(Editor’s Note: Assemblymember Bill Quirk (D) was elected in November 2012 to represent the 20th Assembly District, which consists of a good portion of the southern part of Alameda County. The answers and questions have been edited and consolidated for clarity and brevity.)
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Summit, New Jersey, and we moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania, when I was two and then to the Boston area, around Newton, when I was seven. We lived there until I was 15. We then moved to California and lived in the Bay Area for a couple of years before moving to Pasadena.
I started high school at St. Sebastian in Newton, then went to Woodside Priory in Portola Valley and finished up at La Salle in Pasadena.
My father was an engineer and worked in the semi-conductor industry. In fact, he was one of the first people to work on transistor technology. As a kid I was always interested in science and in fact, when I was a sophomore in high school I told a teacher that I wanted to study astronomy. But I wasn’t interested in where the stars and planets were located but how they worked. He told me I wanted to study Astrophysics…and that’s what I did.
Tell us about your education and your first career as an astrophysicist?
I went to Columbia (New York) where I completed both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I received a doctorate in Astrophysics at the age of 24 and then I came out to California where I was a postdoctoral fellow at CalTech for two years. I then joined NASA as a research scientist and switched over to meteorology. I was one of the first scientists to create a worldwide climate change model. That was in 1973 and I worked on that for about five years.
At the time were you and your fellow scientists predicting climate change?
You have to remember that the computers we were working on were 1000 times less powerful than an iPhone is today. So at the time we understood the potential for a problem but it turned out to be much worse than we expected. At this point in time the world wide temperature has risen an average of 1 degree. That doesn’t seem like much but it means when there are extreme temperatures they become much worse. And when there are surges in tide, like with Hurricane Sandy, they become worse.
The biggest problem, and we did predict this back then, is that the largest change is at the Poles (North and South). Fairly soon we could have an icefree Arctic and a frozen tundra that is not frozen anymore. We are seeing islands disappear because they are no longer frozen and they get worn away.
From your vantage point, what is the biggest danger from climate change?
It is going to get worse before it gets better. In California most people seem to get it. We are moving forward on some programs and in some ways we are experimenting for the world. The problem is that in some ways we moved too fast and don’t have the perfect solutions, but in other ways we waited too long to address this problem. No matter what we do, we are probably going to see sea levels rise five feet by the end of the century. If we do nothing we are going to see the sea levels rise 20-40 feet. That would wipe out New York and Boston and parts of San Francisco. Five feet we can deal with; 20 feet will be much more difficult. The real difficult part is that it is tough to be a pioneer. We can’t afford to make mistakes. We really have to get this right.
How will this impact industries such as agriculture?
As the temperatures rise and the sea level rises, we are going to see farmland (near the coast) wiped out. Rising temperatures also create more pest problems. There are pests that get knocked down over winter by cold temperatures. When the temperature doesn’t drop as far, the pests survive and are worse the next year. Already we are seeing pest problems moving further and further north.
Your career took a turn in the early 1980s. Explain that?
In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected and the money for climate change research dried up and instead there was a lot of money for weapons research. I went to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where I became a nuclear weapons designer. I did that from 1981 to 1992. And then I switched over and became our country’s expert on the design of foreign nuclear weapons. I worked with members of the intelligence community to prepare reports for the Presidential Daily Brief and played a key role in the negotiations for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. I did this work from 1992 until I retired in 2005.
When did you get involved in the political arena?
Even back in high school I was always interested in politics. In fact I was a Young Republican in college and worked on the Lindsay campaign in New York. I did however, switch party affiliations and I have always been involved in elections. Since we moved to California (1978) and especially since 1988, when my kids were a little older, I worked in many different presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. I typically managed precinct workers.
I was also active in many local community organizations, and won a seat on the Hayward City Council in 2004. When the local assemblyman termed out, I decided to run for the Assembly.
Did you come to the Assembly with a specific interest or agenda?
I asked to serve on two committees – Public Utilities & Commerce and the Agriculture Committee.
I have always had an interest in energy, which is why I wanted to be on the Public Utilities Committee. As far as agriculture is concerned I got to know a lot of farmers and ranchers during my campaign, as well as the folks that represent them in Sacramento, and I found them to be people that I really enjoyed. I want to help farmers and ranchers be successful. I have told my staff that I only want to sponsor legislation that makes it easier to farm in California, not more difficult.
I am currently learning about agriculture but I need suggestions from the industry. I want to know what we can do to make it easier for farmers to succeed.
One of the big issues on the table has to do with water and Gov. Brown’s proposal to build tunnels around the Delta. Do you have a position on this issue?
I was just recently talking to Gail (Delihant of Western Growers) about this. It is a very complex issue and I am not sure that the tunnels will solve the problem. To my way of thinking, we are going to build the tunnels to bypass the Delta but we are still going to have to do a lot of pumping to protect the Delta. I am just not yet sure if the tunnels are the solution.
You have now been in Sacramento for about six months, is the Legislature as contentious as reported?
Of course not everyone is going to agree on everything, but legislators really do work together. I’d say that at least 60-70 percent of the bills we pass are passed with bi-partisan support. And that is especially true in the Agriculture Committee. There are a lot of members with a lot of knowledge and we pass a lot of bills (out of committee) with a unanimous vote. In the Agriculture Committee, it is much more about issues than ideology. In fact, one of our members is one of the most conservative members in the Assembly and he has gotten three bills passed out of Committee this year. We have some ranchers and farmers on the committee that we listen to. Recently we passed a bill to increase the penalties on cattle rustling. Who knew that was still such a big problem?
In Public Utilities and Commerce, it is a little different as there are some ideological disagreements and there is a Democrat/Republican split on votes about half the time. There are some things such as taxes that we are just not going to agree on. Public safety is another issue where there is a lot of disagreement.
What is in your future politically?
I was born in 1945 so by the time I serve my 12 years — if in fact I serve 12 years — I will be ready to step aside. I have no plans to run for statewide office or to run for a State Senate seat. I do plan to run for re-election until I am termed out but we will see how that unfolds.
Our members grow the best fruits and vegetables in the world. Are you a consumer of our products?
I am a big fruit and vegetable eater. Right now I have a big bowl of fruit on my desk that has oranges and peaches and tangerines in it. Every day I usually have a salad or a vegetarian sandwich for lunch. I typically do eat meat at dinner but I do very much watch what I eat and exercise so fruits and vegetables are a big part of my diet.
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