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Voter Guide: David Canepa is fighting for progressive ideals

San Mateo County supervisor advocates for Medicare for All, free community college
David Canepa, left, walks through a South San Francisco neighborhood with volunteer Mahmoud Ereikat, right, and field coordinator Anthony Yoshida, back, while canvassing on April 28, 2022.

Of the hundreds of votes that David Canepa cast in his years as a mayor, council member and county supervisor, few were as meaningful or consequential as the one on March 10, 2020, when he urged his colleagues on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors to provide a $20 million grant to Seton Medical Center, a Daly City hospital that was on the verge of shutting down.

For Canepa, the issue was personal as much as political. Canepa was born at Seton Medical Center, and he often stressed its critical importance in providing health care and jobs to residents of Pacifica, Daly City, Colma and other communities in north county. But in 2020, the hospital was facing the prospect of closure after its parent company, Verity Health Systems, declared bankruptcy.

With the closure seemingly imminent, Canepa implored his colleagues to look for ways to fund seismic upgrades and other retrofits to the facility, moves that county officials deemed necessary to make it viable for a takeover from another buyer. With no concrete proposal on the table to purchase Seton Hospital, Canepa convinced his four colleagues to schedule a special meeting the following week, at which point county staff had identified several potential candidates, including AHMC Healthcare, a South California-based hospital chain.

"If we do nothing today there is a high probability that this hospital will close," Canepa told his colleagues. "That's the bottom line. You can try to sugar coat it however you want, you can justify in your mind what you think it is. But what's at stake here is the closure of this hospital, make no mistake about it."

Not everyone was convinced. Supervisor Dave Pine opposed funding allocation and pointed to the county's precarious financial positions and the budget cuts that supervisors had just approved for the health care system. Supervisor Carol Groom said she was "troubled" by the prospect of contributing without a concrete offer on the table. At the end of the marathon meeting, however, Canepa emerged victorious, with the board voting 4-1 to provide the funding and keep Seton's hope alive.

The vote proved consequential for the hospital, the county, and Canepa himself. Days after the supervisors pledged the funds, they found themselves facing a global pandemic that was spiraling out of control. In the first few months of the pandemic, with ownership still in doubt, Seton Hall became a "safety net" hospital for the state as public health officials struggled to contain COVID-19 (its patients included San Quentin inmates who contracted COVID-19 during a June outbreak). By August, once the initial COVID-19 surge passed, AHMC completed its purchase of Seton Medical Center.

In a recent interview, Canepa said that the county's response to the pandemic — its success in keeping the hospital open, encouraging residents to wear masks and get vaccinated and in providing rental assistance and support for local businesses — played a significant role in his decision to run for Congress, where he hopes to fill a District 15 seat that is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier.

"I probably wouldn't have run for Congress if it wasn't for the pandemic," Canepa, 47, said in an interview. "But what I found out was that this county has done an incredible job dealing with these very, very complex issues. While other elected officials were on the sidelines, my office and the county were in it day in and day out."

Canepa is just as quick with blame as he is with praise. In January, county officials found themselves on the defensive amid reports that about $7 million of personal protective equipment purchased in the early days of the pandemic was left outdoors and that some of that was damaged by storms. Canepa demanded a public hearing on what went wrong, and on April 19, he led the charge in grilling County Executive Officer Mike Callagy about the oversight, which he called a "black eye" and "truly disappointing."

"These are taxpayer dollars and for us to leave the equipment out was really, really government at its worst," Canepa said.

The Seton debate and the hearing on damaged equipment epitomized Canepa's legislative style — his tendency to get ahead of his colleagues and then reel them in toward his position, even if it isn't popular or immediately viable. He plans to bring the same aggressive approach to Washington, D.C. When candidates were asked to name their role models in Congress at a recent forum, his two Democratic opponents, Emily Beach and Kevin Mullin, both named Speier, while Republican Gus Mattammal cited former House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a Democrat known for seeking compromise. Canepa chose Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat whose grassroots campaigning style and passionate support for policies such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and forgiveness of student debt have made her an icon of the party's progressive wing.

Canepa said that if elected, he would like to join "The Squad," a group of progressive legislators that, along with Ocasio-Cortez, includes Rashida Tlaib, Aryanna Presley and Ilhan Omar. Another lawmaker whom Canepa admires is U.S. Rep Barbara Lee, who in 2001 was the sole member of U.S. Congress to vote against going to war in Afghanistan.

"That lone vote still resonates today, and people say she's on the right side of history," Canepa said. "It takes time on some of the issues, but at the end of the day, those issues resonate. And I don't want to be the go-along-get-along caucus Democrat. I don't think that's effective."

Canepa's campaign reflects both his progressive ideals and aggressive tactics. If elected, he said he would fight to implement Medicare for All and work to make community college free for all. He also said he would focus on sea level rise, an issue of particular concern to the District 15 communities fronting the San Francisco Bay. This means fighting for the Green New Deal, a program that he believes is critical for addressing climate change and generating jobs.

On foreign policy, he supports establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a stance that sets him apart from most members of the Democratic establishment. President Joe Biden has consistently refused to "close the skies" over Ukraine, a policy that would greatly heighten the odds of a direct military confrontation between American and Russian aircraft. Canepa believes Vladimir Putin has a "disregard for life," knows no boundaries and must be stopped.

Canepa says his values stem from this working-class background. He attended Skyline Community College and the University of San Francisco, where he majored in politics and became the first member of his family to graduate from college. After a stint as a legislative aide for Assemblyman Leland Yee, he successfully ran for the City Council in Daly City, where he served between 2008 and 2016, which included a term as mayor in 2014.

Canepa believes his commitment to uplifting the less fortunate separates him from the rest of the field. Last year, as president of the Board of Supervisors, he championed a $2 million grant to expand a county program that offers free tuition to community college students. Other actions that he said he is particularly proud of as a county supervisor include the cancelation of court fees at Juvenile Hall and the county's work with the office of Sheriff Carlos Bolano to ban transfers of detained individuals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A veteran of local politics, Canepa also touted his role on the regional stage as a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Area Quality Management District. He wants to see California get more federal dollars for transportation projects such as the high-speed rail system and grade separations along the Caltrain corridor. If elected, he said he would seek to join the Transportation Committee in the House to work on these projects.

"I know when it comes to transportation, we need a lot of money from the federal government to make sure we're able to hit our transportation goals, to make sure we're able to move into a system that needs much improvement," Canepa said.

He has also pledged not to accept any contributions from corporate political action committees, a stance that he says sets him apart from  Mullin and Beach. That, however, has not stopped him from getting off to a strong start in fundraising. In late 2021, Canepa surprised many political observers when he charged ahead of the pack in funds raised. While Mullin had overtaken him by late March, Canepa had reported about $567,000 in cash raised by March 31, 2022. His list of contributors included the National Union of Healthcare Workers Federal Committee on Political Education as well as business leaders and residents throughout the county.

Though he is currently second in fundraising, Canepa believes he has a strong shot at prevailing in the June 7 primary and ultimately in the November general election. He has taken shots at Mullin, who is widely seen as his main rival, pointing to the contributions the assembly member received from political action committees, such as GenenPAC. Canepa criticized Mullin for issuing mailers in the early days of the campaign, which were funded by his assembly campaign committee. Mullin responded to the charges by saying he's disappointed to see Canepa run a "negative campaign against a fellow Democrat. 

Canepa emphasized in an interview that, unlike Mullin, he did not inject his own funds into the campaign. He also dismissed a poll released by Mullin's campaign in mid-April that indicated that 31% of the respondents said they would support Mullin, compared to 17% for Canepa. 

"I'm willing to bet Kevin Mullin a dinner at a restaurant of his choice that he is not going to have a 14-point lead," Canepa said when asked about the poll.

Canepa wants to take the same kind of fighting spirit to national debates on issues that concern the district.

"I want to bring a strong voice," Canepa said. "I want to bring a voice that really amplifies the issue. I don't want to play it safe."