Eight candidates are vying for Assemblywoman Laura Friedman’s seat in the State Assembly, the result of a great reshuffling of California representatives on all levels of government followed by the death of U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff is seeking Feinstein’s position in the Senate, and Friedman will pursue Schiff’s vacant office, leaving room for one of eight locals to take her spot in the State Assembly.
Among them are two of Burbank’s own — Mayor Nick Schultz and longtime city volunteer and e-commerce CEO Carmenita Helligar. They are joined by six others from throughout the San Fernando Valley, including Glendale Councilwoman Elen Asatryan, UCLA Law lecturer Ed Han, activist Steve Pierson, recent graduate Adam Pryor, construction manager Tony Rodriguez and personal trainer Adam Summer.
Six of the candidates are running on the Democratic ticket. Rodriguez is a registered Republican, and Summer has no party preference. Summer and Pryor did not respond to the Leader’s requests for comment.
The 44th Assembly District encompasses much of the San Fernando Valley, including all of Burbank, North Glendale, North Hollywood and Sunland-Tujunga.
Whether its electricity rates spiking for Burbank residents, new apartments and development sprouting or tenants marching at City Hall to protest evictions and soaring rents, decisions made in Sacramento by the elected California Senators and Assemblymembers reverberate locally. In many ways, the future of the city is decided by state government.
The Leader asked the 44th Assembly District candidates two questions that have implications on the local level.
The Leader: Issues like rising rent and housing costs, homelessness and small business closures following the COVID-19 pandemic are top of mind for voters in the area. How do you plan to nurture and grow local economies in the district?
Asatryan: As a Councilmember, I have proudly championed economic development streamlining regulations, and supporting our small businesses. I initiated an overhaul of our permitting and entitlement processes, our annual small business summit, engaged SBA and regional economic partners, and programming around Women’s Equity Day. I initiated procurement for locally-owned, women-owned, minority-owned, businesses. I will champion similar efforts in the Assembly to secure resources such as grants, tax breaks and low-interest loans.
We can’t talk about boosting our economy without addressing the housing crisis and ever-rising costs of living along with the unintended consequences of headline-driven legislation that impact our small businesses. Residents and businesses are struggling. We must implement affordable housing initiatives, including subsidized mixed-income housing projects that currently leave out residents living paycheck to paycheck who can easily fall into homelessness and balance it with affordable and environmentally conscious growth. Concurrently, investing in homeless proactive outreach programs and shelters to provide support and assistance to those in need is crucial — all of which I’ve championed as a council member.
Han: We need to address homelessness at the root cause, supporting social and mental health programs and addressing our housing crisis. Current ideas are not working; indeed, homelessness went up by 10% last year. And as someone who serves in uniform, it is distressing that nearly 1 in 10 unhoused people in California are veterans. We need to do more.
Further, as someone who was raised by small business owners, I know firsthand just how important it is that California remain a place where people and businesses can thrive.
Helligar: Rising housing costs really shows the supply and demand crisis. We have to build more housing without repeating the past mistakes of creating ghettos and pockets of poverty. All new developments should include units for every income level and home ownership. Over $150 million dollars was sent back to the federal government that should have been used for housing. Universal childcare and dependent care would drastically help the economy in California. The lack of both being affordable and available does adversely affect the livelihood of women in California. California has one of the lowest female labor force participation rates among major cities in the U.S.
The U.S. gross domestic product could be 5% higher if women participated at the same rate as men in the workforce in California. I started a small business during the pandemic to support small businesses. I sit on the Chamber of Commerce to offer support for small businesses. Small businesses are the backbone of our country. While trying to recover from the pandemic our district then had to go through an entertainment strike that affected our small businesses. We can make it easier for small businesses to open up in our district. Focusing on getting funds to cities for marketing and providing innovative ways to support small businesses is a great investment that will keep doors open and our economies growing.
Pierson: Expensive housing, economic instability, a lack of mental health resources, and not enough housing define our homelessness crisis. I’ll tackle this multi-layered issue head-on and address the root causes with urgency and compassion. We need to end street encampments and expand housing that is geared toward our unhoused neighbors who face mental illnesses, substance use and financial insecurity. We should eliminate hurdles to enter supportive housing, provide more drop-in services in shelters, invest in mental health and substance use treatments, and provide job training and employment services. We need to prevent homelessness by supporting renters, making homeownership more affordable, creating good paying jobs and providing affordable higher education and vocational training.
Our district is home to thousands of creatives and small business owners who rely on a thriving local production scene. Thanks to entertainment production, I have been able to live in the Valley for 30 years, raise my family and build a successful career. We must support our creative economy, and I’m committed to pursuing stronger incentives to stop runaway production. As a SAG-AFTRA member I will always put our union workers first, and fight to keep our jobs here in L.A. where they belong.
Rodriguez: When it comes to rising housing and rent cost, we must look at a few things to at least try to manage the cost: upzoning (like in Los Angeles and the [state] ADU program), financial incentives and more favorable mortgage terms. When it comes to the homelessness issues, we need to audit and figure out where all the money spent has gone, so we do not make that mistake again. As far as businesses closing goes, we need to look at the cost of doing business. Workers comp in California is a huge burden to carry. We also have SUTA and FUTA tax that needs to be controlled, especially in the state of California where we paid our $32 billion in fraudulent unemployment claims. We also need to allow small businesses to be part of the minimum wage conversation. It always sounds good to increase the minimum wage, however raising the minimum wage also raises the cost to the small business by the wage increase, the worker’s [compensation] increase and the tax increases.
Schultz: We’ve built back from the pandemic, for the most part, but our economy continues to be riddled with inequities leaving too many people behind. The rising costs of housing are displacing longtime residents of our communities. Wages remain stagnant. The dream of homeownership has never been further beyond reach for so many.
We must do more to support small businesses and ensure an entrepreneurial environment through streamlined business permits and fees. In doing so, however, it’s imperative that we prioritize the development of jobs that provide a fair, livable wage with benefits (e.g., healthcare and childcare), and resources to foster the growth of new families in our communities.
We also need to talk about the entertainment industry, which is the backbone of our local economy. The California Film & Television Tax Credit (CFTTC) Program was enacted in 2009 as part of an economic stimulus plan to promote production spending, jobs, and increased tax revenues in California. As your Assemblymember, I will fight to protect the CFTTC, expand program eligibility, and make it a permanent fixture of our economic development strategy for the region.
ENROLLMENT AND EDUCATION
The Leader: Declining K-12 enrollment has impacted state funding for school districts throughout the region, resulting in cuts to staff and education programming. What can be done to ensure children in California continue to receive a quality education?
Schultz: As your Assemblymember, I will be unapologetically pro-public education and work to rectify systemic issues related to funding, staffing, and a lack of district-level decision making.
School funding in California is based on student enrollment and reduced by average daily attendance records. I appreciate Governor Newsom’s recent proposal to allow districts to base funding on attendance in the current year, prior year, or the average of that from three prior years — whichever is greater.
I feel that the only equitable and sustainable method to fund public education is based upon the total number of enrolled students. We must also increase the autonomy of schools to best utilize state funding to provide for their students, staff, and teachers.
Rodriguez: First we need to have school choice. This in itself will not solve the issue. Simply a band-aid. Many parents have pulled their children from schools because of what is being taught in many public schools without the parents being aware. We need to evaluate our Department of Education and all the school districts to see what the fundamental issues are, and address them. The finger pointing must stop from all sides. Our children are suffering because all sides do not want to sit down and have a conversation. There should be an “opt-out” option for families if they do not want their child to participate in politically or racially subjective perspectives in our schools.
Pierson: I’m proud to be the only candidate in this race endorsed by the California Teachers Association because of my commitment to funding our under-resourced schools and to giving teachers the pay, benefits and training they need to succeed. A quality, fully funded education should be a right for all children.
Education, sports, the arts and access to parks and libraries are vital to help children thrive. I support closing tax loopholes that have created challenges in how we fund education and as Assemblymember, I will work to increase education funding despite tough budget projections to ensure California is a leader in education.
Helligar: The way we fund our schools should change from attendance to enrollment. It is on record that this action alone would shift our public school system for the better. Supporting bond and parcel measures where needed throughout the district. Creating new programs like AA degrees in high schools so our graduating students enter college as juniors and save 50% on their tuition.
Bring back trade programs so students can work in their chosen field upon graduating. Focus on ensuring that our federal government starts to pay the 40% that was legislated years ago for our special education students. IDEA legislation promised the federal government to fund “up to” 40% of the “excess costs” of these services, with state and local funds making up the rest. Congress regularly insists that it is moving toward that goal but has never allocated anything close to the promised 40%. Currently, California’s IDEA grant covers approximately 11.5% of the costs, and the state contributes approximately 46%. Over the past seven years, the money that Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) have had to spend on special education, over and above state and federal contributions, has increased from 35% to 43%.
Han: I was the beneficiary of the public schools in my district, my first job out of college was as a public-school teacher, and I teach at a public university today. I know personally how vital it is that public schools offer a world-class education. We must ensure our public schools excel, and as the only educator in the field I will bring real life experience to this issue and ensure that our students always come first.
Asatryan: As a proud product of public schools and an immigrant who started as an English learner student, I am familiar with the many gaps in our education system and deeply committed to ensuring all children in California receive a quality education. I will prioritize advocating for increased state funding for education and equitable distribution of resources to school districts.
Investing in professional development for educators, promoting diversity and inclusion, and ensuring access to resources are key aspects of my education platform. Moreover, creating trust in the education system through transparency and accountability, and implementing targeted programs to serve our diverse student population, recognizing their unique needs and challenges, are essential to ensure that every child in California has the opportunity to succeed academically and thrive in their future endeavors.
First published in the February 10 print issue of the Burbank Leader.