(Editor’s Note: The questions and answers have been paraphrased for brevity and clarity.)
Ben Allen won in his first attempt for the California Legislature in November of 2014. At 36, he is the second youngest senator in the state.
Where did you grow up and did you have any defining moments in your childhood?
I grew up in Santa Monica and went to public school from kindergarten through high school. I went to Harvard for my undergraduate work and then went to England for grad school. I lived a typical life in an urban environment although I did spend a lot of time with my father hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and enjoying that rural environment.
I also should mention that my father is English. He grew up in a small town in Southern England and wanted to be a farmer. Instead he became a professor of literature and teaches at UCLA. But we spent a lot of summers when I was growing up in England in that rural environment. I loved walking through the countryside and interacting with the people there. It gave me an appreciation of the rural life.
Explain your career stops from college in England to the state Senate?
After grad school I worked in Washington, D.C., for a while and then I came back to California and went to law school at UC Berkeley (class of 2008). That was quite an experience. While there I served as the student member of the UC Board of Regents. I interacted with many very impressive people including the governor and the lieutenant governor and many other elected officials. We worked on some fascinating issues including efforts to establish UC Merced and dealing with ag research at UC Riverside. Serving on that board I got a real sense of the state as an entity.
Did that experience establish your plan to run for the state Legislature?
I thought it might be a possibility, but honestly if you told me a couple of years ago I would be in the Legislature today, I would not have believed it.
After law school I came back to Santa Monica and got involved in the local school district. I ran for a seat on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board and won in both 2008 and 2012. For a time I served as president of the board. I served on the board up until I was elected to the Legislature last fall.
My decision to run for the state Senate happened very quickly. My congressman, Henry Waxman, stepped down unexpectedly in January of 2014 after 40 years in the House of Representatives (announcing he would not seek re-election in November 2014). So very quickly the Democrats were talking about whom was going to replace him. (State Senator Ted Lieu to ran for that seat, which opened up Lieu's state Senate seat.) I had very little time to decide if I wanted to run. A couple of people urged me to and I did. There was a very strong field in the primary but I did win and then won a contested battled in the general election.
If I look back a couple of years, I did not think I was going to be running for the state Legislature in 2014. But if you look at the trajectory of my career, it was headed in that direction.
Did you come to Sacramento with an agenda?
Public education is a big area of concern for me. I serve on the Senate Budget Committee that oversees the state’s education budget. I am also very concerned about Los Angeles with regard to mobility and transportation. I am on the Transportation and Housing Committee. The transportation situation in Los Angeles is a quality of life issue for me. I also was selected to serve as chair of the Senate's Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments. I’d like to see what we can do to get more people to vote and to get more involved in our political process.
Another interest of mine is public arts. We have a vibrant art community in Santa Monica and I am on the state legislature’s Joint Committee on the Arts. I was also appointed to the Veterans Affairs Committee. I think we have the largest VA hospital in my district. I am very interested in doing right by our veterans.
Lastly, I am on the Natural Resources and Water Committee. The environment and the preservation of open spaces like the Santa Monica Mountains is very important.
What are your first impressions of Sacramento?
First of all it is a very fascinating job. I get to interact with a lot of different people…and some very, very smart people…on a daily basis. We are dealing with many different issues every day from nurses to education to the coastal commission to the state budget. The issues we are dealing with are very broad. There are some things in the culture of elected office that I am not going to enjoy—specifically re-election fundraising. That is not enjoyable. I already have an account open for my 2018 re-election campaign.
How will you get up to speed on the many issues you have to deal with on a daily basis? For example, what is your plan to learn about agriculture?
I do represent a very urban district, although there is a winery in my district on Catalina Island and I understand there is some small freelance agriculture on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. I plan to talk to folks like Western Growers and I want to get up to speed on water issues and other issues that affect agriculture. I hope to spend time in the agricultural world and get a sense of the issues that growers face. I consider myself open minded and I am very interested in learning about agriculture.
Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum?
I am from a very liberal part of the state — the People’s Republic of Santa Monica and I am liberal. But I am open-minded.
California has one U.S. Senator that just announced she is stepping down and there is expected to be a change in the Democratic leadership in the state over the next election cycle. What’s in your political future?
It sounds trite but my focus is just to be the best senator I can be. My philosophy is the better job you do in your current job, the more opportunities you will have down the line. I was just elected so I don’t have any plans at this point for any other office. I have opened an account for re-election in 2018 so I’d say that at this point I certainly plan on running for re-election.
But there are term limits and I know I won’t have this job forever. I just plan to continue to build my career and see where it goes. I do not have a master plan.
Our members grow some of the best fruit, vegetables and nuts in the world. Are you a consumer of our products? Do you have any favorites?
I am. My mother taught me well. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables and nuts. Right now on my desk I have an Envy apple that was given to me at the Capitol. I love persimmons and pears and grapes. On the vegetable side I love Brussels sprouts, roasted and even steamed if they are done right. I am a big eater of salads. I love salads.
In Santa Monica we have a very vibrant and robust farmers’ market. In fact, we have several different farmers’ markets. I’d love to walk those markets sometimes with you guys (farmers) and observe the closing of the loop from the farmer to the consumer.