Before she became one of Burlingame's most visible advocates for bikes and buses, Emily Beach thought of planes.
A native of Longmeadow, a small town in western Massachusetts, she caught the travel bug during college. As a sophomore at Notre Dame University, Beach traveled to Spain and lived with a host family in Toledo. Then there were trips to Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Greece. And her participation in the ROTC propelled her toward military service, a path that she felt would allow her to fulfill her desire to see the world and serve her country.
Fresh out of college, she trained to become a Patriot missile officer at the United States Army base Fort Bliss in Texas. Then she went off to Fort Benning, Georgia, for parachute school. It was not because it was a requirement but because she had something to prove — both to herself and others.
"I had a terrible fear of heights, and I knew that if I faced it down and jumped out of an airplane five times, including with full combat gear on, there's nothing I can't do," Beach, 47, said in an interview.
Her approach to her first jump?
"I said Hail Marys the whole way down," she said.
Today, after Army stints in South Korea and Saudi Arabia, three years of working in a semiconductor company, another three years in education fundraising and seven years on the Burlingame City Council, Beach is preparing for her next big jump: to the U.S. Congress.
As one of three Democrats vying for an open seat in District 15, she emphasized what she sees as a big difference between her two main rivals, state Assembly member Kevin Mullin and San Mateo County Supervisor David Canepa. As a woman and a military veteran, she would bring the views of both of these underrepresented groups to the U.S. Congress. Beach often points out that only 27% of Congress members are women. A pro-choice Catholic who deeply cares about issues such as affordable housing, education and reproductive freedom, Beach believes she could effectively advocate for the Bay Area on these issues.
She also noted that 73% of Congress members had military experience when she was born. Today, it's down to 17%.
"That matters," she said, "Congress makes decisions about foreign policy, the military budget, on whether or not to deploy troops."
Both Beach and Mullin have made experience a centerpiece of their campaigns. While Mullin usually refers to his legislative accomplishments, Beach focuses on her life experience, which includes stints in the private and nonprofit sectors and, more recently, Burlingame City Hall.
Beach and her husband, Duff, moved to San Francisco in 2000 and initially lived on Mission Street and Geneva Avenue, an area that now makes up the northern edge of the newly redrawn District 15. In 2008, they relocated to Burlingame, where they briefly rented before buying a house and raising two children.
Her experience as a school mom first drove her toward activism. With budget cuts at the Burlingame school district threatening her children's nursery school, Beach became heavily involved in fundraising. She joined the board of the Burlingame Community Education Foundation and was elected the foundation's president the following year. She is proud of her role in increasing the foundation's grants to local schools from $1 million to $1.8 million annually.
Her work as a school advocate raised her visibility in the Burlingame community, and in 2015 she ran for a seat on the City Council and easily won, finishing first out of four candidates. She was reelected in 2019, finishing first again, both Speier and Mullin having endorsed her campaign.
As a council member and a mayor, Beach has been a champion for active transportation. At times, this pitted her against her colleagues. In 2017, when the council contemplated creating a two-hour parking limit on Carolan Avenue near Burlingame High School, she was the only council member who opposed the proposal. The proposal aimed to keep Caltrain commuters from using the street for long-term parking and make more spaces available for high school students.
"The high schoolers were concerned that the parking terms weren't convenient enough and that they were losing parking spaces to Caltrain commuters," Beach said in an interview. "I didn't necessarily want to make it easier for students to drive cars when we want to encourage people to take Caltrain."
Last September, she was also outvoted during the council's discussion on streetscape changes on California Drive. During that discussion, she advocated creating a protected two-way bikeway and reducing lane sizes for cars as a traffic-calming measure. She also said she would support removing some parking spaces as part of a design to make road conditions safer for southbound cyclists.
But her concerns extend well beyond the minute details of local intersections. Since 2017, she has served on the board of the San Mateo Transportation Authority, which oversees billions of dollars in transportation investments throughout the region. This includes planning for grade separations and the realignment of railroad tracks; and streets at existing crossings so that they would no longer intersect. Burlingame is now moving ahead with a grade separation project at Broadway, which will involve depressing the road and raising the tracks over it.
Beach also represents the entire Peninsula, from San Francisco to Morgan Hill, on the League of California Cities, a coalition that advocates for federal legislation and lobbies the Legislature on behalf of local municipalities. Her council colleague Donna Colson recognized her participation in these broad regional efforts during a December 2019 ceremony when she passed the title of the mayor to Beach.
"What it shows is that she's just not about Burlingame; she's about the whole Bay Area and community," Colson said.
Beach sees her involvement in policy on the regional level — much like her military experience on the global level — as important assets, as she makes her bid for Congress. But she takes particular pride when talking about local issues, including her efforts as mayor in 2020 to steer Burlingame through the pandemic while still achieving key strategic goals like raising the minimum wage and adopting a bicycle and pedestrian master plan, an issue near and dear to her heart.
Beach is undaunted by the natural structural advantage that her two Democratic opponents bring to the race — the fact that a state assembly member and a county supervisor represent a larger geographical area and, in a sense, have a louder megaphone than a council member in a city of about 30,000 residents. When asked about this, she instantly rattled off a list of Congress members who were elected without having first served on the state level: Zoe Lofgren, Eric Swalwell, Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Anna Eshoo, the latter who represents the neighboring District 16 and whom Beach views as a role model.
"I do think my experience in local government at the grassroots level is a competitive asset when I go to D.C. because I've been so close to the people," Beach said. "I get lobbied in the bike lane in my city. You can't get any closer to people."
If elected to Congress, one of her focus areas would be expanding health care. While Canepa supports Medicare for All, a bold proposal championed by the party's progressive wing, Beach says she wants to improve health care by gradually expanding the Affordable Care Act, which means she'd be leaning on the private sector in some areas and creating a public option.
That's not the only area where Beach disagrees with Canepa. In discussing foreign policy, Canepa said he supports imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which President Joe Biden has steadfastly refused to adopt because it would create the potential for direct combat between American and Russian aircraft. Beach, a former Patriot missile air defender, said she supports Biden's approach, which involves supporting Ukraine with weapons and economic aid.
"There are too many air defense assets that would shoot down aircraft," Beach said. "We cannot afford a direct conflict with Russia."
Other areas that she would prioritize in Congress are climate action and mental health, an issue that has become particularly critical in the Covid era. An entire generation of children, she noted, didn't get to experience pre-school because of schools switching to Zoom classes. This, she said, will have long-term effects on society. As a mother of two teenagers and a long-time education volunteer, she believes she would be a particularly effective advocate on these topics if elected to Congress.
"Our life perspectives help inform what our priorities are," Beach said.