Local Assemblywoman Catharine Baker has been hitting the ground running since taking office eight months ago.
"It's been the best kind of busy," the first-term Republican said during an interview at a downtown Danville coffee shop earlier this month. "Enjoy working with colleagues on some of the major issues, on the key priorities for our community and our state, and getting to know them regardless of party and see if we can work together."
"It's been important to me to really try to have a bipartisan approach to what I do, and so that's been part of the enjoyment," she added.
A Dublin resident and Pleasanton attorney, Baker had served on a school site council and school-improvement committees but had never been elected to public office when she stood as the lone Republican on the ballot to succeed termed-out Alamo Democrat Joan Buchanan in the State Assembly last year.
She led the pack in a four-candidate primary that June and won a tight runoff last November with 51.6% of the vote.
Baker, 44, was sworn in as the 16th Assembly District representative Dec. 1. In addition to Pleasanton, her district spans out to Livermore, up Interstate 680 through the San Ramon Valley and into parts of Walnut Creek, and then west to Lamorinda.
The married mother of seventh-grade twins counts herself lucky to live close enough to be a daily State Capitol commuter during the workweek.
"I still get the kids ready in the morning, and we sit around the breakfast table and get ready for the day," Baker said. "I drop them off at school, and head to Sacramento."
With traffic patterns in mind, she typically jumps on I-580 and over to I-5 in the mornings, but drives back down I-80 to I-680 in the evenings.
Baker said she tries to come home to Dublin each night but ends up staying in her parents' West Sacramento home maybe once a week.
Her two-year-old minivan has 60,000-plus miles on it; most of those logged since taking office.
"I'm very fortunate to be in a district that's within driving distance (to Sacramento), so I can come home and stay a little better connected than maybe some colleagues who are there all week," Baker said.
The proximity allows her to work in the district Thursday afternoons, Fridays and Saturdays, attending events, meeting with local leaders and talking with constituents.
Such was the case June 25 when she visited downtown Pleasanton for a couple hours, stopping in three small businesses to chat with owners to, as she put it, "See what's up and what I can do to help."
She started at Noland's Cake Shop in the retail complex at 205 Main St., where she and owner Donna Yadron spoke about a variety of topics, including Yadron's support for more flexibility in California's stringent eight-hour workday requirements when agreed upon by workers and employers.
"That's the part that makes it just so difficult. Your hands are tied," Yadron said.
Baker moved a couple doors down into SchwÄn Violins and spoke with proprietor Bill Jeng, who advocated for more funding for music and arts in local schools.
The assemblywoman then hopped in her minivan and took the short drive to The English Rose on West Neal Street for a meeting with the owner and several residents.
Baker said the meet-and-greets helped her get a taste of the downtown owners' priorities and the local business climate.
"Things are definitely better. I mean, these are small businesses that really struggled in the downturn," she noted.
The first-term assemblywoman said she continues to learn about her district and has found a "consistency" in common priorities for constituents across the Tri-Valley -- transportation, water and education.
"These aren't really partisan or divisive issues," she added. "Maybe some of the solutions, people might differ. But this isn't an extreme district either way. You'll find folks who aren't interested in party ideology. They really want you to be solving an issue. They want results."
"I just hear about that constantly," Baker said, referring to resident feedback on the area's transportation infrastructure. "I see it, and frankly, I drive it and live it. The transportation system is really showing its wear and its lack of capacity for what the demand is."
To address transportation statewide, she and Republican colleagues unveiled a plan in late-June that calls for dedicating $6 billion in funding to improve California's transportation infrastructure without raising taxes or fees.
The proposal points to existing revenue sources and policy changes to help reach that financial goal, but it doesn't list specific ways to spend those funds.
According to Baker, it outlines the principles for "how do we take money we're already receiving from taxpayers and spend it more efficiently."
The next step, she said, is determining where to make those transportation investments, "working with colleagues to show them you can do this without raising taxes, and let's get specific."
The assemblywoman said she hasn't honed in on specific local projects but would like to see a focus on making the existing road and rail systems work more efficiently.
Constituents, she noted, often point to the need for improvements at driving hotspots -- highway interchanges in Walnut Creek (I-680 and Highway 24) and in Dublin-Pleasanton (I-580 and I-680).
She hopes to work to find ways to make the local I-680 corridor more efficient.
Baker said she hasn't taken a position on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) proposal to convert existing carpool lanes on I-680 through the San Ramon Valley into express lanes that would charge tolls during peak commute times, but she does think the MTC plan needs to be more detailed.
Commuter rail programs, BART and ACE train, are other areas Baker would like to explore.
She wants to look at whether BART trains are running efficiently and at the greatest possible capacity -- "are we getting 10- to 12-car trains during rush hour," she asked -- as well as finding ways to enhance the BART parking infrastructure.
Baker also remains focused on averting future BART work stoppages, a key issue during the Assembly campaigns in 2014 in the wake of two BART employee strikes during contract negotiations the year before.
After taking office, Baker's first bill was proposed legislation prohibiting BART employees from striking after their contract expires if the BART board maintains compensation and benefit provisions of the expired contract and if both sides agreed to a no-strike clause in that original contract.
Her Assembly Bill 528 remains in the Committee on Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security, but she said a vote is at least several months away.
"It is still alive, and it's gotten farther than any other proposal ever to address BART strikes in the legislature," she said.
"It is pretty dire, our water situation," Baker acknowledged.
"In general, the Tri-Valley has done really well with reducing water over 2013 levels. I think we're a good example across the state," she said. "But what we're doing in terms of extreme conservation is a short-term measure."
One key long-term strategy, according to Baker, is expediting water-storage projects -- above and below ground.
She pointed to streamlining the regulatory process, especially related to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), for water projects as a priority, to speed up these efforts rather than slow them down.
"You have to remember, our environmental regulations have the right goal: When we build something or do a project in our communities, we're going to have an environmental impact. We should always try to identify it and mitigate it and take care of our environment," Baker said. "But the statutes on the books now are beyond burdensome, and they're used as a weapon."
Baker also said she wants to see the state more efficiently allocate existing water-related funds, such as water bond proceeds, and to help California communities maximize recycled-water resources.
Public education on how to access free recycled water is vital, according to Baker.
"We might get the information about (recycled water), but where do we actually go to get the equipment -- to get a barrel in our minivan to home and then pump it on our lawn," she said.
"The schools are going to do better under the recently signed budget," Baker said of the 2015-16 state budget endorsed by Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislative majority.
But, the Dublin Republican argued, there are important areas of education still in need of better funding.
"The base grant is too low for the needs of students. And the cap on reserves is tying the hands of our school districts and how they plan for a rainy day. And also, adult education has been decimated," Baker said.
She also advocates for more support for educators at the local level, saying, "I continue to receive a good deal of feedback on how can we be doing better with the two greatest assets we have in our schools, and that's principals and teachers."
As vice chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, Baker said she continues to address, "How do we make sure higher education is accessible and affordable to Californians. No small challenge."
"I tend to focus on how we can be driving resources more efficiently at both UC and Cal State, and how we can get non-resident students a little less as the priority and make California students more the priority," she added.
State officials must also strive to provide improved funding and support for community colleges, according to Baker, who called Las Positas and Diablo Valley colleges "great resources" in her district.
"They are going to be seeing some more funding as well, but it's still the challenge of getting back from where we were several years ago," she said.
Nearing the halfway point of her first term, Baker said she continues to concentrate on her four legislative "pillars" -- education, infrastructure (including water and transportation), pro-job policies and "get our financial house in order."
Her committee assignments align closely to those priorities: Higher Education, Transportation, Business and Professions, Privacy and Consumer Protection, and Joint Legislative Audit.
But with Assembly members serving two-year terms, the upcoming midpoint puts Baker that much closer to her first re-election bid.
The campaign season is rapidly approaching, with June's top-two primary less than a year away, and a potential runoff the following November.
The election landscape will be different for Baker in 2016. She'll have one term and incumbency under her belt, and a bullseye on her back.
"I'll tell you, I'm the No. 1 target in the legislature for 2016 because my win in November was the seat that broke the two-thirds supermajority," the Republican acknowledged.
And the campaigning is underway, according to Baker.
"I have started already because I think you really have to work hard to earn the support of the community, and you shouldn't take a rest from that," she said.