Two Democrats hoping to become the region's next state senator shared their views on key topics while making their cases to constituents in their party during a public forum Monday night in Dublin.
State Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) and former Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo) discussed issues for more than an hour during the event hosted by the Tri-Valley Democratic Club as part of its effort to determine who to endorse in the upcoming special election.
"I have been able to serve four years (in the State Assembly). It is truly an honor to serve my community in all of these capacities. I want to be able to stay," said Bonilla, 54, who was re-elected to a third term last fall to represent the 14th Assembly District, which includes parts of northern Contra Costa County, plus Vallejo and Benicia in Solano County.
"I'm very proud of the work that I've done in the State Assembly. I'm proud of the work we've done locally for constituents," said Buchanan, 62, the Tri-Valley's former assemblywoman who was termed out of office last year after serving since 2008. "I think people send us to Sacramento to solve problems, and I think I'm good at that."
The two women are the only Democrats to date who have declared their candidacy for the special election to fill the unexpired term of former 7th District State Senator Mark DeSaulnier, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.
Attorney Mark Meuser, a Republican from Walnut Creek who lost to DeSaulnier in the 2012 election, has also thrown his hat into the ring this time around.
The 7th State Senate District special primary is scheduled to take place on March 17, with the top two finishers set to then square off in a special election on May 19. The candidate list will be finalized after the nomination period closes this Friday afternoon.
The senatorial district includes parts of Contra Costa and Alameda counties, including Pleasanton.
With their campaigns already underway, Buchanan and Bonilla appeared in front of about 90 people attending the Tri-Valley Democratic Club's candidate forum Monday night at the IBEW Local 595 Union Hall in Dublin.
The pair gave opening statements before answering questions from club officials and audience members as each attempted to convince the regional club to endorse her candidacy for State Senate. The term to be decided in the special election expires in 2016.
A prominent theme throughout the opening remarks and Q&A session was public education, an important issue for both women -- Bonilla, a former teacher, and Buchanan, a longtime school board member.
"Voters in California need to believe that public education can be saved, that it is getting better, that the money is being put to good use and that our students are becoming more and more successful," Bonilla said.
"I think we're making that case, and we're going to need to go out for continued or new revenue for education -- K-12, child care, preschool and higher education," she added. "We've got to put our money where our mouth is. There's no way that you can get education on the cheap. It just doesn't work."
"When I go to the Senate, I want to be one of the strongest advocates for public education," Buchanan said. "Long-term, we have all got to be willing to pay more money for education, and I believe the voters already are with us ... The people in the state of California support their schools. They put education at a high priority."
"I don't see education funding increasing from the (state's) general fund," Buchanan added. "As a society, we're going to have to tax ourselves and dedicate that money to public education because every kid deserves opportunity. And not only the opportunity in K-12 to receive a high-quality education, but the opportunity to go to college."
The candidates also described their legislative history.
Bonilla highlighted her work at the state level with the Education Budget Subcommittee and new student assessments under the Common Core State Standards as well as her efforts in local office with the Concord Naval Weapons Station and employment assistance in Contra Costa County.
Buchanan discussed her Assembly bills regarding student data privacy, information technology and the teacher dismissal appeal process as well as her work with local constituents in areas such as business permitting, homelessness and health care.
Each woman began her political career in local elected office before successfully making the jump to the State Assembly.
Buchanan sat on the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education for 18 years, which included four turns as board president. Bonilla, a former high school English teacher, served on the Concord City Council and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.
The wide-ranging Q&A session Monday also touched on issues such as prison reform, job training, support for military veterans and fracking.
At one point, each candidate answered an audience query about whether she would drop out of the race now and endorse the other to ensure a single Democrat candidate has the most support possible to avoid the party losing the seat in the special election.
"I'm in the race to stay," Buchanan said. "A Republican is not going to win this."
"I'm here to stay, too," Bonilla said with a smile on her face. "We don't get this far involved and committed without having really given it a lot of careful thought and without really believing that we can win."
At the end of the forum, Tri-Valley Democratic Club members voted overwhelmingly in favor of endorsing Buchanan, with 29 votes cast for the former assemblywoman compared to two votes for Bonilla -- four club members voted to make no endorsement.
The 7th State Senate District includes Pleasanton, Livermore and Sunol at the south end, Brentwood, Antioch, Pittsburg and Concord to the north, Orinda, Lafayette and Walnut Creek to the west, and the San Ramon Valley.
The district consists of all of Buchanan's former 16th Assembly District and a portion of Bonilla's 14th Assembly District as well as parts of the 11th Assembly District (represented by Jim Frazier, D-Oakley) and a sliver of the 20th Assembly District (represented by Bill Quirk, D-Hayward).
The candidate nomination period closes Friday at 5 p.m. Sample ballots for the special primary are due to be mailed out on Feb. 5, and the voter registration deadline is March 2, according to election officials.