Assemblymember Rob Bonta addresses a candidate’s forum Tuesday evening in Alameda as challenger, David Erlich looks on. PHOTO/Steven Tavares

ASSEMBLY | 18TH DISTRICT | Until Tuesday night, San Leandro electrician David Erlich had never taken center stage in a political forum or debate. He paced and gathered his thoughts in the back of the room at Alameda’s Mastick Senior Center for more than 30 minutes as candidates for the county superintendent of schools race debated the finer points of public education. Erlich, a registered, Republican, ultimately did well, as he offered an opposing political ideology to one of the East Bay’s most progressive elected officials, Assemblymember Rob Bonta and his bid for re-election in the 18th District.

The race, which covers Oakland, Alameda and San Leandro, however, may be the biggest mismatch in the entire East Bay. Bonta’s rising star in the Democratic-controlled State Legislature dissuading any challengers from within his own party, while Erlich is the only other candidate on the June 3 ballot. Therefore, because of California’s top two primary system, the pair will meet again in the November general election.

San Leandro resident David Erlich

“I am running in a district that has eight percent registered Republicans, which one of them I am,” said Erlich. “I just want you to open your ears and listen to a different perspective.”

“I want people to have their own choices,” he added. “Government is overreaching. We’re losing our private property rights, we’re losing our personal rights and that’s what I’m fighting for everyday.”

On fiscal issues facing the state, immigration and gun rights, the candidates found little commonality, starting with whether a potential $2 billion state budget surplus actually exists. Bonta said the state should be realistic about how much money is available to be spent, but encouraged using a portion to help shore up an estimated $74 billion shortfall for CalSTRS. “If we say we have a budget surplus of $2 billion,” said Erlich, “we’re lying to ourselves when our local municipalities are going to go broke unless we fix this problem.” Pensions are the top problem, he continued. “Spending money on anything else at this point in time would be crazy.”

A national Republican talking point has recently pitted California against Texas in a battle over attracting or maintaining businesses in each state. State Republicans contend California’s tax and regulatory system is too onerous, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry has made several high-profile attempts to lure businesses to the southwest. “I think some of the rhetoric on this is overblown, “said Bonta. As the eighth-largest economy in the world, he added, “California is competing with France, Italy and Brazil. We’re not competing with Texas.” California is creating more high wage-earning jobs than Texas and other states, said Bonta. “If you want to have a race to the bottom, create a lot of low-paying jobs that don’t support working families, then maybe Texas is your state.”

Two notable state laws, AB 32 which aims to cut emissions and SB 375, which urges regional planning to promote sustainable housing and transportation, has given businesses an incentive to move out of California, said Erlich. “Our truckers are going out of business because they have to spend $15,000 just to put a filter on a truck. We need to stop some of these ridiculous regulations that are stopping businesses from opening up.” In addition, said Erilich, only business people can promote job creation, not government. “When a politician tell you he can create jobs–let me tell you—run.”

On immigration, like most Democrats, Bonta advocated for comprehensive reform. He also applauded Alameda County for allocating funding to provide health care to undocumented immigrants. Erlich, though, said California does not have the resources to use taxpayers’ money to pay for or subsidize non-citizens. “We have a program that is very enticing to someone to come from Mexico and come here and live here,” he said.

If Bonta and Erlich couldn’t agree on the fiscal health of the state or immigration, they certainly weren’t going to see eye-to-eye when it comes to guns and violent crime that has put a damper on Oakland’s recent renaissance. “If you take guns away from people and they can’t defend themselves,” said Erlich, “that’s creating more violence.” He added, some gun control laws inadvertently turn legal gun owners into criminals. “I want to be able to protect my family, my children from somebody who busts through my door with a gun.”

In the past year, Bonta and other East Bay state legislators pushed for a large package of gun control laws in the aftermath of the December 2012 school shootings in Connecticut. Many of the bills, including specific legislation offered by Bonta to give the Oakland City council power to enact its own gun registration regulations, languished in Sacramento, despite popular support. In response to an audience question whether some gun control law infringe on gun owners’ rights, Bonta said, “If you’re going to be aggressive when addressing gun violence like I was last year and will continue to be, there’s no way you’re going to appear to not be infringing. That claim will be made by opposition every time you stand up to pass a law that tries to address gun violence and that’s exactly what happened.”

“What did I see in every committee that I testified in and who was in the rooms of my colleagues trying to convince them to vote against my bill, said Bonta? “The gun lobby.”