ENCINITAS — In a sit-down interview with The Coast News, retired Orange County Fire Capt. Joe Kerr, a Democratic candidate in the 38th State Senate District race, shared his thoughts on a whole slew of policy issues ranging from housing and local control to public safety, homelessness and taxation.
Kerr, who entered the race in January, said he’s confident in his chances to win the top-two, or “jungle” primary, despite some early polling results, positioning himself as the centrist candidate that he thinks voters in an evenly split district are seeking.
“I’m not an extremist,” Kerr said. “Instead, I give people a real choice.”
In the newly drawn 38th State Senate District — formerly the 36th District represented by termed-out State Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) — Kerr is facing off in the June primary against Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and small business owner and Republican Matt Gunderson.
Kerr is a retired Orange County Fire Capt. who has served as president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, vice president of the California Professional Firefighters, and vice president of the Orange County Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO).
While Kerr has not held elected office, he has also been appointed to various state and regional policymaking bodies; for instance, in 2003 he was appointed by Gov. Gray Davis to the California Workforce Development Board of Directors.
Kerr was also more recently appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to serve as a member of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board Region 8 (Santa Ana), and currently serves as vice-chair on that body.
The Campaign Trail
Since launching his campaign in January, Kerr said he’s fully embraced his role as the underdog in the primary, and he isn’t concerned by polls that appear to show him trailing Blakespear and Gunderson or by fundraising numbers that show him being significantly outspent by both of his opponents.
“Yeah, I agree, I’m the underdog. I’ll certainly be outspent by both of them,” Kerr said with a laugh.
But Kerr expressed confidence in his ability to win the office come November for several reasons.
Most significantly, he believes that he’s the moderate candidate in the race that can build a winning coalition of supporters from both sides of the political aisle.
After 32% of polled district residents indicated they’re still undecided in the most recent survey, Kerr said he’s confident that this bloc of voters will drift towards his more centrist and inclusive platform as compared to that of his opponents, whom Kerr characterized as representing the more polarizing ends of the ideological spectrum.
“I grew up in a Republican household, I was a registered Republican as a young man,” Kerr said. “Now, I’m a Democrat who supports the working men and working women who build our roads, our highways, and protect us. I’m ultimately a centrist because I think that the most pragmatic problem solvers are those who don’t believe in the ideological spectrum, those who don’t ask if someone is red or blue but just if you’re red white and blue.
“For me, it’s like if there’s a fire, you just do the job, and that’s the same approach that I take to legislation in politics. We’re just trying to appeal to voters on common-sense solutions to problems that need to be fixed in our lives, and that’s my strategy. I’m not an extremist.”
Kerr also pointed to the changing demographics of the district, which was redrawn in December, arguing that the district’s composition favors him significantly over Gunderson if he can best Blakespear in the primary.
The new district, which runs from San Clemente as far south as San Diego, leans slightly blue, with 36% of voters registering as Democrats compared with 32.75% as Republicans. Kerr argued that the region’s demographics clearly favor a centrist candidacy.
“You’re looking at an incredibly large district that wasn’t approved until December,” Kerr said. “This district is fiscally conservative, and it leans left a bit but it’s not a hard left district, so yea I think this lines up pretty favorably for me. What we’re finding from our own polling is that voters are really engaged in this race, and I don’t have to go to take an ideological stance like my opponents, instead, I’m taking the issues head-on by looking at how I’m gonna solve it.”
Kerr fully acknowledges that he has some work to do to catch up to Blakespear in the polls in order to get an opportunity at facing Gunderson in November.
“The primary race is the most important part, the polls are pretty clear on that, my uphill battle is in the primary and in the general election I’ll defeat [Gunderson] well outside the margins,” Kerr said. “If I can get past the primary, I will win this race 100%.”
Previously, Blakespear has attacked Kerr, whom she characterized as a “single-issue candidate” lacking experience in government outside of the firefighting realm.
But to Kerr, such criticism ignores a long list of his political accomplishments at both the state and local levels. In fact, Kerr claims that he’s by far the most qualified and experienced candidate in the race.
“I don’t think she’s more experienced than I am, and that’s the thing that I think people don’t get. I have more legislative experience than both of them [Gunderson and Blakespear] put together,” Kerr said. “I’ve got scores and scores of public safety bills, governance bills passed in Sacramento. Neither of these folks has this kind of experience. I’ve had legislation signed by five governors, two presidents that still affect the public safety of California today. I have vast experience with public safety in bringing tax dollars back home, and that’s what I bring to this race.”
In 2006, when Kerr was serving as an executive with the California State Firefighters Association, he says that he worked closely with then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to pre-fund retiree healthcare for firefighters without costing taxpayers additional dollars.
More recently, Kerr said that he worked with former Gov. Gray Davis to establish the largest wildfire alert system in California ever developed.
One of the accomplishments though that Kerr is most proud of was during his tenure as President of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association in the mid-2000s. As California was in the grips of the Great Recession in 2007, Orange County’s municipal government was nearing bankruptcy.
To help bring the budget under control, Kerr was tasked with slashing exploding healthcare compensation costs for firefighters (costs at the time were rising by 16% annually at a compounded rate).
“We made a deal where I told them that instead of a million a month in costs, I could bring it down to 900,000, they said it couldn’t be done,” Kerr recalled. “It wasn’t me alone working on this, it was a whole bunch of people who were subject matter experts in the room and we put our heads together.”
Kerr directed the Fire Authority to take the healthcare trust and put it in a much larger buying pool of insurers, thereby improving the fund’s buying power and lowering costs.
Additionally, Kerr initiated a mandatory health and wellness program in the department aimed at making firefighters healthier, which in turn led to a reduction in overall compensation claims for common illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
“We lowered utilization by making sure that our firefighters stayed in shape, we increased our buying power, and we bought in the long term while keeping costs low,” Kerr said. “So ultimately we lowered costs by $1-2 million a year while maintaining and maximizing the benefits that our members were receiving.
“[Arnold] Schwarzenegger later called the Orange County Fire Association the cornerstone of pension reform in the state of California, but we didn’t raise one penny of taxes and we didn’t take one dollar away from our firefighters, instead we were a microcosm of how to solve problems on a larger scale.”
As State Senate District 38 is heavily coastal, Kerr talked about the importance of focusing his campaign on issues of environmental preservation, particularly in regards to climate change and the impacts of urban encroachment on natural preserves.
On climate change, Kerr argued that the number one priority for legislators should be tackling the state’s worsening wildfire crisis. Wildfires inordinately exacerbate the state’s C02 emissions into the atmosphere, lead to a loss of natural watersheds, and adversely impact aquifer replenishment capacities, among other effects, Kerr said, warning that time is running out for the state to take meaningful action to get a handle on the issue.
“Unless and until we control the wildfire problem, it will continue to exacerbate climate change at a faster rate than any other development that scientists have observed recently. It affects everything from clean air to drinking water to the shoreline to the economy,” Kerr said. “We’re losing nearly 2 million acres a year to these fires, we’re losing our watersheds, losing the ability for the rain to infiltrate into the ground, and we’re putting heat-tracking CO2 into the atmosphere for the next 100 years.”
As a legislator, Kerr said he would accelerate funding for wildfire prevention, reduction, abatement and mitigation programs. More specifically, he said he would work towards supplementing the state’s “grossly understaffed” fire service, increasing support for fuel reduction programs during the fire’s offseason and offering financial incentives to homeowners to safeguard their homes from fires.
Additionally, Kerr said the state could do significantly more to protect its open spaces and preserves in the face of growing urban development. In Sacramento, Kerr pledged to fight for more irrevocable open space dedication in the wildland-urban interface and especially in historic sites or areas populated by endangered plant and/or animal species.
“In Orange County, we dedicated open space for wildlife and ecosystem preservation for protected species,” Kerr said. “We did that with wildlife biologists, archaeological site recommendations in mind, so we bring in experts to say that this site is historically preserved and when you build in the wildland-urban interface there has to be the protection of the environment, protection of the citizens, the watersheds, etc.
“There has to be a sense of balance, people need to feel protected and secure and safe and know that the people they send to Sacramento are not going to upset the apple cart on their beautiful environment, but instead thinking about how we can solve issues without destroying where you already live.”
When it comes to debates over municipal control of housing and zoning regulations vs. state authority, Kerr made it clear that he takes the side of local control.
The retired firefighter opposes both Senate bills 9 and 10, which he characterized as examples of Sacramento overreach. 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.
“The first priority for the development of a city has to be the issue of local control, so I support local control from leaders and from communities of interest,” Kerr said. “And secondly, you have to consider that people spend a lot of time and effort to move into a pre-established, single-family home into a pre-established neighborhood, so we really shouldn’t be adversely impacting those neighborhoods by imposing tighter restrictions and more density,” Kerr said.
He also expressed that he opposes the state using its power to force high-density projects onto municipalities that he said often lack the infrastructure to support additional development. The city of Encinitas, for instance, was recently threatened with litigation by the state over its failure to approve the controversial 277-unit Goodson project in Olivenhain.
For Kerr, development shouldn’t come at the expense of public safety and community character. He pointed to the Goodson project as an example of a development that does not match the carrying capacity of existing municipal infrastructure.
“From a public safety standpoint, when you engineer a neighborhood for water, sewer, power and public safety, you can’t come back and impact that area with higher density. Something’s gotta give. Who is going to pay for sewage spills if we overload the sewer lines? Who will pay for fires in the wildlands after a transformer overloads and takes out more homes?”
Kerr made it clear that he’s not anti-development but that development needs to occur responsibly in accordance with the existing structural resources of individual jurisdictions.
“District 38 is not San Francisco and we don’t want it to be treated or look like San Francisco,” he said. “You have to think about how do you come back and impact that infrastructure and impact public safety with development, how do you staff our cities to deal with that increase in density? Our people work hard to buy homes in pre-established single-family neighborhoods, and we shouldn’t change that. We have to be smarter about how we do things, and it doesn’t mean don’t add more housing units but it does mean doing so in a natural flow and not be adversely impacting pre-established neighborhoods.”
Crime and Public Safety
With crime rising statewide and throughout much of San Diego County, Kerr says that public safety as a policy issue will be paramount for him if he makes it to Sacramento. For Kerr, state policies — namely Propositions 47 and 57 — have exacerbated crime not only in major metropolises, such as San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco but also in smaller municipalities, including Encinitas, where crime went up by 31% in 2021.
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.
It’s been a combination of such policies, along with an overwhelming lack of state support for public safety at the municipal level, that has worsened public safety conditions and eroded public confidence in local government, according to Kerr.
“I’m a proponent in believing that everything is interconnected, and when you make changes, like Prop 47, when you let folks out of prison early, yeah, there’s going to be an impact if the state is going to do that there needs to increased funding for jurisdictions to handle that,” Kerr said.
As more felons receive parole due to Prop 57, Kerr said local jurisdictions are seeing a surge in crime driven by more hardened criminals who have been released from the state prison system, even as some municipalities are simultaneously slashing law enforcement budgets.
“Today we’re looking at much more severe hardened criminals in the courtroom, these are people in our local jails here that really should be in state facilities…so I think that local governments, first of all, should have had a say in these policies and that goes back to local control, and secondly they should be properly funded for this.”
For Kerr, aggressive financial and institutional support for local law enforcement agencies is foundational to any functioning system of government.
“In my lifetime I’ve seen that as public safety declines, so goes communities, so goes neighborhoods, so goes infrastructure, so goes your tax base, and it’s a race to the bottom,” Kerr said. “There’s a fallacy being talked about nowadays that you save money if you cut staffing in public safety, but the opposite is true — you actually end up losing your tax base.
“If you don’t have safe streets, if mom can’t walk her kid in the park and feel safe, everything else erodes around it and there’s a total collapse of that jurisdiction, of that community. On the front end, if you support public safety, you support the tax base and if you support the tax base there’s an equilibrium there that will take care of itself. As a state legislator, I believe in local control and protecting the people who know their own community, and my job is to not upset the apple cart but to support that.”
Kerr believes that homelessness has worsened considerably in District 38 and it’s something that he pledges to prioritize from a legislative standpoint if elected. It’s also personal for him. Kerr has a close relative who suffers from mental illness and who was once homeless.
“My family still deals with that, it’s a chronic issue,” Kerr said.
Additionally, it’s an issue that Kerr dealt with extensively on the job in Orange County, where firefighters frequently encounter and deal with homeless encampments on a regular basis.
In his personal experiences with the unhoused, the retired fire captain said he’s realized that homelessness is a multifaceted issue that requires deliberation and strategy more than just a blind application of resources.
“What we have now is people throwing a lot of money at solutions and not identifying the problem,” Kerr said. “I think there are several strata to homelessness, the first strata being those people caught up in the Great Recession and just a couple of paychecks away from being out on the street. The second strata I’ve seen is the folks with mental health issues, and sometimes being on the street can cause mental health issues and sometimes other things can cause it. The third, and bigger level in my mind, is those folks who have addictions to controlled substances.”
The most important step that government can take at the state level, Kerr said, is to offer as much support to local governments as possible, specifically when it comes to investing in permanent supportive housing, but also towards mental health services and substance abuse treatment.
“Providing more homes doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, because people need help with controlled substances, people need help with mental health,” Kerr said. “You can’t just look at one of these issues, you can’t just have one approach you have to look at all of them.
“It’s like a fire — you have to stop it for the next generation, and right now we haven’t slowed down the problem at all. We need to stop it for the next generation and get help for those folks so that they don’t wind up on the street too. It’s not a one size fits all approach. It’s a series of things that need to get done. So, unless you fix the root problems of mental health and addiction, you can’t get people off the streets. You have to change that now so that the next generation has solutions.”
Taxes and Regulations
When it came to fiscal policy, Kerr made it clear that he’ll fight for more conservative policies on issues such as taxation and business regulation.
“Californians are being overtaxed right now,” Kerr said. “To me, we can live within our means in the state of California by creating greater efficiencies, so I believe in no new taxes for Californians. I believe that with greater efficiencies we can get the job done.
“The former fire captain said that he would look at rolling back a whole range of taxes on consumers, and in particular the state’s controversial gas tax.
The current instantiation of the gas tax was enacted as part of Senate Bill 1 in 2017, which was a legislative package that invested tens of billions in state funds towards improving roads, bridges, and freeways across California. The gas tax has risen annually to keep pace with inflation and has been heavily criticized by lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle for passing too much cost onto consumers.
Kerr said that he supports an idea proposed by a bipartisan caucus of state senators that would suspend the gas tax for one year and use the state’s current surplus to backfill the lost revenue in the meantime, giving citizens at least a temporary reprieve from the tax.
“The idea is we’d suspend the gas tax for one year and use the general fund to backfill it so that we’re not losing any of the infrastructures that came from SB1…you give Californians a break and importantly, you make sure that the savings are passed on to the consumers and not to the gas stations…I support this idea and it’s a breath of fresh air, an example of Democrats and Republicans working together to solve problems.”
Kerr also made it clear that as a legislator, he’s going to fight for less regulation of small businesses, especially in light of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have to talk about the overregulation of Californians. I won’t be the guy to impose more regulations, hopefully, we can actually alleviate the burden on Californians with the regulations we have, and some need to go away altogether,” Kerr said. “We have to do something to help our small businesses, they’ve been hit with scores of regulations, licensing fees, plus with the pandemic, you have to feel for our mom and pop shops, I mean it was just devastating.”
Kerr did not specify which regulations he would roll back but rather emphasized that as a general approach to fiscal policymaking he would err on the side of promoting innovation and business growth as much as possible, while limiting the role of government to that of responsible stewardship, as opposed to heavy-handed interference.
“It seems like every time there’s a problem in this state people want to throw money at the problem…we look at everything from a 10,000-foot level instead of grassroots, well I’m going to be the guy on the ground rolling up the sleeves, getting out of the office, and getting stuff done.”