Monday, January 11, 2010

Q&A with Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker

On a foggy Sunday morning in Alameda, Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker sat down with The Citizen to discuss her recent decision to not run for re-election, her accomplishments and her goals for her final year representing District 3.

Q: Was there a certain point when you said to yourself, 'I'm done. I don't want to do this anymore'?
A: There several times during the past few months, but I didn't really think about it a lot. During the holidays, what we did is go to Steve's [KCBS sports reporter Steve Bitker] parent's house before Christmas. We wanted to try an avoid the Christmas rush, so we were there for five days and you know Steve's parents are older, too, and we were helping them find assisted-living  homes. This was at the heels of me losing my mom. During this holiday I actually took some time off. In the past I worked during the holidays. You know, it was during this time that I did not go into the office and I thought, ten years is enough. It's a very hard job. Very stressful and there are many times you make decisions that you are not happy about. I tried to look at the big picture. What is the best for the county? What is best for the people I represent? So, it has been a job that as become more and more difficult. There are many things that I am proud that I did a lot of great service to the county.

I was thinking about family, you know. My older daughter graduated from U.C. Davis. During that four-year period my husband was able to have lunch with her something like 20 times and I didn't make it one time. My younger daughter left last year. Am I not going to be able to go to lunch with her--this is a luxury, in a sense--but it is something that is a really great bonding relationship between her and my husband. I was also thinking about Steve. Am I going to have him spend more of these lonely nights for five more years or just one? So, the answer is no, just this one last year. I made the decision during the holidays. I know everyone was shocked. In some way, all of my supporters have been so dedicated since day one and then also my staff who worked so hard for me. I was also thinking about mom, my family and myself.

Q: Are you the type who is selfless? Do you take care of everyone else and then yourself last?
A: Yes, people say that. My husband would definitely say that. I think probably it's my nature. It's my training in social work. I think it's my tendency to do that.

Q: Your relationship with your mother is well-known. How did she influence you personally and as supervisor?

A: My mom is a great person. She was very proud of me. She knows it is an important job and it is very demanding and she didn't want to put demands on me like little things; fixing stuff, she would ask the neighbors for help. I feel my mom, at least the past few years, her mission was taking care of me, making sure I'm ok...She is so supportive. She would volunteer for our office. When we had to send mailings, she would do that and during campaign times she would take signs to the neighbors. She knew that I worked very hard and in fact part of my work ethic comes from my parents. What she does to show her love and nurturing is she does all this cooking. She knows that I have no time, so now I don't have that.

Q: Did you use her advice with your work at the county?
A: I didn't tell her much because I didn't want her to worry. So only saw how busy I was and she listened to the Chinese radio and television news. She would tell me she would hear on the TV, "you're a great representative of the Chinese community." She had strong opinions, too...She speciifically took me to textile factories in Hong Kong when I was young to have me work sewing so I knew how hard work was so I would continue to study and that was her way of teaching a lesson.

You're coffee is getting cold. Do you want to warm it up?

Q: Oh, no, it's still hot. Thank you. So, you still have one year on the Board of Supervisors. You're not out yet.
A: I'm very optimistic that we will accomplish things we are working on and I know it's not going to be easy because of the picture of the state and the whole economy. This year won't easy.

Q: Is there any issue big or small that you are putting pressure on yourself to finish before you leave?
A: In San Lorenzo, it think development is a very important issue for the community and I am going to want to make sure that we are making significant progress. I would like to see our library in San Lorenzo expanded during this time I'm here. I want to work for something significant so the community can see some progress because many of them are frustrated. Some of it is out of my hands and the county's control. The other thing, of course, in San Leandro is the child care center at San Leandro Crossings. Hopefully that is somewhere we can be instrumental and absolutely San Leandro Hospital, but I think that is also out of our hands with this legal situation. I have also been looking at a health center at San Leandro High. I think one of the big issues the county is dealing with is very soon we need to make a decision on replacing our health care agency director. There are many big issues for the county.

Q: Many believe the economy may get worse before it gets better. Are there any budget decision this year that you are not looking forward to making?
A: The Health and Human Services sector of the county is going to take the brunt of it, such as Medicaid cuts, in-home support services helping seniors and transportation issues will present a challenge because that will affect the roads because the county owns the bridges and part of the money is from those sources. I will say that the education cuts they are avoiding is a good thing. We've got to invest in our children and young people. I'm disappointed that the Republicans are not seeing the need for raising taxes. I know its a difficult time, but there needs to be structure. Some people are saying we need a Constitutional convention, but that takes time, too.

Q: Do you support any plans for a constitutional convention in the state?
A: Absolutely. I thought we were at that point already a few years ago.

Q: Let's go back in time. What do you think are some of things you have accomplished as supervisor?
A: I'm very proud about pushing for children getting more access to mental  health services and access to health care. We've made real progress with No Wrong Door Policy, which actually at the time we got a national award. Fighting domestic violence is another issue. At the time, I was thinking, we had services, but they were a bit fragmented and I thought there were ways we could coordinate better and have better oversight, so we initiated a bill that was passed by the governor--AB 2010--and at the same time, we got a federal grant that was very competitive and we were able to form the Family Justice Center and I'm very proud of that. We also formed an economic development committee, so those are things that did not magically happen, it took years of work to accomplish. It would also be great if we have a solution for San Leandro Hospital, too.

Q: Many of the issues you specialize in are related to health care. As it looks now, do you think the health care reform packaged being debated in Washington will help the county?
A: Don't know. There is just so much more they need to work out. I think there is definitely concern from our county health care director's perspective. It may cost us more money and where is the money coming from because there is a required match that comes up. It's too early to tell right now exactly, but we need to work on how to prepare, which makes sense because it takes time for all the systems to coalesce and the next few years will be important.

Q: Some liberal pundits are saying the health care reform bill, although watered down, is far better than nothing. Do you agree?
A: I feel that way, too. The huge number of uninsured they have no access, although, they say for them to go to the county, it is not the best thing. Also insurance for the undocumented is not a part of that plan. I think this is where the philosophical questions come in, are they still human beings? We should provide the basic needs for health care and the other thing is, where is the money? If you don't have it, then you can't do it. There's so many conflicts and that's why this job is so hard for me.

Q: Your decision last week had everybody scrambling. You know what the job entails, what sort of person or skills sets are going to be needed to fill your seat?
A: I want someone who has good values. Someone who cares about the district and the county. For me, it would be great if it was somebody who is able to carry on my priorities and my projects and programs. In terms of skill set, I wouldn't even want to prescribe that because I think everybody has different skills and there is not one set that is a requirement for this job. I think we need someone who works hard. We don't have any slacker on the board. I know my style is different from other people, I tend to be collaborative and I'm more willing to seek compromise than others. In a way, I find it discouraging when I see what is happening with our state and local levels where people are stuck in their ways.

Q: I don't think anyone would compare your temperment to Supervisors Scott Haggerty, Keith Carson and to some extent, to Nate Miley. Haggerty, for instance, is very gruff--different from you--do you think those personalities have hampered your style?
A: Yes and no. It's hard to say.

Q: In what ways?
A: My style is collaborative, but if their personality is not the same, it becomes hard on me.

Q: Like you're spinning your wheels?
A: Yes, sometimes I feel that way and they make you the same because our styles are different. I don't want to put the responsibility on them, it's on me, too. But that's how the world is, we're all different.

Q: Your old boss, Wilma Chan, wants her seat back. Shelia Young wants your job, too.

A: I'm not surprised Shelia would want to run. She ran before and it was a tough campaign and I gave her credit for what she did. I'm also not surprised Wilma is running and [Alameda Mayor] Beverly Johnson's name is out there now.

Q: Your chief of staff, Shawn Wilson's name is also popping up.
A: Shawn is exploring a run.

Q: You may be in the position where you might have your old boss looking for your endorsement and Wilson, who is kind of like you 10 years ago as an underling to the supervisor, also looking for an endorsement.
A: Shawn would be a logical choice. He really knows the district, knows the county's business. I think he is absolutely right to explore if he has enough support. Right now, I need to wait and see and watch a little more. I would love to support him if he can get enough support that he decides to do it.

Q: Let's talk about San Leandro Hospital. This story has proven to be highly unpredictable. Anything is possible and just when you think you have it figured out, everything changes. It is conceivable the issue could return to the Board of Supervisors just as much as they could decide to turn it into Chuck E. Cheese's. Do you have a sense where this thing is going?
A: First, it shouldn't go to the Board of Supervisors, they have a governing body which is the healthcare district. It is unfortunate what happened with some of the decisions made in the past with legal entanglements.

Q: Decisions made by the District?
A: Decisions made by the District and Sutter with negotiations in the past. We kind of have to deal with that. Whether Sutter has the right to have the property and whether they have the right to transfer. I know some people say the county has this proposal and I tell them, first forget about the county's role. If Sutter has the right they can negotiate with anybody and, of course, from the county's perspective they need that, but don't look at that. Does the District have the right or does Sutter have the right? Until that question gets resolved, we can't move forward and I'm concerned about the timing with the license. There not a whole lot time until June, so I hope this legal process can be fast-tracked.

Q: Were you disappointed Sutter moved this situation into the legal arena by filing a lawsuit against the District?
A: Am I disappointed? I'm disappointed, but I also know from their perspective, they don't have any other way to deal with it. I would prefer in the face of community pressure they would compromise and make it work. In a sense, they have been working with the county to keep the resource for the community. I can't blame them. Moving forward, I care about what are we going to do.

Q: Do you wish Sutter was more willing to speak with Prime Healthcare?
A: Yeah, I can wish that, but is that realistic, you know? I have some mix feelings about Prime. I still care about the access issue for San Leandro, that why I want to work with the District and Sutter to find ways to come up with subsidy money. For me, the emergency is important. Acute care is important. That's why I promote the idea of a hybrid, but I can't even do that with all this legal stuff going on.

Q: Do you think a solution can be made with Sutter that would keep the community happy at this point?
A: I don't know. If Sutter can contribute with a subsidy and the District--I think the District has a responsibility to do it, you know. If they both put in money, it can work. That's what I want to see.

Q: Everything seems to evolve around a subsidy and thus far nobody has said they will contribute any dollars. Do you see any money coming soon?
A: I hope so. I have worked with some members of the District, but some members still want to fight and some people just want to fight Sutter. The unions want to fight Sutter. I don't want to fight Sutter, I just want to fight for the hospital. There's a difference there.

Q: The one politician that has not publicly been involved with the hospital is Rep. Pete Stark. He is conceivably the one person with the power and access to money in Washington to provide a subsidy. Do you think he should get more involved with this issue?
A: I think you bring up a good point. To be honest, I have not thought about it. Now that you raise the point about Pete Stark, I think we should approach him.

Q: One last thing. When you wake up one day in January 2011, what is Alice going to be doing? A vacation?
A: A vacation would be nice. It's too early to say. I'm every optimistic about it. I've been working so hard to think about that right now, but I think things can shape up by them. I truly believe I can make a difference outside of this job. My background is in the health profession. It is entirely possible that is still my calling. I will be only 52 by then. I still have 10-15 years. I feel I still have a great career left.

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