2022 election: Q&A with Chris Duncan, California State Assembly, District 74 candidate

There are two candidates on the June 7 ballot for the newly drawn state Assembly District 74, which stretches from Laguna Niguel in Orange County south to Oceanside. It includes Camp Pendleton and Vista and Orange County’s Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. Assemblywoman/business owner Laurie Davies, a Republican, and San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan, a Democrat, will automatically advance to a Nov. 8 runoff election. The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board sent each a 13-question survey and is publishing their answers here.

If you have comments or questions about the election or any of the candidates after reading this interview, please email Editorial and Opinion Director Matthew T. Hall at matthew.hall@sduniontribune.com.

Below are Duncan’s responses and a link to Davies’.

Q: From wildfires to sea level rise, the climate emergency is increasingly affecting California. What immediate steps should California lawmakers be taking to address it?

A: Climate change is real, and it is the major issue facing our generation, especially in coastal areas like ours where we are already starting to see real-life impact. It is abhorrent that its existence is still a matter of debate. That’s why I’ve made it a priority. On the San Clemente City Council, I have been a leader on environmental issues, and I have brought people together to combat climate change. I championed Community Clean Energy to increase the use of clean energy choices and protect our coasts and issues.

In the Assembly, I’ll be a champion for the transition to a new energy economy, increasing our capacity for alternative energy sources, including wind and solar. I will also advocate for investing in technology and infrastructure that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, including electric and fuel-efficient vehicles, electrification and more.

But with the impacts already here, we must keep people safe and address the threats to our communities. That means stopping the spread of wildfire and improving fire response, holding accountable those responsible for starting fires (like Pacific Gas & Electric in the north), protecting our coastlines from sea level rise and addressing the ongoing serious drought conditions. In addition, we must move forward strategically, protecting working families as we transition to a new energy economy. We cannot transition in ways that hurt the financial prospects of those who are the backbone of our local economy and are often the most adversely impacted by climate change.

Q: The governor’s pleas to reduce water use have been widely met with indifference. What, if anything, should state lawmakers be doing to address drought conditions?

A: Drought and water shortages are no longer occasional problems. They are the new norm, and we must prepare accordingly. Setting ambitious goals for water conservation is a good start, but we have not been doing enough to empower municipalities, local agencies and businesses to meet those goals. We must ensure they have the tools and resources they need to reduce water usage across the state with a large measure of local control.

We must also invest in our water infrastructure to improve storage and conveyance, as well as ensure all Californians have access to safe, clean drinking water. That includes diverse water sourcing, such as additional water recycling and storm water capture efforts at a scale large enough to meet our long-term needs. This will ensure we have the resilience to weather the dynamic challenges ahead.

Q: What would you do to address the surging gas prices in California?

A: Californians need immediate relief from high gas prices — and any solution must benefit consumers directly, not line the pockets of big oil companies. That’s why I support the proposal to give $400 to California drivers. That’s more than what the average California family will spend on gas tax for a full year. Meanwhile, a gas tax holiday would not guarantee a full reduction in cost for consumers; it would mean the oil companies and gas stations would continue to make more profits at the disadvantage of Californians. But we must maintain an open mind and be prepared to utilize additional measures, including a temporary suspension of the gas tax, if necessary, to protect our residents’ economic interests.

Q: How do you strike a balance between reducing the state’s dependency on fossil fuels and addressing energy affordability issues, including the high cost of gasoline?

A: This isn’t a choice between the environment and a strong economy. It’s an opportunity to create jobs and make California a leader in the clean energy economy. That means we must actually account for the economic impact of our environmental policies, ensuring workers are able to get equal or better-paying jobs in the new economy, with training programs, tax incentives and timelines that properly allow for the transition. This transition will not happen overnight, and we must always prioritize working families’ immediate economic needs as we move towards less dependence on fossil fuels. It also means considering the impacts that our environmental policies have on businesses, especially small businesses, and giving them the resources and incentives to act in environmentally friendly ways. We also can’t let environmental policy contribute to our affordability crisis. Housing, transportation, water and infrastructure are all environmental issues. We can’t address one without the others.

Q: How would you bring down the high cost of housing, both for homeowners and renters?

A: Our entire state is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis, and we are seeing the implications across our communities. We must make this a priority and find real solutions — not just talk. The root of this problem is a housing shortage. I will work to build more housing for people of all income levels, which means removing some of the red tape and obstacles to building new housing and giving incentives to build where it’s needed most. That must include affordable housing and market-rate housing production, with projects so certain workers, including teachers, police officers and firefighters, can live in the communities they serve.

This cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. We must work with our municipalities to ensure that they build affordable housing that is right for their community. The design, size and location of new housing needs to fit the local character. I believe the best way to make progress is to incentivize localities to develop housing that is appropriate for their areas by providing incentives that address their particular needs, not top-down mandates or penalties.

Q: Homelessness is growing dramatically across the state. How would you address it?

A: Dealing with our homelessness problems must start with addressing the housing affordability crisis and our housing shortages, which are the primary causes of homelessness. As I mentioned above, I will remove barriers to make it easier to build new housing and make new housing available for people at all income levels, including both market rate and affordable housing.

We must also help those experiencing homelessness receive the resources they need and help them get on the path to permanent housing. On the San Clemente City Council, I led efforts to expand the homeless outreach program to help those experiencing homelessness get resources and keep our communities safe. In the Assembly, I’ll continue that work, focusing on programs that actually work to get people off the streets and into supportive housing. These programs must deliver the resources directly to those experiencing homelessness and include mental health, social services and drug abuse treatment. Housing alone, without embedded services, will not move the ball down the field.

Q: What, if anything, should the state do to make mass transit a viable option for commuters?

A: Improved public transit systems are an important piece to addressing a number of major challenges that face our state, including environmental, housing and other issues. While we can’t force people to only use mass transit, we must make it a better option. We need to invest in transit systems that focus on where people live and work, as well as connecting underserved communities, so they have a positive economic impact. We should focus on local and regional transit systems that help people commute and live their daily lives over projects like high-speed rail. I believe the next generation of transportation options are not even known to us now. We must be agile and creative in adjusting to new modes of transportation as they are developed and implemented.

Q: How will you balance public health with economic and educational concerns going forward in this pandemic or the next one? What specific steps and strategies, from lockdowns to mask mandates, would you recommend or rule out if there is a new surge in deaths and hospitalizations?

A: First and foremost, we must always listen to science. Our public health discourse has become too political and not based on what’s best or right for our community. On the San Clemente City Council, I took a leadership position to help lead our area’s response and recovery from the pandemic, including supporting small businesses by spearheading an innovative local grant program that allowed them to retain their local workforce throughout the pandemic.

We must be prepared for future public health emergencies that ensure we do not repeat the events of 2020. To start, we must ensure we have the supplies, including masks and medical equipment, at the ready to be prepared. And we need to develop proactive plans, in coordination with medical and public health officials, to ensure our students are not kept out of school and our local small businesses do not face inordinate risk. Our kids are our No. 1 priority, and we must ensure that they are protected and able to attend our local schools in person no matter how severe the next public health emergency.

Q: California has the strictest gun laws in the nation yet has had some of the nation’s worst mass shootings this year. What more, if anything, should be done to reduce gun violence in California?

A: I am firmly in favor of laws that encourage and enforce gun violence prevention and gun safety — we must do everything we can to keep guns out of undesired hands and get illegal guns off the street. I will advocate to strengthen California’s already strong gun safety laws, including strengthening the assault weapons ban, funding programs to enforce current laws, passing more safe storage laws and exploring ways to hold gun manufacturers accountable.

It is important that not only do we strengthen California’s gun laws, but we also must better enforce the laws we already have on the books — especially those related to domestic violence. If we do a better job keeping guns out of the hands of those who already shouldn’t have them by law, we would reduce the number of unnecessary shootings and murders, including mass shootings. I will utilize my experience with U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, preventing the flow of illegal weapons across our borders to ensure this does not happen.

Finally, we must invest in our mental health infrastructure to ensure everyone has access to quality mental health care. While we cannot confuse mental health conditions with violence, it is important that we make services readily available to reduce gun crime and suicide. I support state programs that provide these services to kids and families at schools to address mental health concerns before they reach a critical stage.

Q: California has adopted a number of criminal justice reforms in recent years. What would you change and why to ensure justice is equitable and effective?

A: I spent 17 years as a senior attorney and federal prosecutor with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security and with the Department of Justice. I have a deep understanding of the issues that face our criminal justice system and have spent my career working with and training law enforcement officers. I will always support law enforcement officers and ensure they have the resources to keep our communities safe.

Part of supporting law enforcement is looking at policies that reduce crime and restore trust and accountability in our system. We must change how law enforcement interacts with the public to retain that trust and help officers do their jobs. That includes getting them out of the business of mental health and drug abuse management, so they can focus on crime and prevention. These social services should be provided by mental health clinicians and substance abuse counselors so our law enforcement officers can focus on preventing crime.

I’ll also bring my expertise as a former prosecutor to fix our criminal justice system. We must study and implement sentencing reform measures, as well as programs proven to reduce recidivism. But we must rethink laws and policies that may have conversely resulted in an increase in property crimes in our communities. There must be consequences for these crimes that destabilize neighborhoods and disproportionally hurt small businesses.

Finally, we should look to reforms that address the source of many crimes, primarily access to housing, mental health services, access to jobs, shortened parole and restoring civil rights to full capacity after serving sentences. The goal is to prevent criminal activity from occurring in the first place.

Q: What single change would you make to improve California’s K-12 public school systems?

A: As the father of three young kids in our local public schools and an elected school site council member, public education is a top priority for me. The reality is it will take more than a single change to improve our K-12 system. One major change that we can make that would improve outcomes for our public school students would actually be outside the K-12 system — we must increase our investment in early childhood education. Studies show that these programs provide students with more opportunity and improve their likelihood of success once they enter K-12.

These investments would include universal pre-kindergarten and access to affordable, quality child care. Not only would these programs help our students, but they will help ease the burdens on parents as well. Parents and teachers individually deserve a ton of credit for maintaining our kids’ mental and physical health throughout the pandemic. As the pandemic showed, however, lack of childcare is a major impediment for economic success. Investing in childcare is a worthwhile and necessary investment in our future economic success.

Q: Should taxes in California be increased? If so, which ones?

A: No. We should not increase taxes on Californians, especially lower- and middle-income families. We already pay enough taxes, and our state has seen a huge budget surplus. Even in times of extreme budget shortfalls, we must look to make all reasonable cuts and trim government excess to the fullest. In fact, I’ll look to reduce the tax burden on California’s middle-class families.

As a Homeland Security attorney, I worked to take on corruption and examined bureaucracies for waste. In the Assembly, I’ll take that experience and be a steadfast steward for taxpayer dollars, ensuring it is used as intended and taking on waste — no matter which party is responsible.

Q: What is the most important issue we have not raised and why?

A: Mental health. As we emerge from the pandemic, we face a looming mental health crisis. The isolation, stress and struggles from the last two years equally impacts men and women and people across the socioeconomic spectrum. It impacts the insured and the uninsured. It impacts all kids and adults. We need to expand access to mental health programs and make quality care available to people across the state. Our public health care system does not properly account for mental and emotional health services. In the Assembly, I will work to address this disparity.

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