Assembly Candidates Mia Bonta, Janani Ramachandran Clash in KQED Debate

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side by side photos of Mia Bonta and Janani Ramachandran
Mia Bonta (left) and Janani Ramachandran face each other in an Aug. 31 runoff election for the East Bay Assembly seat vacated by Bonta's husband, Rob Bonta, when he became California's attorney general. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Mia Bonta and Janani Ramachandran, two Democrats running for state Assembly in the East Bay, clashed Monday over campaign endorsements, housing policy and the future of the Oakland Athletics in a debate on KQED Forum.

With just over two weeks until voting ends in the Aug. 31 special election, the debate, hosted by KQED's Alexis Madrigal, turned heated at times — with candidates lobbing charges of hypocrisy, name-calling and superficiality.

The winner of the special election will fill the 18th Assembly District seat that has been vacant since Rob Bonta — Mia's husband — took office as California's attorney general. In June, Mia Bonta and Ramachandran finished atop a field of eight candidates in the special election primary, and now face each other in the Aug. 31 runoff.

Nearly two-thirds of voters in the district are Democrats, making it one of the most liberal seats in California. On Monday, housing policy dominated the discussion between the candidates, who both listed it as a top issue for the voters they hope to represent in Oakland, San Leandro and Alameda.

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“People who live and work and call District 18 home have been steadily leaving because things are extremely unaffordable," said Ramachandran, an Oakland-based social justice attorney.

Sparks began to fly when Ramachandran said calls for housing to be a human right had been “co-opted by individuals who do not believe housing is actually a human right," alluding to Bonta, and charging that her opponent would be beholden to developer interests.

Bonta, the president of the Alameda Unified School District's Board of Education, urged for a "move beyond the hashtags that we often hear in this campaign and from the other candidate in this race."

And she repeatedly bashed the endorsement Ramachandran received from the Alameda Citizens Task Force, a local advocacy group that has opposed efforts to expand multifamily housing and battled with tenants groups in recent rent control campaigns.

"I find it really kind of striking that somebody who is endorsed and supported and proactively seeks out the endorsement of people who are NIMBYs [not in my back yard] ... [speaks] so callously about the fact that housing is a human right," said Bonta.

The pair offered ideas for the Legislature to take an expanded role toward ensuring that more affordable housing is constructed in the state.

Ramachandran advocated for taxes on large real estate developers and a greater reliance on government-built housing, to ensure "there is equity in terms of who is able to build [units]."

Bonta said the state could enact a uniform requirement for developers to make a certain percentage of new units affordable, similar to the local requirements that exist in many Bay Area cities.

"I think if we do that across the state and hold the line across the state, then a developer can't decide to try to pit one county or city against the other in declaring that it's too expensive to build the housing that we rightfully need," she said.

Underlying the candidate's responses was a familiar dynamic in local Democrat vs. Democrat elections: Bonta, the candidate with establishment backing, touted her ability to hit the ground running in Sacramento, while Ramachandran, who identifies with the party's left flank, pitched herself as a break from the status quo.

When asked by a listener how to address violent crime in the short term, Bonta said her work in education nonprofits makes her better suited to tackle the "solutions for today."

That experience, Bonta said, "is really at the heart of what the difference is between me and the other candidate in this race."

Ramachandran used her answers on issues like homelessness to deliver a message of change — and to tie Bonta to local elected officials who she said "are the spearhead of failed projects" to aid the unhoused.

"Our political leaders at the state and local level, particularly at the state level, love to try to throw money at the problem for the photo ops and hope it goes away," Ramachandran said.

The candidates' sharpest policy division came over the Oakland A's proposed stadium development at Howard Terminal. It's unclear what role a state legislator could play in the project's future, but more hurdles remain despite the city of Oakland's approval of a financial plan for the project.

"I believe we have an opportunity with the Howard Terminal project to ensure that working people have the jobs that they deserve in the city of Oakland, and I believe we have a pathway to be able to ensure that the environmental impacts are thoroughly reviewed and taken care of," said Bonta.

Ramachandran fired back against what she labeled "a real cop-out answer from my opponent."

"This is not a project about economic development, this is not about jobs for Oakland, this never has been," Ramachandran said. "This is about billionaire interests and billionaire-owned sports teams."

Voter turnout in the June primary was a paltry 20%, despite the Alameda County Registrar of Voters mailing every registered voter a ballot by default.

Ballots have already been mailed to voters for the special election runoff and the county is opening early voting locations and Election Day polling places.