record of legislative victories on the issue of criminal justice reform — including recent cuts to the sheriff and corrections budget, and a decade-long effort to reduce the population of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall.

"We had almost 400 kids in juvenile hall, disproportionately represented kids of color," he said. "I just looked at the census report a couple days ago. It was at 49. That's real reform."

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The two candidates are vying to replace state Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat who is termed out after eight years in the Senate.