Journal Interviews Chris Lehman, Your Fresh-Faced Candidate for State Senate


About an hour after announcing his run for State Senate, Chris Lehman, an Arcata family man and, at the tender age of 36, a Sacramento insider, sat down with the Journal for a croissant sandwich and coffee (in his own mug) at Ramone's in Old Town.

Bottom line? The guy's prepped and ready to go. And the tracks to state office have been greased. The press release announcing his candidacy (below) includes an impressive list of Democratic endorsements including nods from Assemblymember Wes Chesbro, former Assemblymember Patty Berg, every Humboldt County supervisor save Rex Bohn, former supervisors Bonnie Neely and John Woolley, mover/shaker Patrick Cleary and Senate President Darrell Steinberg.

The 2nd District's current representative, Noreen Evans, announced last Monday that she will not seek reelection.

While ignoring his oft-buzzing iPhone on the table beside us, Lehman gave polished and knowledgeable responses to questions on health care, water rights, education, marijuana and, of course, politics.

Describing himself as a policy wonk with a knack for physics, Lehman said he first felt called to politics/public service while attending U.C. Davis, where he earned a double bachelor's in physics and political science. "I think mostly it was my dad's fault," he said. Locals may remember his father, former Humboldt County Probation Chief Dave Lehman, who frequently traveled to Sacramento as the legislative chair for the state's Chief Probation Officers Association.

Stepping away from a career in physics, Lehman interned with longtime Silicon Valley Assembleymember John Vasconcellos and former State Senator Don Perata. He has remained active in state politics since moving back to Humboldt County in 2005. In fact, he said, "I've almost literally had every job in the senate except for senator, and so the idea of being able to continue my work in the senate this way is one I just can’t pass up."

Here's Lehman on Evans: 

I think Noreen has done great. Her work right now on the oil severance tax is important in that it’s coming up with a pragmatic solution to the higher education issues that are happening to students at Sonoma State, students at Humboldt State but also parents from Marin all the way up to Del Norte ... .

On Governor Jerry Brown:

Jerry is -- our governor is somewhat of an enigma. He can do things that nobody else can. He does things his own way, and they work for him. ... His work on Proposition 30 and leading up to Proposition 30 was important. ... If you look at the whole sweep [of his term], it’s a tremendous job. I think he’ll be successful in [his re-election bid].

On politics:

[Brown's] inaugural address asked for everyone to put California first. That resonated with me a lot. Politics can become a team sport, where we become bogged down and forget why we’re in this. I had some really good conversation with our supervisors over the last week here locally and made a similar pitch to them that we can put the North Coast first in Sacramento and across the state. And that really resonated with them, too. And I don’t think it’s my idea or Jerry Brown’s idea. I think this is the idea of lots of people who go to work every day to make their communities better. My wife’s a high school English teacher, and she puts community first rather than herself.

On water rights:

I’m skeptical of the governor’s plan to put two giant new straws into the system to move water from north to south. I was skeptical to begin with, and now we look at what’s happening with the Klamath River and the injunction. This is the issue: If you increase conveyance, what does that do to increase the amount of water we have and where we can get the water ... and how are we in the north supposed to believe that it’s anything other than trying to grab more water and send it south. And proof just this week that we don’t have enough water is that they’re cutting off water going into the Klamath River that we need to keep the temperatures down. I think that whoever represents the North Coast ... needs to speak out strongly in defense of the water resources we have here.

On health care:

That’s one of the things I’m working on now with the California Medical Association and SEIU is trying to do something about the Medi-Cal reimbursement rate cuts. We’re looking at a potential ballot measure there that could raise the tobacco tax to pay for some of those costs. ... Tobacco smokers in California pay some taxes, but the amount of money they cost the state of California costs $3 billion in tobacco-related health care costs. [The measure] is important, a pragmatic solution to a problem, and it doesn't come without enemies. ...

[California] started out one of the tops in the country in terms of tobacco taxes, which is the best way to deter teens from smoking. Now we’re 33rd and falling. ... Literally -- literally -- when you raise the tobacco tax you save people’s lives. And it’s something that I’m passionate about.

On the rising cost of higher education:

There’s no doubt it’s a major problem right now, and it’s not just the students. This is a statewide problem. I spoke with a small business owner recently who has three kids in college, who mortgaged his home, his business, leveraged his retirement account just to be able to afford to be able to put his kids in college. ... Nobody can keep up. Nobody.

I think that our state revenue problems have been well documented. But on the taxation side of things, I really think that ordinary folks -- they do pay a lot of taxes, but what we need to do is focus on things like Proposition 39, that I worked really hard on and was able to successfully pass. There’s a billion-dollar corporate tax loophole that only benefited out-of-state corporations. ... That’s closed now thanks to Tom Steyer and a sustained commitment from Kevin de Leon, Jerry Brown, and a lot of leaders looking at this as a no-brainer. 

On marijuana:

Decriminalization is the beginning of the conversation. ... I live in a town that has been devastated -- I’ll use that word, devastated -- by some of the effects of being in this sweet spot where we’re caught between Prop. 215 and the federal government. ... What it’s created is a sweet spot in the market where people are more brazen -- certainly in Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties -- they’re more brazen about how they’re growing it. Now they’re not just growing it out in the woods; now they’re growing it next door.

I've got friends of mine who are scared to death because there’s a marijuana grow next door to them, and they have small children. There are people moving in and out of the house who are pretty shady characters when they’re trying to put their kids into bed at night. What are you going to do about that? That’s what we need to spend the bulk of our time on. ...

I worked on passing the Utility Users Tax in Arcata because I figure, well, if these guys are going to be able use enough power to power a Safeway in a three-bedroom house in downtown Arcata, maybe they should pay a little extra for electricity and use that to provide some funding for public safety ... . And that’s just in town. 

What’s going on on public, private lands ... some of these guys have been doing it for years. They’re the guys you and I grew up with ... . But this is a little bit different breed when you have the Mexican drug cartel growing 100,000-plus plants on Green Diamond property. That’s a little bit different scenario. And, um, I’m not sure exactly what the solutions are, but I’m very open and focused on trying to find some.

And Lehman returned to the topic of health care with this personal story:

My daughter was born at Mad River Hospital in Arcata, and we didn’t know it until 10 hours after she was born, but she has a very severe congenital heart defect where she only has half of her heart. She has hypoplastic left heart syndrome. ... Up until 1984, every single child born with this condition died. And she’s doing great. She’s a second grader now -- almost a second grader. Couple more weeks, as she reminds me. ... She is an incredible miracle.

But the miracle didn't just happen. It happened because there were teams of doctors and specialists and researchers who had been trying to figure out the best possible way to save kids’ lives. And UCSF happens to be one of the best hospitals in the entire world. ... It’s the best health care system in the world. We have the best doctors, the best nurses. I just wish everybody had access to it. ...

Here he talked about advances in medical technology such as teleconferencing with specialists, and he mentioned a law he helped pass that requires screening of newborns for critical congenital heart disease.

I encountered a lot of these things along the way of being a health care advocate for my daughter. And I can’t wait for the opportunities to be able to make a difference as a health care advocate on behalf of the entire North Coast. 

Well, he'll have to wait at least 288 days to find out if he'll be our next state senator. The California primary election is on June 3.

Here is the press release issued earlier today:

Democrat Chris Lehman, local community leader and longtime Senate staffer, announces candidacy for open State Senate seat

Citing passion for public service, born-and-raised North Coast activist earns starting-gate endorsements from Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, retired Assemblywoman Patty Berg, Humboldt County Supervisors Mark Lovelace, Ryan Sundberg, Virgina Bass and Estelle Fennel and Senate President Darrell Steinberg

ARCATA -- Today, local community leader, small business owner and longtime Senate staffer Chris Lehman announced his intention to run for California's Second Senate District, following the recent announcement by incumbent Senator Noreen Evans that she would not be running for re-election in 2014.

Lehman, 36, was born and raised in the North Coast, has spent more than 14 years working as a staffer for the California State Senate and Senate Democrats. In 2005, he and his wife Danielle, a public school teacher, made the decision to move back to the North Coast and raise their family in Arcata. He launched and manages a local small business and has since helped to lead various local community efforts to improve the quality of life for residents in our region.

His candidacy starts strong out of the gate - immediately earning the endorsements of respected local leaders Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, retired Assemblywoman Patty Berg, Humboldt County Supervisors Mark Lovelace, Virginia Bass, Estelle Fennell, Ryan Sundberg, Retired County Supervisors Bonnie Neely and John Woolley, the 2008 North Coast Association of Non-Profits (NoRCAN) Non-Profit Leader of the Year Patrick Cleary, and Senate President Darrell Steinberg.

Statement of Chris Lehman
"I'm running for State Senate because this district is my home and my heart and I'm determined to bring our community's values and vision to the State Capitol.

I was born and raised here. I'm now raising my own family here. I work here and my wife teaches public school here. I know California works best when the voice of this community is being heard in Sacramento - loudly and effectively.

I know I'm not a household name. I've pursued a life of public service, not the public spotlight.

But, as a staff member for two Senate leaders and a small business owner, I understand how to make government work for people. As the husband of a public school teacher, I will fight tirelessly for quality public schools. I will stand up for safer communities, and, of course, safeguard our precious coastline and natural resources.

My commitment to greater access to world-class healthcare for all Californians, including access to telemedicine, is profoundly personal, ever since our first daughter was born with a severe congenital heart defect.

I am strongly committed to being a champion for working families and small businesses, fishermen and winemakers, farms and forests, wildlife and marine habitats, and all of the people and places that make this region extraordinary."

What Others Are Saying About Chris

  • Assemblyman Wes Chesbro: "I'm endorsing Chris Lehman because I know firsthand that he will be a powerful voice for the people of this community and an unwavering defender of our region's magnificent natural resources and environmental beauty."

  • Assemblywoman Patty Berg (Retired): "I've known Chris Lehman and his family a long time, and he has repeatedly demonstrated his love and commitment for the North Coast. At a time when the unique interests of our district have been too often overlooked in Sacramento, I believe he will make a remarkable Senator for our region."

  • Humboldt County Supervisor Mark Lovelace: "Chris Lehman is the right person to represent us here on the North Coast. He's smart, thoughtful and really knows how to get things done. He'll be a strong and effective voice to strengthen our schools, to grow our economy and to protect our environment."

  • Senate President Darrell Steinberg: "In all of my years of public service, there are few people who I have trusted more - and relied upon more to help us move California forward -- than Chris Lehman. He is intelligent, tireless, selfless and effective. But, most of all, he is guided by the unshakable values of his family and his local community. I am honored to endorse him and I'm excited to see what he will accomplish as a Senator." 
About Chris Lehman
Arcata native Chris Lehman is a devoted husband, father and North Coast community leader with over 15 years of experience with the California State Senate.

As a staff member to two Senate leaders, Chris worked on issues ranging from quality public schools, affordable housing, providing clean drinking water, protecting our previous natural resources and improving access to healthcare.

Lehman opened a small public affairs firm in Arcata and continues to serve the Senate by building coalitions, shaping winning campaigns and raising the money required to pass vital ballot measures and elect great leaders to public office.

In 2008, Lehman helped pass infrastructure bonds that improved roads, public transportation, air quality and access to affordable housing. In 2012 he was an instrumental part of the successful campaign to pass Proposition 39, which closes a corporate loophole and restores funding to schools and energy efficiency upgrades.

After Chris' first daughter was born with a severe congenital heart defect in 2006 and airlifted to San Francisco from a small North Coast community hospital, he has been working to improve our healthcare system. He believes strongly that each person deserves access to the best possible doctors, nurses and hospitals in our state. For this reason, Chris is a champion for increasing access, including stopping rate cuts to Medi-Cal and improving telemedicine.

He also worked with the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association on a tobacco tax initiative to prevent smoking and pay for research for cures to cancer and tobacco related diseases. While Proposition 29 was narrowly defeated, Chris continues to work to find much-needed funding for healthcare needs.

Locally, Chris led the campaign to pass Measure Q, a $25 million school bond to upgrade facilities and build a new performing arts center at the Northern Humboldt Unified School District.

He co-founded the "Fly Humboldt" coalition of stakeholders committed to increasing commercial air service to improve local economic development and increase quality of life on the North Coast.

He also works with the Humboldt Deputy Sheriffs Organization to help our rural communities improve public safety.

Chris served on the Six Rivers Planned Parenthood Board of Directors from 2009-2012.

Chris and his wife Danielle live in Arcata with their two daughters and are expecting their third child this fall. He is a Lay Leader at the United Methodist Church in McKinleyville and a volunteer baseball coach at Arcata High School.

Chris earned a double bachelor's degree in Physics and Political Science from University of California Davis in 1999. He graduated first in his class from Arcata High School in 1995.

Chris is the proud son of Humboldt County Chief Probation Officer (ret) Dave Lehman, and Mary, a retired special education teacher.

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