REGION — In an in-depth interview with The Coast News, Matt Gunderson, the lone Republican candidate in the 38th State Senate District race, opened up about policies he’d champion on issues ranging from incarceration reform to state regulations on small businesses.
For Gunderson, any real change in California on issues such as homelessness and the cost of living has to start with the unraveling of Democratic one-party rule over the state. Above all else, that’s why the former car dealership owner says he wants your vote this June and November.
“We don’t need more Democrats in Sacramento. When voters look at the field of three candidates and there’s one Republican option, that’s the start of the conversation,” Gunderson said. “One-party rule is destroying this state so sending another Democrat to replace a Republican will not be making meaningful progress towards solving the state’s problems.”
In the newly drawn 38th State Senate District — formerly the 36th District represented by termed-out State Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) — Gunderson is facing off in the June primary against two Democratic challengers: Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and retired Orange County Fire Cpt. Joe Kerr.
Gunderson does not shy away from the fact that he’s a political newcomer without prior experience in elected office (he owned and operated multiple car dealerships in Orange County for 21 years until his recent retirement). In fact, Gunderson said it’s his business perspective and unique on-the-ground world experience that makes him singularly suited to take on a legislative role in Sacramento.
“At the end of the day, my motivation in running is that California is no longer the Golden State,” Gunderson said. “In fact, it’s tarnished — it’s tarnished with excessive homelessness, rampant crime, and a cost of living that is forcing our children and grandchildren to leave the state because they can’t afford to live here.
“We have an infrastructure system, roads and bridges that are crumbling, we have not prepared for our watershed needs, it’s mayhem, we’re already rationing water, we can anticipate blackouts and brownouts this summer. None of that serves any of our communities well. So we need more normal real people and fewer bureaucrats involved in the system or nothing is going to change.”
On the campaign trail, Gunderson admits that he’s been somewhat surprised by the relative strength of his candidacy up to this point. Since declaring for the race in late November, Gunderson has already raised nearly $500,000 in campaign contributions and has received a plethora of endorsements from regional and state party entities and established officeholders, including Bates and former Congresswoman Mimi Walters.
And last month, a poll conducted by Blakespear’s own campaign appeared to show Gunderson leading both Democratic challengers in the primary by a fairly substantial margin.
“Yeah, I mean I’m cautiously optimistic, I think that my politics resonate well with this district even though it leans slightly Democratic,” Gunderson said. “I think people don’t want one-party rule in Sacramento and I think people realize that we need conversations and not just speeches about these issues and they’re looking to me as the pragmatic conservative who creates an opportunity for that.
“As far as campaign strategy it’s been nothing than me being just who I am. I give Pat Bates credit and blame for getting me here, honestly, I didn’t expect to be in the game this summer and fall but she recruited me into this race and gave me an opportunity to carry on her legacy and she’s been a very thoughtful Republican leader on behalf of this district, setting an example of pragmatic leadership which I hope to continue if elected.”
In months prior, Blakespear has repeatedly criticized Gunderson, characterizing the Republican as an extremist who is beholden to larger state and national party interests.
Gunderson dismissed such rhetoric as “scare tactics” intended to distract voters from the real issues of the race.
“I am a businessman, not a politician,” Gunderson said. “I’ve never run for office in California, so she’s stretching to find ways to attack me, trying to tie me to special interests but she can’t even do that.”
Conversely, Gunderson described himself as a relatively center-right candidate well in line with a district that is almost split 50-50 red to blue.
“I’m not the fieriest red-blooded candidate you’ll find in the party, but I think that that serves this district well,” Gunderson said. “I hold fiscally conservative Republican principles and where Republicans diverge on some social issues we agree to disagree but we still move forward for the betterment of the entire state. I do wish this whole process was less partisan and more productive.”
Crime and Public Safety
Like Kerr, Gunderson said he would fight to reverse Propositions 47 and 57 if elected, calling the voter-approved initiatives “well-intended ideas that have trickled down into terrible unintended consequences.”
Prop 47 was a 2014 voter-approved referendum that reclassified some felonies as misdemeanors with lesser penalties, while Prop 57 (passed in 2016) allowed parole consideration for nonviolent felons and authorized new sentence credits for rehabilitation and good behavior.
“The public was sold a bill of goods with those propositions that didn’t deliver and now we’re feeling the pain, so clearly those two laws have to be addressed, we have to reclassify crimes and we need to actually punish our criminals,” he said.
In the case of Prop 57, Gunderson argued that a new approach was needed to balance rehabilitation for the incarcerated with public safety interests. He also suggested the state should consider building more prisons to ease overcrowding.
“You have to be compassionate but also supportive of law and order,” Gunderson said. “I mean, no one is in favor of mistreating inmates but we also have to have a common-sense approach to what our ability is to house them and what level of comfort they should have in jail. We have a $68 billion surplus. Is there a reason if we’re dealing with prison population issues that we’re not considering building more prisons?”
According to Gunderson, any conversation about rising crime is also incomplete without talking about the state’s growing homelessness issue.
“Particularly in communities like Encinitas that are heavily impacted by property crime, we have to acknowledge that the homeless population is committing a lot of those crimes and to address homelessness we have to address mental health and addiction issues,” Gunderson said, adding that bolstering support for local law enforcement entities would be key in tackling both issues.
“You can’t talk about crime without building a strong community of support for law enforcement and the agencies that serve us. We need to get off this idea that cops are bad and we need to support them, give them the ability to do their jobs and give them the confidence that the justice system will support them on the other end as well.”
On homelessness, Gunderson didn’t mince words in lambasting state legislators for their handling of the issue.
“As a state, we’ve spent 17 billion dollars on homelessness since 2018 and we have nothing to show for it but a growing population of people living on the street,” Gunderson said. “That’s not kind and it’s not compassionate. We have to be aggressive in putting together policy statewide that supports counties and cities in addressing this issue.”
Gunderson touted a Republican proposal in Sacramento that he says would tackle the root causes of homelessness, particularly substance abuse and mental health treatment. This proposal — dubbed “ACT on Homelessness” (ACT standing for accountability, compassion, and treatment) — would reform state conservatorship laws, provide incentives to local municipalities to expand temporary shelter services, and invest billions in funding mobile crisis infrastructure for people in need of behavioral health treatment.
The Democrat-majority legislature has not yet taken up the bill for a vote since its introduction last month.
“Unfortunately, it’s a Republican idea so Democrats likely won’t give it the time of day, but it includes significant programs like a $10 billion investment in a mental health infrastructure fund and it would focus on reactivating mental health and addiction facilities that existed at the county level as recently as the 1980s,” said Gunderson.
Without a multifaceted approach that entails an approach to structural issues of mental health and drug addiction, Gunderson said that state legislators’ efforts to bolster access to affordable housing will make little dent in California’s homelessness issue.
“We don’t solve problems simply by building more shelters and building more houses and getting these people under a roof,” he said. “We have to focus on mental health and substance abuse and we have to invest in that, and right now I don’t see Democrats willing to invest in that part of the problem.”
As he has before, Gunderson expressed strong opposition to Senate bills 9 and 10 and pledged to fight hard for local control of housing and zoning decisions if elected. Gunderson said the need is urgent for Sacramento to find a way to successfully balance continued investment in affordable housing with the real limits of infrastructure faced by many communities.
SB 9 required cities to allow additional residential units onto parcels zoned for single-dwelling units. SB 10 allows local agencies to adopt an ordinance allowing up to 10 dwelling units on any parcel, at a specified height, if the parcel is within a transit-rich area or urban infill site. Both laws were signed into law last year but have subsequently faced heavy bipartisan criticism.
“Sacramento doesn’t know best,” Gunderson said. “What’s happening is that they’re usurping control from our communities and it’s just wrong, you can’t do this on the backs of local communities and disrupt the character of existing neighborhoods and cities.
“There has to be a balance. It has to start with the acknowledgment of our infrastructure and public safety needs locally, you have to protect the character and culture of these communities. We can’t push large developments and multi-level unit complexes into communities without first addressing these infrastructure and public safety needs…these developers should not have more power than the local communities.”
In a heavily coastal 38th State Senate District, Gunderson said that he acknowledges that voters are deeply concerned about issues of climate change and environmental preservation. Pointing to the recent bluffs collapse at Beacons Beach in Encinitas, Gunderson pledged to prioritize tackling environmental issues while balancing economic interests as well.
“My perspective starts with pragmatic solutions that allow us to ensure the quality of life in this district while not paralyzing any portion of the economy,” he said. “The wildfires are a problem, and in this district, safe and clean beaches and safe and clean water have to be a priority. With the bluffs collapse and bluff erosion, this is a serious issue where we have to come up with pragmatic solutions, we have to get the Coastal Commission and environmental analysts involved and see a positive resolution to these challenges. We can’t simply sit by and talk while the cliffs are falling.”
Gunderson also talked about the importance of investing in renewable energy solutions.
“We have to embrace the move towards renewable energy while understanding how fast it can happen and understanding the consequences of those sources as well,” Gunderson said. “I think we have to accept the fact that renewable energy has to be the goal but it’s a matter of how fast we get there. Some of the state’s current goals are aggressive and won’t be met, there’s an onerous amount of pressure on individual groups here trying to meet it so we need to be more rational about our timeline.”
Gunderson also advocated that more investment in nuclear power would be key to pushing the state towards a greener future.
“Today, we have to consider nuclear power as an option as we move forward under current technology and we can’t get caught up in the past problems that old nuclear power plants have had, it’s part of the conversation of how we get to renewable energy solutions,” Gunderson said.
On the economy, Gunderson repeatedly expressed that Californians, by and large, are overtaxed and overregulated, and made the same pledge as Kerr to not vote for any tax increases on citizens while also promising to fight for the repeal of the state’s gas tax.
Gunderson painted a dire picture of a state plagued by a rising cost of living juxtaposed with a decline in overall quality of life, circling back to the issue of one-party rule that he argues is crippling the state legislature.
“Sacramento has this love affair of spending with no accountability and no transparency,” Gunderson said. “We have a $68 billion surplus and we’re still not thinking about tax cuts. I mean that’s not okay. We have a fiduciary obligation to serve the citizens of this state. People are leaving this state on a constant basis and part of sits on the topic of taxes.”
Gunderson also lambasted Democratic legislators for failing to approve Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposal earlier this year to suspend the gas tax, expressing that the situation reflects the state government’s partisanship and intransigence.
“I mean, the idea that we pay the highest gas tax in the country and even the Democratic governor proposes to suspend the inflation index and Democrats in Sacramento do nothing, it’s almost a joke,” Gunderson said. “I don’t agree with my Democrat friends on everything but we agree that single-party rule is destroying this state and we have to get back to a conversation with a two-party system that employs checks and balances to solve some of these problems.”
Gunderson also vowed to fight for the repeal of numerous regulations such as the state’s wage and hour law, which he argued is strangling small businesses across the state while doing nothing to improve the quality of life for laborers.
“It’s an example of a regulation on small businesses that is a job killer, it really only serves trial attorneys and vindictive ex-employees — the Democrats in Sacramento think that they’re protecting employees but the reality is that they’re costing jobs and people’s ability to provide for their families — it’s just another example of how this state is prioritizing all of the wrong things and not standing up for the interests of the common man,” he said.
Matt Gunderson is far and away a superior choice to Catherine Blakespear, who is YIMBY endorsed, supports State control over local housing, supports SB9 and SB10, actually drew transients to Encinitas with an increase in crime, lies to the residents of Encinitas, and vindictively fired Planning Commissioner Bruce Ehlers for no reason other than he opposed housing projects completely out of scale to the area they were to be built in.