Marin’s assembly member discusses county issues, president Obama and Governor Schwarzenegger
On Marin Assemblyman Jared Huffman’s desk sits a placard that reads “The Buck Stops Here.” Ask him about it and the tall, boyish-appearing legislator replies, “I always want to act in accordance with that motto of President Harry S. Truman.” Turn the nameplate around and it reads, “I’m from Missouri.” On this he is unequivocal. “That’s the absolute truth,” he says with a wide smile. “I was born and raised in Independence, Missouri.”
Huffman leaped from Missouri to California in the mid-1980s to become a three-time All-American volleyball player at the University of California Santa Barbara. “When we came to San Francisco to play Stanford, Cal or St Mary’s, I somehow fell in love with the Bay Area,” he says. After graduating with honors and attending Boston College Law School (and again graduating cum laude), he followed his bliss to the Bay Area and a succession of legal positions, culminating in six years as a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy organization.
“Moving to Marin was an extension of that,” Huffman says today, sitting in his fourth-floor field office at the Marin County Civic Center. “In 1994, when I was 30 years old, I made my first run for elective office and won a seat on the board of the Marin Municipal Water District.”
After 12 years on the MMWD board (three terms as president), the San Rafael family man made a daring bid for the state Assembly, facing off against a talented field of six in the 6th Assembly District Democratic primary of 2006. His victory over more politically connected opponents was considered a surprise. In 2008, he ran unopposed in the Democratic primary and in November won 137,873 votes (70 percent of those cast), among the highest of any assembly candidate statewide. In his first two-year term in Sacramento he’s introduced more than 40 pieces of legislation.
“To me, the great thing about it is that environmental issues brought me into government,” he says, “while for many politicians, it’s the other way around.”
Legislation he introduced that was eventually passed included laws directing California’s Energy Commission to reduce the state’s energy consumption for lighting by 50 percent within 10 years; requiring the state to hold public hearings before spraying pesticides in urban areas; and making sure tested response plans are in place for oil spills such as the Cosco Busan incident.
By the end of 2009, Huffman will be halfway through his term-limited six years in the Assembly. “I love what I’m doing,” he says, “but I knew when I signed on there was this thing called term limits, so I’ll just keep my eye on the ball and be the best assembly member I can be. Right now, I don’t have any grand blueprint for the future.” He and his wife, Susan, who walked precincts with him in his 1994 bid for the water district board, live with their two children in San Rafael.
Let’s start at the top. You have much in common with President Obama—you’re similar ages, both attorneys, both tall and athletic with two young children and married to politically in-tune wives. Okay, okay, it’s great to have those things in common but the comparisons end there. The president is in a league of his own. Actually, last fall, during his campaign, I had the amazing experience of introducing him at a fundraiser in Kentfield. Beforehand, I got to relax with him and see him when he’s not on. What I admire is that he is the same person when he’s on and when he’s not on. I could see no difference! And you can’t say that about many politicians.
Have you had similar interactions with Governor Schwarzenegger? Truthfully, I haven’t had much interacting with Governor Schwarzenegger—and the tragedy is that almost no one in the legislature has interacted much with him. For me, this is the governor’s Achilles’ heel; this is the lost promise of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He brings many great things to the table—his star power, his independence from party dogma—and yet, at the end of the day, it’s really all about him. He has never been able to build a relationship of trust and confidence with the state legislature. Little things would go a long way—a few meetings, a bit of respect. Instead of partnering with us and getting something done, he spends his energy making sure blame for the budget crisis is placed on the legislature and not on himself. I think he panders too much to public sentiment.
That said, is there a positive to your Sacramento experience? Definitely. It’s a joy to partner with Marin state Sen. Mark Leno. We are philosophically and politically aligned almost all the time; it is a delight to work with Mark. It’s great for the district to have two representatives in the state legislature who are in sync with each other. It makes for a potent partnership representing the interests of this county.
Which brings up the question of San Quentin’s death row expansion. The real issue here is this: Is our only choice to build a massive new death row housing unit that’s going to cost $1.6 billion over the next 20 years—or can we be smarter about the way we house these prisoners? I think we can be a lot smarter and that common sense will prevail on this issue. I’ve talked with (retiring) Warden Robert Ayres and he’s candidly said that up to 70 percent of death row’s inmates could be housed at other correctional facilities around the state without any security risk whatsoever. It’s just that we have this stubborn policy of death row housing and it’s costing us hugely. It’s terribly misguided. When we’re forced to prioritize how we spend our dwindling resources, as I say, common sense will prevail.
How do you feel about California’s death penalty? It’s time to seriously reconsider the death penalty—it makes no sense from any angle you approach it. It’s hard to make the case it deters anyone from crime. It’s even harder to make the case we can afford it. Recently, a commission highlighted the hundreds of millions of dollars a year it’s costing California. Much of it is because we’ve got a wait of 20 to 30 years before the penalty can be carried out; as a result, more condemned men die of suicides or natural causes than from being executed. In so many ways, it is absolutely ridiculous.
Based on your 14 years of public service in Marin—understanding these are not matters before the state assembly—please comment on the following issues facing Marin County:
An MMWD desalination plant? As an MMWD board member, I opposed a pipeline to get water from the Russian River, as it increases dependence on imported water and had added environmental impacts. Also, we can’t just wish away our water supply problems. We’re vulnerable to a drought because ours is a small watershed with a small reservoir system. So we’re forced to look at competing goods and lesser evils, and having a small, locally controlled phase-in de-sal plant, coupled with a conservation program, provides an insurance policy against a critical drought. It’s a far better alternative than importing water or doing nothing and putting Lagunitas Creek fish populations at risk.
Using herbicides in MMWD’s watershed? When I was on the board, Roundup was being applied pretty extensively near trails and people were walking by it, which caused alarm. Therefore, I supported a moratorium while we looked at all the alternatives, everything from Hawaiian hot foam to weed-eating goats, the goal being to find the least toxic but most effective method. And if they’ve thoughtfully looked at the alternatives and only use Roundup when it’s absolutely necessary and where it will not get in the water supply or hurt people, then that’s the policy I support. I know we’re in danger of losing the watershed’s biodiversity to invasive vegetation and I’m aware Marin Open Space Districts, California’s State Parks and Audubon Canyon Ranch all use Roundup. I think the current MMWD board has taken a thoughtful approach to this issue and I don’t second-guess anything they’re doing.
The Marin Clean Energy concept? Like many people, I’m hopeful we can have a much greener energy portfolio. However, I think there are some major challenges ahead for Marin Clean Energy. We need to see what the market offers up when we solicit for sources of renewable power. We need to be sure it’s as green as we would like it to be. It could be a portfolio built on credits and similar things and, in the big scheme of things, not much greener than what we have now. We also need to make sure Marin Clean Energy is affordable and adequately addresses the risk issues. We do not want to put our local governments and ratepayers at a greater risk than where they are now.
Marin’s supply of affordable housing? The one dark side to this wonderful place we live in is we need to do a better job of building a diverse and sustainable community. It’s not just about the quality of life for people high on the hill. It’s about those stuck in the Novato Narrows traffic on their way to be teachers and firefighters, and the folks who wash dishes, trim trees and do the things we tend to take for granted. We need to recognize affordable housing is an environmental issue and that preservation of our open spaces is not the only piece of valid environmentalism. That doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our quality of living—only that we can do a better job of appreciating what the many dimensions of a successful community can be.
Public opinion in Marin? The biggest mistake a local politician can make is confusing a dozen people who stand up at the microphone during an open meeting with public opinion. If you are a good representative of your constituency, if you talk to neighbors, if you have walked neighborhoods to be elected and reelected, I think you are in a much better position to gauge public opinion than if you take the proverbial snapshot on the night of a board meeting when a dozen people are very angry. I just try to think about the perspectives of all the people I interact with, whether it’s the people who step up to the microphone or the person you run into at the store. Yet let me emphasize something right here: an elected official can’t spend all his or her time worrying about public opinion. If I spent all my time chasing approval, I wouldn’t be much of a leader.