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Feature: Former assemblyman says government should bring people together

The role of government is to serve the common good, says Rich Gordon, a former United Methodist minister, former state assemblyman, former San Mateo County supervisor and advocate of bipartisanship.

The common good has long been Mr. Gordon's aim, whether in his efforts with troubled youth, with a public education system that does not serve all students equally, with creating housing affordable for people with low and moderate incomes, with protecting a natural environment that is under threat.

"Government, I believe, should help bring people together, help us find areas of community togetherness," Mr. Gordon told the Almanac in a recent interview. "I also believe that government is one of the ways in which we take care of each other. Not the only way. It can't be. But it is one way."

There may be more to come from Mr. Gordon's efforts toward the common good, and this time the issue is taxes.

Mr. Gordon, a Democrat and resident of Menlo Oaks for 28 years, will be running in 2018 for a seat on the five-member state Board of Equalization, which administers and collects taxes, including sales, property and use taxes.

He was recently termed out of the state Assembly after six years of representing a district that includes Menlo Park, Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley. Before that, he served 12 years as a San Mateo County supervisor and five years on the county Board of Education a 23-year career in which he never lost an election.

Serving on the tax board is a "wonky" job, particularly the administration side of it, but one well-suited for someone with his management background, Mr. Gordon said.

"Making a deep dive into the policy arena is something that intrigues me very much," he said. "For me, I think it's a good fit. ... We need to make sure we collect what is rightfully owed to California, and collect it fairly and equitably."

Mr. Gordon will be running to succeed former assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who has announced her candidacy for the 2018 race for state treasurer. Asked if he might seek another legislative office, Mr. Gordon, who is 68, said that while he has learned never to say never, if he wins a four-year term on Board of Equalization, a second term might follow. "I don't see much beyond that," he said.

Proposition 13

It's time, Mr. Gordon said, "to have a conversation about reforming Proposition 13," which voters approved in 1978 to regulate increases in property taxes.

Over time, Mr. Gordon said, inequities "built into the system" have appeared, including widely varying tax obligations among residential neighbors and between commercial and residential property owners, and varying tax revenue streams to public agencies. The Menlo Park Fire Protection District, for example, receives significantly more in property tax revenues than the combined total received by the cities the district serves: Atherton, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

Proposition 13's purpose made sense and continues to make sense, Mr. Gordon said. The key is figuring out whether there is a way to solve the inequity while maintaining the predictability of the tax rate and protecting people from being priced out of their homes.

Being on the Board of Equalization would give him a platform for raising such issues, perhaps through public forums, he said. But essential to the process will be public interest, legislative hearings and the will to generate solutions, he said.

While Proposition 13 will be a priority, transparency in government particularly on the Board of Equalization will be another, along with addressing the state government's dependence on volatile and wildly swinging income and capital gains taxes.

Early endorsement

In the 2016 race to succeed him, Mr. Gordon endorsed the eventual winner, then-Palo Alto Councilman Marc Berman, in June 2015 for a primary race in June 2016.

At the time, the only other Democrat running was Mountain View Councilman Mike Kasperzak, but more Democrats eventually joined the race.

Asked why he endorsed Mr. Berman so early, Mr. Gordon said he wanted to be succeeded by someone with local government experience, and that he had contacted Mr. Berman in 2010 after he had dropped out of the Assembly race. Mr. Gordon said he told Mr. Berman that he thought he had a future in politics, but that he should run for city council first, which Mr. Berman then did.

Mr. Berman is inquisitive, Mr. Gordon said. "To do public service well and participate in the state Legislature, you've got to have a high level of intellectual curiosity," he said, meaning "a desire to learn something new every day."

Pension payments

During Mr. Gordon's time in state office, he participated in legislating reforms to the system of pensions for public employees, including requiring employees to contribute more, and ending the practice of spiking, in which employees manipulate their end-of-career salaries to increase their long-term benefits.

"I always saw that (legislation) as the start and not the finish. Often times, elected officials declare victory and they're done," he said. "It is a problem that is going to make funding government more difficult if we don't find a system that does right by employees and yet is fair to the taxpayer. ... It ought to be part of the conversation in the next governor's race."

Core values

Mr. Gordon is a San Mateo County native. An oft-told story around his family dinner table as a child concerned his grandmother who, at the start of the Great Depression, moved with her husband to Oakland. The couple had an income when many families did not. Mr. Gordon's grandmother made a daily pot of stew she put on the back porch to feed people from a nearby homeless encampment. "If you were fortunate enough, you gave it away. You served others," Mr. Gordon said.

College for him began in 1966, a time of upheaval. The Vietnam War, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement and the women's movement had a profound impact on him, he said. He majored in sociology at the University of Southern California and then in divinity for a master's degree from Northwestern University.

Mr. Gordon's interest in working with groups, and growing up in a church-going family, drew him to the ministry, particularly with role models such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Roman Catholic priests engaged in anti-war and anti-nuclear protests. "I saw the church and the ministry as a way to help make social change," he said.

He was ordained a deacon in the United Methodist Church, the first of a two-step process, but never took the second step to become an elder. Assigned a street ministry in Chicago, he worked with at-risk youth, which became a commitment. He continued youth work at YMCAs in Orange County and Redwood City, and in nonprofits he founded, including Daybreak, an eight-bed facility for homeless youth in Redwood City, and Mime's Cafe in Redwood City, an outlet where students at the Opportunities Industrialization Center West practiced culinary arts before it closed in 2008.

He is now working part-time in government relations at Caminar for Mental Health in San Mateo.

Asked how the ministry affected his outlook, Mr. Gordon noted the core values of respect for others and for diversity, a belief in human dignity and potential. "That's all a core part of who I am, what I do and how I do it," he said.

Bipartisan in deed

And what has Mr. Gordon done? As a county supervisor, he said, he is most pleased with his work establishing the Housing Endowment and Regional Trust, a public/private partnership to create affordable housing.

And there's Mirada Surf, a 49-acre county park on a coastal bluff just north of Half Moon Bay. Developers owned it and could have built houses there, but would have faced lawsuits over the use of open space, Mr. Gordon said. The supervisors found land-trust funding that they matched with $3 million in county funds money the county would have spent anyway as a party to the lawsuits, Mr. Gordon said.

In the Assembly, 70 percent of legislation he introduced became law, Mr. Gordon said, including bills that cap the cost of high-price drugs for people suffering from illnesses such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and AIDS. Legislation he wrote also increased the recycling of plastic bottles and created jobs in the state, he said.

Then there is his legacy of bipartisanship. Mr. Gordon had Assembly colleagues with (R) after their names who thought that government should not be helping but should be letting the private sector do the helping. Or the person could help himself or herself via the proverbial bootstrap-pulling-up method. "Rarely did we vote alike," Mr. Gordon said, "but we liked each other."

Although Democrats were in the majority, Mr. Gordon worked assiduously to build bridges. Upon arriving in Sacramento for his first term, Mr. Gordon said, he paid a visit to the offices of the each of the other 79 Assembly members.

He went further. Married to a good cook, Mr. Gordon would invite three Democrats and three Republicans to dinner in Sacramento once a month. "I worked hard at trying to build relationships (and) build respect," he said. The dinners were great, he said, a chance to talk as human rather than political beings.

The Assembly has a ritual for saying goodbye: the "tribute," in which members stand on the Assembly floor and honor the person leaving their midst. Mr. Gordon's tribute lasted over an hour, he said, adding: "Lots of folks wanted to say 'Thank you.'"

"It was an incredible experience," he said of his six years there. "I do miss the work, but as every day goes by, I get further away from it, moving on to other things."

A Republican Assembly colleague told him he was going to pick up the bipartisan-dinner baton, Mr. Gordon said.

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Comments

4 people like this
Posted by Thomas Paine
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Mar 13, 2017 at 4:08 pm

Rich Gordon works for and represents his party machine, not voters. While in office he was a champion of high speed rail and was among those responsible for wasting billions of dollars on this boondoggle. He knew it would a disaster but supported it anyway because that is what the party machine that kept him office told him to do.


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