Interview Transcript: Thea Selby

This transcript is from an interview on our radio program and podcast “Civic,” published as part of our February 2022 nonpartisan election guide. Though “Civic” will broadcast only seven minutes of each candidate’s interview to give each equal airtime on our program, we are making a transcript of the full conversations available. These transcripts have been edited for clarity.   

Laura Wenus  

I have heard you say before that this is sort of the natural next step in the areas that you work in — education, for example, you’re on the City College board — the next step for those really would be to take them at the state level. Can you give a brief overview, for people who don’t know you, what you’ve been up to in the last few years and why you see this as a natural extension of what you’ve been doing?  

Thea Selby  

Yes, I’d be happy to do so. So first of all, yeah, I’ve been for seven years on the City College board, and it has not been an easy time, but we have managed to do what I set out to do, which is become fiscally stable. When I came on board, we were on the verge of losing our accreditation and now-Supervisor Mandelman, at the time he was on the City College board, recruited me to — I have an MBA. I understand budgets, I understand numbers. I understand, you know, trying to make things work within the numbers. And he recruited me to try and help City College at a very difficult time and I have really enjoyed it. It’s a tremendous community that surrounds City College. Everybody is very passionate about the school and wants its best. But the next step really is going to the state.  

Some of my other sort of passions and vocations: I work with transportation quite a bit. I’ve been the co-chair of the San Francisco Transit Riders, the chair and the co-chair, for about eight years. And I am also — in my day job, I work with transportation agencies. I have a deep, deep passion for public transportation. And that’s another place that the Assembly, where the budgets and some of the oversight for transportation and education occur. And so, I am very excited about going, to, one, try and create that continuing ladder of opportunity for students through education. It really is one of the only ways to get ahead that is affordable in this world that we live in. And also, I have two children. I have a 20 and 24-year-old, and they’re both very concerned as many young people are about climate change. And we don’t have a lot of time, and I want to spend my time making sure that we do our best to meet or exceed climate goals. As California goes, so goes the nation, and 47% of our carbon emissions come from transportation. So, I’m hoping that my expertise with transportation and with education can really move us forward to a better place as we recover from COVID.  

Laura Wenus  

There are so many things there that I want to touch on, but I imagine that one of the reasons why you see the state legislature as a natural next step is because a lot of the decisions about, you know, how things are going to go with education and, you know, climate change and things like that are made at the state level. But I would like to hear that from you rather than for me. Why is the state legislature a natural extension of what you’re doing now?  

Thea Selby  

So first of all, it’s about budgets, it’s about money. And as one of my supporters, Delaine Eastin, who is a former superintendent of instruction, always says, budgets are a reflection of your values. So, there is a need. Since Prop 13, which was a long time ago, there has been a need to bring back some funding into education. So, this is where we can do that. This is where we can act both as the bully pulpit for getting people to focus on education. But it’s also the place where hopefully we can start working on a Prop 15-like kind of a measure that allows us to once again attempt to perhaps create a split roll and increase the commercial property tax, allow it to rise with the value of the property while keeping the residential as it is with Prop 13. This would allow a tremendous influx of money, of which, at least with Prop 15, 40% of [that] would have gone to education. So that was a real blow when that didn’t pass a couple of years ago, and I am committed to working on something like that that allows for more revenue.  

There’s also oversight, and that I’ve seen with my own work with community college. AB 705 was a bill in the Assembly that essentially said: You can no longer have your students languish in courses called ‘basic skills.’ And what those were is pre-college classes that we used to test people, and if they didn’t test into college classes, they could take these pre-college classes. The problem was, is that it actually meant, first of all, that we had a lot of people that never got to college classes. They kept taking the pre-college classes. And so, we had a growing achievement gap. So, it wasn’t the community college system itself that made the change, it was the legislature. And I’m sure the community college system was, you know, certainly some not all were very interested in having it happen, but it’s the legislature where that oversight happens, where they got rid of basic skills and basically said: You need to, when you get into community college, you’re going to go into a college-level course and we’re going to provide the support so that you can do well in that college class. And since we’ve done that, opportunity gaps have decreased and achievement gaps have decreased as well. And we have especially our most disadvantaged students, low-income Black and brown students are doing much, much better. So that’s the kind of oversight and the kind of big-picture thing that you can do at the at the state level that you probably can’t do within the system itself. So that’s on education.  

On transportation, very simply, I’ve been working for three years with a coalition of labor — it’s made up of transit, it’s made up of youth, it’s made up of just a variety of equity groups — and we’re 95,000 strong in terms of our membership at this point, and we have been working on a regional transformative transportation measure that is progressive, the tax itself would be progressive. The money source would be progressive. And we’re hoping to get that on the ballot in 2024, and there needs to be authorizing legislation, and I would be honored to be the assembly member who is able to sponsor that authorizing legislation.  

Laura Wenus  

I’m really glad that you brought up the coronavirus pandemic and recovery from it, but before we get to recovery, we’re still in a record-breaking spike of COVID cases. I’m sure as a small business owner and someone who’s paying attention to, you know, City College and the other things that you — transit — you’ve seen firsthand the ways that the pandemic has affected different aspects of our lives. How do you think that the state legislature should be responding to this huge spike or future spikes? And how will you be pushing state policy to do that if you’re elected?  

Thea Selby  

So, you know, I am very interested in seeing what we can do to move forward, and I do see that we have a case spike. And I am not a doctor, I will say that right now, I’m not a health expert, but from what I hear, finally, we’re having a little bit of a distance between the cases and the hospitalizations and the deaths. And there are experts who are saying we need to start focusing on the hospitalizations and the deaths as we move forward. The way we got out of the Spanish Flu is the variants that came forward got weaker and weaker until it was no longer a pandemic, it was more of an endemic. This is a very weird time, because we have both delta floating around, we have the new the new coronavirus that is significantly weaker, omicron — we hope anyhow. You know, so far, it seems to be, if we use South Africa as a model, since that’s where it came from originally. And my hope is, is that we have a lot of things in place now. For example, at City College, we actually have a vaccine mandate. And it’s more about figuring out how to make these things work and also modify as we go along, as the information comes out from the health experts, as to how to move forward.  

I think we all want to move forward. We all want to see — you know, in in the community college system overall, we’ve lost anywhere from 11-30% of our students. This is a dire situation. This means that there are whole groups of disadvantaged students who are no longer getting educated. So, I think all of us really want to make sure that we move forward safely, that we have what we need in place, that we are implementing and that we are complying and that we are monitoring very closely everything that’s happening. But I’m super, super hopeful. And I have to say I’ve been probably way too much of an optimist this entire time that we will be, you know, being able to move forward with the variants getting hopefully less powerful as we move along, as we go.  

Laura Wenus  

So, from a legislative standpoint, let’s hope that we do eventually have something to recover from and that we are moving past huge case loads and hospitalizations — although they have decoupled, they’re still on the rise. Let’s say that we do get to a point where it really is like, we’re coming out of it now. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. I think particularly the economic recovery is a topic on everyone’s mind. It’s clear that the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in the city, in the state, everywhere, really. How do you think the state legislature could chart a path toward an equitable economic recovery legislatively?  

Thea Selby  

Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. So, I’m going to start with an education standpoint. You know, the schools have also lost a lot of students, and I’m talking about the K-12 system. As you know, we’ve lost 3,500 students in SFUSD and then City College has also lost a lot of students. So, one of the things we can do at the state level is make sure that at least for a couple of years, the schools are “held harmless.” And what that means is it gives them some time, perhaps using enrollment prior to the pandemic as the basis, to recover. So that’s something we can do and have done at the community college level. But I don’t believe we’ve done it at K-12, and I think it’s actually really important as we get our feet back on the ground and as we really work to get our kids back in school, you know? Some of the other things we can do in terms of recovery, I want to talk about small business. I’m a small business owner and— 

Laura Wenus  

I hate to interrupt, but can you just say what your small business is?  

Thea Selby  

Sure. So, I have a small business called Next Steps Marketing. We’ve been around for 20 years. We are a marketing and communications and outreach company and we work with media and we work with nonprofits and we work with some government agencies. And so, what I was going to say, with small businesses, you know, unfortunately small businesses — a lot of lip service is paid to small business, but very little is done for it. And that’s partially because we’re not organized. We don’t have the kind of associations that that really can push things forward or lobbyists for that matter. And what I’d like to see, again, I think small businesses have been hit really, really hard and I’d like to see us, you know, support our small businesses, from everything, potentially, to a short-term commercial rent control — that’s something that has hurt a lot of small businesses as when, for example, ownership changes and all of a sudden the rents skyrocket and small businesses are out of out of their place, they can’t afford it anymore — things like that, to help small businesses figure out, again, similar to the schools, just stability. We need some stability in this time. And so, potentially, reducing some fees. I had a conversation with a small business owner who had the idea of possibly waiving the fees until you actually get started on your business instead of front loading all of these fees that small businesses have. I’m really excited about all the possibilities that we might be able to do for small business as we hopefully recover. Like I say, I am an optimist. I’m hoping we can do this.  

Laura Wenus  

Well, it’s good to hear some hopefulness. I think that’s a nice thing to have. You did also mention climate, and I think that is a really important thing to talk about. So, could you talk about some of the climate goals that you would have, were you elected? Like, what areas do you think the state legislature can really move us toward impactful action on climate change?  

Thea Selby  

Absolutely. Well, let’s start with something near and dear to my heart, which is the high-speed rail. This is — I used to be on the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board, and we have the opportunity — we did not take it last year, but we have the opportunity — to appropriate $4.2 billion that the voters approved in 2008. And so, this is the last of the 2008 Prop 1A bond funds to complete our mid-section, the Central Valley section, of high-speed rail. We also have, as you know, a $1 trillion investment package through the feds, and what they’re looking for is — they’re looking for matching funds. So, one of the first things I’m going to do — and of course, high-speed rail is zero emissions — one of the first things I want to do is make sure we get those federal funds, get that Central Valley portion completed and then start to reach out to San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is the next step.  

In addition to that, I will say we haven’t talked about housing, but you know, I spent a lot of time with merchants all across this beautiful district that we have, and a lot of the folks who work in these small businesses are commuting long distances. And the reason they’re doing that — which is, by the way, very bad for the environment, right, because a lot of times they are, you know, there’s a lot of carbon that’s being emitted if they have to take their cars, plus, it’s bad quality of life if you have to be, you know, spending hours and hours commuting. And what helps with that is housing and the reason they do it, just to finish the thought, is that the salaries are better here. We have better wages in San Francisco, which I am very proud of and I love that, but we need to have housing for the very low, the low and the middle-income here in San Francisco. And that, will, believe it or not, help climate change because we will not have all of these people who are commuting long distances. We’ll be able to work on the kinds of things that Connect SF, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but that was a that was an organization, it was a city-led sort of movement to try and figure out what kind of city do we want? And it turns out, guess what? We want a more equitable city. We want a city where we can walk and take public transit. We want a city that has neighborhoods where a lot of your amenities are in those neighborhoods. All the things that, you know, sort of sound like what you would think we would want, but it’s not the direction we’re going. So hopefully if we start building more housing in San Francisco, in the places where we can build housing, then we can we can also reduce our carbon emissions.  

And then finally, locally, as I mentioned, 47% of our carbon emissions currently come from transportation. And whereas — almost none of that comes from public transportation. So whatever we can do to make abundant, affordable and accessible public transportation, as well as make walking better and biking better, is really going to help our environment, our quality of life. And it’ll help us to meet or exceed our climate goals. So, I mentioned that $100 billion measure that we’re working on in 2024, that will help to start that. But also, we’ll be needing to do things with trucks. My dear friend Denny Zane down in Los Angeles has been working on taking trucks and changing them from diesel into something else, maybe fuel-cell. We’ll be needing to do things like that, and we’ll just be needing to work with people to shift from using their cars to other means. And we can only do that if we provide abundant, affordable and accessible public transportation.  

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