Two Republicans challenge Assembly Speaker Atkins in 78th District

By Joe Tash

Voters who live on San Diego County’s coast from Solana Beach south to Imperial Beach have a choice of three candidates for the 78th Assembly seat — incumbent Democrat Toni Atkins, who just took over the powerful post of Assembly speaker, and two Republican challengers, Kevin Melton and Barbara Decker.

Under California’s open primary system, all voters from the sprawling district, regardless of their party affiliation, will be able to vote for any of the three candidates in the June 3 primary. The top two vote-getters will face off in the November general election.

Neither Atkins, a former San Diego councilwoman and the Assembly’s first openly lesbian speaker, nor Decker, a La Jollan who owns a real estate investment business, made themselves available to be interviewed for this story.

Melton, who grew up in the Los Angeles area and now calls downtown San Diego his home, worked in advertising sales, served as associate publisher of a magazine for seniors, and is also involved in his family’s real estate investment business.

If elected, Melton, 52, said he would donate about half of his $95,000 annual salary to schools and senior programs. (As speaker, Atkins earns $109,584. Legislators also earn a per diem of $141 per day when in session.)

“I lead by example. I want to show I’m not there to find a new career and power and move up the ladder. I’m there to help people and do what I can do to make a better life for everyone,” he said.

While Melton has not previously held elective office, he has been involved in politics, running unsuccessfully for the Los Angeles City Council in 2003 and 2007, and also serving on the campaign finance committee for Kevin Faulconer’s recent successful bid for San Diego mayor.

Among his key issues, said Melton, is reigning in taxes, and making sure tax dollars are spent wisely. For example, he said less money should be spent on school administrators’ salaries, and more on paying for teachers and classroom supplies.

In general, he said, he would ask hard questions to make sure tax money is going where it’s supposed to.

As a former publisher of a magazine for seniors, Melton said he wants to protect programs for seniors, such as Meals on Wheels and transportation.

“Those things can’t be cut out. We have to take care of our elderly. That’s very important to me,” Melton said.

Melton touted his business experience, particularly in marketing and fundraising, as attributes he will bring to the table if elected. He said he has an ability to get things done, and would seek corporate sponsorships to help pay for programs, instead of relying on more taxes.

“We can’t keep taking it from the people, (adding) new taxes, that’s got to stop,” he said.

Melton faces a tough challenge as he goes up against an opponent who holds the top leadership position in the Assembly, and also enjoys a strong registration advantage — according to the county Registrar of Voters office, 39 percent of district voters are registered Democrats, with 25 percent registered Republican and 29 percent declining to state a party preference.

Atkins also holds a commanding lead in fundraising, reporting $252,000 in contributions from Jan. 1 through March 17, the latest reporting period on the California Secretary of State’s web site. Melton said he has raised about $8,000, and the web site does not list any fundraising activity for Decker.

Atkins, who replaces Los Angeles Democrat John Perez as speaker, will have to move fast to make her mark as Assembly leader, as she must step down in 2016 due to term limits.

Melton said he would also like to see age limits for legislators at the state and federal levels.

“We need to start looking at some age limits in politics,” he said, which could be set at 75 or 80. At that point, he said, “it’s time to let someone else with different views and different ways get in there.”