What’s up, doc?

An interview with the Democratic candidate for the Assembly’s 5th District

SN&R spoke with Dr. Richard Pan, who is running for the District 5 Assembly seat, in our Del Paso Boulevard office in late September. This is a transcript of the interview.

What made you decide to run?

What made me decide to run is that, as a pediatrician, I was seeing what was happening to the families I was taking care of, and to their children. I take care of a lot of children who are on Medi-Cal or Healthy Families. I focus on children who have learning disabilities, mental-health issues, chronic health problems, foster-care kids—and those families are really struggling to take care of those children, because of cuts to services. A number of clinics have been forced to close.

And I’d been working in the community to get kids health-care coverage, and we enrolled a lot of kids into Healthy Families. Now, the governor proposed two budget plans in a row to eliminate Healthy Families. I realize it’s off the table now, but the people I was talking to said, “We need someone who really understands what’s going on in the front lines, the problems, and who sees that in their work.”

Also, having been very active in the community and worked with the Legislature representing the medical profession, several people said, “Hey, you understand this stuff and we need to have someone who understands it and who is on the front lines representing us.” And if I’m not willing to throw my hat in the ring, how can I complain? So I decided to run.

So would you rank health as your primary interest? What are your priorities?

I think the top three things I want to work on—one is certainly the economy and jobs. As a small-business owner—my wife is a solo-practice dentist, and we started her practice together—and also having served on several nonprofit boards, you have to deal with balancing budgets and meeting payroll and so on. That’s a top priority for me.

And certainly education. Being a professor at UC, as well as having worked closely with the schools as a pediatrician, education is also a very high priority. I want to work with both higher education and K-12.

And certainly, of course, health care. That includes everything from workforce development—there are many jobs possible in that arena, as I know being a health-care educator. There’s also the issue of providing health care in a way that will both increase quality and reduce cost. And we need to see how we are going to implement federal health care in a way that will make sense of California.

I bring the perspective of a practicing physician, as well as someone who has a background in public health as well. I have a master’s degree in public health. My approach to public health is not just about health care, but about the determinants of health and what drives public health. The work I’ve done in developing educational programs to partner physicians with communities to improve health—

Would that include reaching out to high-risk and underserved communities, stressing wellness?

Yes, but taking a grassroots approach. I think one of the things that I really believe in that we did in our program is—when the doctors first started, they took the approach that, well, I’m the doctor who’s going to be working in the community, I want to help them, I’m going to speak for them and find answers for their problems. It’s almost a paternalistic approach, because I’m the expert, I’m the doctor.

When they’ve gone through our program, they come out saying, “My role in being an advocate in the community is to support the members of this community so that they can speak for themselves. It’s not that I’m speaking for someone who can’t speak for themselves; it’s that I support them so that they can speak for themselves.” It’s a much more supportive role; we empower people in the community to take care of their own health instead of being the expert who knows everything and is going to tell people what to do approach, which isn’t very helpful.

And that’s the approach that I hope to take to the state Legislature as well. The question should be how can government facilitate things like getting our economy going again; how can we support education by supporting teachers and parents so that kids can get a good education; how can we support people who work in the health-care system and patients who need health care, to empower them to take charge of their own health and improve health-care quality.

The point isn’t to do it for people; the point is to make it possible for people to do it for themselves.

What do you think is the problem with getting a budget passed?

I think the challenge with getting a budget is that it takes—you have to build bridges in a hyperpartisan era to get folks to go along. So it’s not that we have an absence of ideas on how to do budgets; it’s not an accounting problem. People say, “Why can’t you get an accountant and figure it out?” No, the problem is—

They have the Legislative Analyst’s Office, and they’re really good at what they do.

Yes, absolutely! So the problem is: Can you come up with a budget that two-thirds of the people in the Legislature can agree upon? And of course, the governor has to go along. So it’s as much a governance issue as it is a fiscal issue.

Do you see the budget being overdetermined by other agendas than just getting money apportioned to run the state?

That’s clearly—you see how many other agendas get pulled into the budget discussion. You look at what happened last year. You know, whatever the merits of those other issues are, they get pulled into the debate as elements that decide whether legislators will vote for the budget or not. So you have all these things that are not budget-related—or at least not directly—that become issues in the budget process.

Even the governor, right now, whatever you think about pension reform, is saying he won’t pass the budget without pension reform. You can argue that pensions do affect money in the state, but you also hear people saying, “Well, I won’t approve the budget unless you do this,” which doesn’t necessarily have an immediate impact—or it has minimal impact—on the next year’s budget. The issues may have merit in themselves, but holding up the budget to be hostage is certainly one of the problems. It’s why we don’t have a budget.

People say, “I’m not going to vote for a budget unless you do x.”

The problems with the two-thirds, in my opinion, is that if you require a majority, each side has to build a coalition and each side can have viable ideas to offer. If you’re close to a majority, you can work to change minds and suddenly, you’re the majority.

But when the bar is at two-thirds, the people who are in the minority have no hope of ever having their ideas considered, and they know it. So there’s really no competition of ideas and no persuasion going on; you have instead more of a competition for “who can stop this because we don’t like it.” You can stop someone else’s idea, but you can never move your own idea forward. The only power you have is to say “no.”

You have this small group of people who only have the power to say no, and they have no ability to build a coalition broad enough to actually get their idea passed. We don’t have a true competition of ideas and priorities for the state. Instead, we have deadlock.

What kind of a solution do you think we should be bringing for the hyperpartisanship? I like that phrase.

I bring—and I think this speaks to the race—I bring a record, in my life, of bringing people together to try to solve problems. We talked about Healthy Kids, Healthy Future—we covered 5,000 kids in the region. And through the First 5 commission—we had Sacramento, which tends to be a little liberal; and we had Placer, El Dorado and Yuba, which tend to be a little more conservative—but we were able to bring people together because we shared a common goal. While we had different approaches that may have come from different political philosophies, because we shared the same goal, we focused on achieving the goal. We were able to work together and develop common ideas on how to get there.

Obviously, there was give-and-take to get there, but we were able to come up with solutions. So I think that—I’m running because I’m interested in solving the problems; because I see what’s happening in our communities. I have a 4-year-old and a 2-month-old, and I want to see them have a prosperous future here in California.

I’m running to try to help solve problems. I think most of us share common goals. We all want to see our kids healthy, well-educated and successful. We all want to have a healthy environment that won’t shorten our lives. I think Californians all want to see businesses grow and see people become prosperous. If we can have people work—if we can agree on some of the goals, then we can build solutions around those goals.

I don’t have any illusions that my election as one of 80 Assembly members will change everything. But certainly I think that we can find enough people who are interested in solving these common problems to reach these common goals, rather than people who just want to score political points, that we can make some progress.

I think we can move our state forward. Bipartisanship, like any dialogue, involves at least two people, and maybe more. I hope we can start with the common goals and attract the people who want to work toward them. We can’t make anyone do that, but we can try.

It sounds like you want to walk back until you find the place where people can agree, and work from there.

Yes. Definitely.

That’s a pretty helpful idea, I think, given where we’re at. Now, here’s the question that I’m pretty sure you’d prefer not to answer, because I know you would rather have people vote for you than against someone else, but whether it’s useful or not, the social positions of your opponent, Andrew Pugno, have come into play. There’s some serious work being done by Stonewall Democrats, the California Nurses Association, Planned Parenthood Advocates and others. They’re all convinced that he’s too extreme, both to represent your district and for California at large. What would you like to say to that?

I think he is too extreme. I would say that the voters in Assembly District 5 have a very clear choice.

Each of us can say whatever we want on the campaign trail—I can say things, he can say things. I think what the voters need to do is look at how we’ve spent our lives. The life choices we have made will actually give a strong indication of why we want to be in the Legislature, what we hope to accomplish and why we’re running.

I’m the one who has spent more than the last decade living in the district, seeing patients and working with families one on one to help them solve problems and take care of their kids. I’ve been working in the community to bring people together to solve problems: you know, on the First 5 Commission, helping figure out programs to prepare kids for school; getting health-care coverage for kids across the region; on United Way; helping foster kids transition to adulthood; addressing high-school graduation rates.

And in the medical community, I’ve worked to build partnerships between communities and doctors and nurses and teachers to try to strengthen and make our communities more healthy. That’s how I’ve spent my time.

My opponent, who actually moved into the district to run days before the filing deadline, has spent his life as a legislative staffer for Pete Knight. He identified gay marriage as a staffer and did work on Prop. 22. After that, he’s an attorney, and he earned his keep by doing working on this issue. That’s his primary job. And now that he’s running, he’s trying to downplay that.

I serve on the United Way board. He serves on the board of an extreme pro-life organization. You can see by what we do what we’re trying to accomplish.

I’m very interested in trying to understand why he’s running. It seems like he’s looking for another soapbox to push his agenda. I’m interested in solving our problems, not pushing some personal agenda that I have. I think there’s really a tremendous contrast.

Well, ultimately, it doesn’t matter who the kid’s parents are if the kid doesn’t have vaccinations and dental care and all of the things that he or she needs to start kindergarten.


I want to ask about money. One of the things we’ve been interested in here has been out-of-state and out-of-district contributions. Have you been taking money from any groups, or from outside your district?

We’ve built a broad coalition of people who support me. To compete with Mr. Pugno, I’ve raised money from across the state, and even some from out of the state. A lot of my support is coming from physicians. We also have strong support from labor groups, and from small-business owners; law enforcement, nurses, teachers, firefighters, dentists—we have a broad array of people who aren’t necessarily part of the traditional Democratic base who are contributing to my campaign.

I think people are very interested in getting someone who wants to work on solving problems and who brings a background of doing that.

I’m in it to try and change the culture of the statehouse and get things moving again.