May 1, 2012 | With the sole Republican in the race for the 20th Assembly District not in attendance , the four candidates to the left attempted to make distinctions between themselves in a debate last week focusing on higher education at Cal State East Bay in Hayward.

While the lively 90 minute debate ultimately failed to create noticeable contrasts, a little-known Democrat named Sarabjit Cheema became the surprising catalyst for a pair of attacks on Union City Mayor Mark Green, the campaign’s lone independent.

When Union City Mayor Mark Green, an independent, admitted his knowledge of the State Legislature’s proposed Middle Class Scholarship Act giving tuition breaks to struggling students and speculated it may not be as good as advertised, it open a flurry of criticism from the three Democrats, who were steadfast in their support. The breaks would be paid for by taxing out-of-state businesses with employees in the state.

Green said during the debate he had only reviewed the bill that morning, but would “cautiously support” it. He was more critical afterwards. “They think closing an out-of-state tax loophole is going to be a panacea and superficially, it sounds somewhat appealing,” said Green, “but is it every business? Certain types? Those with a certain number of employees?”

“I absolutely support it,” Hayward Councilman Bill Quirk said, while adding, he would like to rollback college fees to 2000 levels. “State education should be free,” he said, “but if we can’t do that, we’ve got to make it as cheap as we possibly can.”

Quirk then took a shot at Green’s plea for moderate voters. “I don’t think it’s important to be in the middle, as Mark Green says he is, but to support the right policies like the middle class scholarship act and bring people around to that right policy.”

Green later responding by saying politicians in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C. are ignoring the political center. “If anybody here can tell me the current system is wonderful, I would question your perception on life right now,” he said. All the talk about catering to moderates, though, forced Cheema to call foul on Green.

“For 18 years he had a party,” said Cheema. “In just the last year he changed his party–changed his mind.”

Green responded: “I would just like to get some facts straight. I was a Democrat for 38 years, not 18, and then became wiser and older.” He added, in hindsight, he should have left the party 10 or 12 years ago.

Later, Cheema, a first-term school board trustee in Union City, took exception to Green’s assertion that companies are enticed by not only tax breaks, but that they complain about government regulations, energy costs and workforce development. “Companies come to California because we provide an excellent workforce,” said Cheema. “It’s not because they are going leave because of taxes, but because we have a richness in this region. They will come here regardless. The companies needs us, it’s not the other way around.”

On the subject of improving student preparedness for college, the debate was far more collegial. All four candidates agreed the state’s students are too often not ready for college-level courses following graduation from high school.

“We need government to help us with public school education,” said Jennifer Ong, “but we also need the community and parents to value that same priority.” Ong, an optometrist who emigrated from the Philippines at a young age, advocated for more funding into health and welfare programs for children. Cheema also called for building a “stronger foundation” for children and their education.

Green, who was a substitute teacher in Hayward for 10 years, said reading aptitude needs to be increased, in addition, to reaching out to the business community for funding and mentoring programs.

“The shortage of revenue is a problem,” said Quirk. He urged for voters to approve Gov. Jerry Brown’s November sales tax measure to help alleviated the funding gap for education, along with enacting an oil severance tax and adjusting income tax calculation for business.

Republican Luis Reynoso did not participate in Wednesday’s forum due to a school board meeting that night in Hayward.