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California voters on Tuesday will pick a successor for one of the state’s leading champions of child welfare issues in the state Legislature, who authored landmark laws extending benefits to foster youth through age 21, helped them get through college without the support of families and protected them from overprescribed psychiatric medications.

San Jose Democrat Sen. Jim Beall has hit term limits after 14 years in state office and a legacy of pioneering foster care reform legislation and protections for people living with disabilities.

There are two Democratic candidates vying for his seat: Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, a former San Jose City Council member who is endorsed by Beall, and former Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel, who has served on California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, the Federal Election Commission and in the U.S. Department of Justice as a deputy attorney general. Ravel is endorsed by former President Barack Obama.

Amy Lemley, head of the nonprofit John Burton Advocates for Youth, said Beall’s leadership on foster care issues “cannot be overstated,” pointing to tens of thousands of young people who have benefited from extended foster care and Beall’s work to increase access to higher education.

“He understands the unique and powerful commitment that California has to children and youth in foster care. He takes that commitment to foster youth very seriously,” Lemley said. “We strongly hope that his successor continues this distinguished tradition.”

Like Cortese, Beall rose to the statehouse from the San Jose City Council and Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, a political career that has spanned 40 years. He served in the state Assembly for six years before being elected in 2012 to a Senate district covering the South Bay and parts of Silicon Valley. 

Beall

California state Sen. Jim Beall at a COVID-era legislative hearing. Screenshot from California Senate livestream.

A profile of Beall published earlier this month in the San Jose Spotlight reveals how his childhood led him to a career motivated by improving social services. The second-oldest of 10 children, he told the outlet he began working at age 14 when his family home in San Jose burned down. Summer jobs led him to the agricultural fields and up-close images of the struggle of farmworkers. Beall said that motivated him to “be a champion for social justice causes.” 

While in the Assembly, Beall authored the 2010 legislation that has allowed tens of thousands of young people raised in the foster care system to continue receiving financial assistance and housing benefits until age 21. Beall’s Assembly Bill 12 made California one of the first states in the nation to provide such supports, assistance that is now offered in every state except Oklahoma.

More recently, Beall pushed to raise the age limit on extended foster care, allowing young people to continue receiving housing help and cash benefits through age 25. But just a month after he introduced the bill, the coronavirus hit and eviscerated the state budget. Beall revised the bill to instead create a yearlong extension for foster youth set to age out during the pandemic, which was folded into the state budget. His legislative effort to codify the protections for future emergencies was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Beall also led the California Legislature in passing a sweeping overhaul of group homes and a package of bills to better protect foster youth from excessive prescriptions of psychotropic medications. Lemley said his work on a series of bills to ensure foster youth had the support they needed to apply to college and secure financial aid had fallen through the cracks prior to Beall’s leadership on the issue.

In addition to enacting major changes in the state’s child welfare system, Beall also introduced dozens of bills aimed at improving care for people with disabilities and mental health challenges, though he was often met with vetoes. In 2015 he was able to get a pair of bills signed into law that created higher standards for training police to respond to mental health crises. 

Beall has endorsed Cortese, citing the supervisor’s more specific shared focus on child welfare and mental health issues.

In an interview with The Imprint, Beall said he was inspired to focus on reforming the foster care system, in part, because of an intern he worked with during his time as a Santa Clara County supervisor. Shortly before her 18th birthday, she pulled him aside to share the challenges she faced as a foster youth soon to age out of the system. She was about to be pushed out of her foster home and had no safe family home to return to.

It was then Beall said he realized: “It’s abusive to kick them out at 18.”

Beall knows both of his potential successors well, saying they share many of the same values. While serving as a Santa ClaraCountysupervisor, Beall hired Ravel to serve as county counsel and worked with her for 10 years. Althoughhe praised her work, Beall has endorsed Cortese, citing the supervisor’s more specific shared focus on child welfare and mental health issues. 

Although Ravel has never held elected office, she is a long-term public servant who has served in local, state and federal government. Obama appointed her in 2013 to serve on the Federal Election Commission. 

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Cortese has served on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors since 2008, winning reelection twice. He terms out this year. In 2010he led the board’s efforts in barring children younger than age 13 from being sent to the local juvenile hall. Earlier this year, he spearheaded a universal basic income pilot project that provided $1,000 monthly payments to foster youth for the first year after they age out of the system. 

Cortese told The Imprint that if he’s elected to the state Senate he would consider legislation championing a statewide universal basic income payment for young adults leaving foster care, as well as other supports.

“I’m ready to carry on his efforts and see if I can advance them,” Cortese said of Beall’s prior work.

Prior to her time on the Federal Election Commission, Ravel chaired California’s Fair Political Practices Commission. She was appointed in 2011 to that body by then-Gov. Jerry Brown and led a landmark investigation into dark money in politics. Earlier in her career, Ravel was a deputy attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, focusing on consumer issues. 

By working in high levels of government, Ravel said in an interview this week that she learned how to compromise and work across party lines. She said despite the Democratic supermajority in California’s Legislature, there’s still political divisiveness that she’s well equipped to handle. 

“Everyone in the Department of Justice represents a different interest — I understood how to work with people, how to compromise,” Ravel said. “And I think people sometimes forget how important that is.”

Like Beall, Ravel has taken a particular interest in addressing the educational barriers faced by kids and teens involved in the child welfare system. During her 11-year tenure as Santa Clara County counsel, her office started a program to strengthen and protect educational rights for foster youth. 

“I do think we owe an obligation to those young people to make sure they are safe, can find jobs and be educated,” she said, adding that she’s interested in furthering Beall’s latest efforts to raise the age limit on extended foster care. 

While Ravel and Cortese may share positions on many issues, their political and financial support springs from different wings of the Democratic Party in Santa Clara County: labor vs. business.

Like Beall, Cortese enjoys the endorsement of public and private labor groups. Among his endorsers are the South Bay Labor Council, the Teamsters and unions representing teachers and college faculty.

Ravel’s backers include business leaders, high-profile legal groups and women’s organizations, as well as the Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle editorial boards.

When he leaves state government this year, Beall said he’ll continue to work to improve lives for foster youth. His next project will be developing an internship program with San Jose State University. Beall said he will be personally raising the funds to provide the students paid internships in public service, nonprofit and government positions. 

The loss of Beall’s priorities in lawmaking could be further compounded after the election, if Los Angeles Sen. Holly Mitchell wins a seat as a county supervisor.

California state Sen. Holly Mitchell with constituents at a community forum. Photo: Christine Onjonco

California state Sen. Holly Mitchell with constituents at a community forum. Photo: Christine Onjonco

Mitchell, who now represents the Los Angeles-area Senate District 30, is running to succeed longtime Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. If elected supervisor, Mitchell — also a standout champion for foster youth in the state Legislature — would oversee the largest child welfare system in the country. 

As a state senator, Mitchell co-authored legislation to end life without parole for youth offenders and has written several laws aimed at eliminating barriers for prospective foster parents and placing more foster youth with family members. 

If Mitchell wins the Los Angeles County race, a special election would be held to select her successor in the Senate. 

child care

Amid a historically contentious political atmosphere, Lemley praised both Mitchell and Beall for a steadfast commitment to serving vulnerable Californians. “People can be so cynical about politics,” she wrote in an email, “but they clearly haven’t met these two!”

Sara Tiano

The Imprint