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A former Obama Administration official, Elizabeth has a long history of public service, including leadership positions in park, recreation, and environmental policy issues. In 2016, Governor Jerry Brown first appointed her to serve as Director of the Public Advocates Office. In this role, she joined a team of senior environmental advisors in combatting climate change and preserving the natural environment for generations to come. Most recently, her policy work has primarily focused on wildfire prevention and mitigation. Her expertise on environmental policy and wildfire safety issues provides a valuable perspective as the East Bay Parks Board continues to plan for the impacts of climate change.
Elizabeth previously served as Director of the U.S. Green Building Council for Northern California (USGBC) where she worked with legislators, labor, industry, and environmental groups across the state to pass legislation to protect our environment and create green jobs. She also founded USGBC California to influence state legislation and regulations by bringing together the eight USGBC chapters in California to speak with one voice in Sacramento.
In a volunteer capacity, Elizabeth serves as a Commissioner on the City of Berkeley Children, Youth, and Recreation Commission. Their mission is to achieve equity in policies, programs, activities, and funding associated with youth, family, recreation, and education programs. She volunteers weekly in the Berkeley Public Schools helping children learn to read and is an active member of the Parent Teacher Association. She is a longtime elected member of the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee.
Elizabeth holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Political Science from Yale University and a Juris Doctor from Stanford Law School. Elizabeth met her husband on a Sierra Club hike in Tilden Park. They live in Berkeley with their daughter and regularly enjoy the East Bay Parks.
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Attorney at Law
Elizabeth Echols / Louis Goodman - Podcast Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: Hello, and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer. Where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I'm a lawyer. Nobody's perfect.
She grew up hiking with her family in the East Bay regional parks. She began her extensive career in public service as a junior ranger and camp counselor in Tilden Park. She later served in the Obama administration and more recently, former Governor Jerry Brown appointed her to a team of senior environmental advisors. Her policy work has focused on wildfire prevention and mitigation.
She volunteers in the Berkeley Public Schools. She's an attorney [00:01:00] and currently running for the East Bay Regional Parks Board, Elizabeth Echols, Welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Elizabeth Echols: Thank you very much. It's wonderful to be here today.
Louis Goodman: Well, it's a real honor to talk to you. In my introduction, I just touched on some of the things that you've done in your long career, in public service. And didn't get to any of the endorsements and some of the other important things that anyone is involved in, in running for office. But I'm hoping that we can get to that as we discuss some things this afternoon. What are you working on these days?
What do you, where do you, what are you working on besides running for East Bay Regional Parks Board right now?
Elizabeth Echols: Director of the State's Public Advocate's office. We are an independent watchdog organization. We are situated at the Public Utilities Commission, but, we are independent and I report to Governor Newsom’s [00:02:00] office.
Well, this is actually the same position that Jerry Brown appointed me to back in 2016. So I have been there now going on, well, it'll be five years in early next year.
Louis Goodman: And what sorts of things do you focus on in that job?
Elizabeth Echols: is to achieve the lowest possible rates for the state's utility customers, consistent with safety reliability and the state's environmental goals. I manage nearly 180 staff.
Louis Goodman: Where are you from originally?
Elizabeth Echols: I grew up, we moved here when, when I was nine years old and, lived mostly in Berkeley since then. Spent some time in Oakland as well. And some time in Washington, D C but locally grown. Raised in Berkeley.
I went to Berkeley High School. It was great. It was really great. I went all the way through the Berkeley schools, starting with what is now for the parks. And it was Columbus back then, but yeah, Rosa Parks [00:03:00] and then I King Middle School and then Berkeley High School.
Louis Goodman: And after you got out of Berkeley, where'd you go to college?
Elizabeth Echols: I went to Yale University for College where I majored in Economics and Political Science.
Louis Goodman: What did you think about being back East after having grown up in Berkeley?
Elizabeth Echols: Well, the interesting thing is I always wanted to go back East. Maybe I wanted to get as far away as possible from my parents or maybe it was just perhaps it was an idea that my grandmother put in my head as she lived in Virginia. And we used to visit her in Virginia every year.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. When you got out of Yale, you ultimately went to law school. Did you do that right away or did you take some time off?
Elizabeth Echols: I took some time off and among other things, I had a fellowship to study in Australia. So I spent some time in Australia doing graduate work in international economics, focusing, [00:04:00] particularly on the Pacific Rim Countries, Canberra, which is the capital of Australia.
Louis Goodman: Right. And when did you decide that you wanted to go to law school?
Elizabeth Echols: Well, according to my mother, it was probably in at least by junior high. So that was part of my plan for a long time.
Louis Goodman: And were you involved in like debate and theater or that sort of thing when you were in junior high?
Elizabeth Echols: I was involved in a lot of student government.
And how my mother puts it is I was always a really good negotiator.
Louis Goodman: So you've always been a politician running for office and negotiating?
Elizabeth Echols: Yeah, I did actually. I ran for office the first time when I was in the ninth grade.
Louis Goodman: What prompted you to like, you know, start thinking about really going to law school?
Like when did you think, like, okay, I'm really going to apply. I'm going to do this. I'm going to take the LSAT. I'm going to go.
Elizabeth Echols: I think pretty much all the way [00:05:00] through Junior High and High School, I was serious about law school pretty early on probably junior high.
Louis Goodman: How much time went by the time that between the time you graduated from college and the time you started law school. And was that whole time in Australia?
Elizabeth Echols: No, I spent a couple years in New York and about another six months in Japan and then went to Australia after that.
Louis Goodman: So you decided to go to law school and where did you go to law school?
Elizabeth Echols: I went to Stanford for law school. It was great. It was a beautiful spot and I felt very fortunate because it's a school where the classes are small and they're there only when there were only 172 students all together in the whole graduating class for my year. But I think what was really the best thing is I just had some incredible roommates [00:06:00] and friends, and that was actually the best part of law school is just the people.
Louis Goodman: And when you got out of Stanford, what was your first legal job?
Elizabeth Echols: I went back to Washington DC after graduating from Stanford.
Louis Goodman: And where's that? And what kind of work did you do there?
Elizabeth Echols: The reason why I wanted to go work in Washington DC. Well, first of all, I had huge debts to retire, so I didn't have any option of going straight into public service. So the plan was to go and get some good experience and pay down my debt and then move into government.
And so it was actually a hard decision for me, deciding whether to take a job in San Francisco or Washington D C, but because I was so interested in politics in the legislative process, I decided I would go to Washington D C and in fact, I was able to work on some pretty interesting public [00:07:00] international law issues in particular.
Eventually come back to California for a while, actually, not for a while because I stayed, I stayed at Steptoe until I, well, when I got involved in the Bill Clinton campaign, when he was running for President. And then after he got elected and I volunteered on the transition team and then after he got elected, I was asked to come and join the administration and then spent seven years in the Clinton Administration.
Before returning back to the Bay area.
Louis Goodman: What did you do in the Clinton Administration?
Elizabeth Echols: Well, I started out working actually initially in export control issues, but pretty quickly moved over to, at the time brand new area of the internet. And at that time, that [00:08:00] Vice President Gore was talking about the information infrastructure, the global information infrastructure.
So our goal was to allow them the internet to grow and deliver information and economic opportunity while making sure that there were regulations in place that would protect people's financial privacy, their health, privacy, and our children on the internet .
Louis Goodman: What was it like to work for those guys to work with Clinton and Gore.
I mean, you know, you really had an up close and personal look at the administration.
Elizabeth Echols: They're both amazing people, just both of them are brilliant. President Clinton had a mind like a computer, that kinds of things that he would just process at once hold both President Clinton and Vice President and Gore are absolutely brilliant people. And it was really incredible to spend time with both of them. [00:09:00] I remember one time I got to travel all the way from Washington, D C to Japan with Bill Clinton on Air Force One. And on the way back, he was in a really good mood. He was kind of hanging out and talking about things and it was just incredible to see how his mind worked, because not only was he brilliant on the policy issues and the strategy issues, but he just, his mind was like a computer the way he remembered everything about all of the different Presidents and Prime Ministers that he'd been talking to, and he knew all about them and their families and their wives and all of their histories and, and the way he could process things was really, really extraordinary. I should say is really extraordinary.
Louis Goodman: So you had mentioned that when Vice President Gore didn't win the Presidency, you came back to the Bay Area, right?
Elizabeth Echols: Well, then I still had this [00:10:00] passion around the internet and how we could use the internet to create opportunities for people. I'd worked on issues around the digital divide, but for me it wasn't just getting people connected to the internet.
And so I had an opportunity to take over a nonprofit organization in San Francisco called Community Ventures, and we train low income people, low income young adults on internet, web design and web programming and help them get really great jobs in the internet industry.
Louis Goodman: You've run for office, correct?
Elizabeth Echols: I can get you to the part of where I ran for office.
And so I, from some of my work at Avnet, I eventually took a position with Google because at the time on Google was still in its younger years and I was attracted by its vision to take all of the world's [00:11:00] information and organize it and make it accessible to everyone. And so I went to work for Google for a period of time.
And then it was actually when Al Gore was beginning his, well, I guess you could call it his tour with his power point on later became the movie, the Inconvenient Truth. He came to Google to present his PowerPoint on climate change, and I listened to what he had to say and all of the data around what he was talking about.
And that's when I said, Oh my goodness. That's what I need to be spending my time and talents on is this climate change crisis? Surely after that, I, I left Google and found a position at the U.S. Green Building Council and was director of the U.S. Green Building Council for Northern California. I was running the Oakland [00:12:00] United Democratic Campaign.
And this was when President Obama was running. And there was this huge excitement. I mean, we had like businessmen and homeless people literally working together on this coordination, democratic campaign. And I'll never forget. It was about 10 days before the election and I was ------ and she's sitting at my dining room table and is sort of mapping out some strategies for our coordinated campaign and the phone rings and I pick it up and
someone who I never met before and said, Oh, is this Elizabeth? And it's like, Should Senator Obama win on election day, would you be willing to come to Washington and work on his transition? And so then we had a conversation about it and then I, you know, I think I was still sort of surprised cause then at the end of the conversation, I was like, okay, well let me think about it and I'll get back to you. And it just so happened that I was meeting [00:13:00] with, I guess then Assembly Woman, Lonnie Hancock. Uh, later that day and I told her that strange she's like, Oh, there are you kidding me.
You need to call him back right away. So, you know, so yeah, so she was right. And I did, and I had the opportunity to go into DC and be a member of the Obama/ Biden transition team in San Francisco.
Louis Goodman: So did you work for Obama for his full eight years that he was there?
Elizabeth Echols: No, because here's when I left to run for the assembly.
Louis Goodman: What prompted you to leave the Obama Administration and run for office?
Elizabeth Echols: I had been interested in serving in an elected capacity and was really looking for the right opportunity. And this seemed to be the right opportunity because the issues that I wanted to address, like educational opportunity and economic [00:14:00] opportunity and protecting our environment and climate change.
Those were issues that seemed best addressed at the state level. And so I already had that in mind.
Louis Goodman: So how did that go?
Elizabeth Echols: It went well for most of the campaign until the very end, but it went well. I you know, I'd never run for office before and I put a whole wonderful campaign together.
Got to know just so many partners from the community, from labor, from a whole range of stakeholders that joined together to support my campaign. It was a really incredible coalition and it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed talking to people and learning from people. I haven't even tried fundraising for a while.
It was kind of, I just thought of it as this kind of fun, you know, call my friends, [00:15:00] call people. I didn't know very, and then we had to unfortunately do this, this top two and, and this was the first time, at least for our assembly district. But anyone had to do the top two. And that was really hard because I liked Tony Iris. Tony, and it's just hard running against someone who you like and who really isn't that different from you on the issues.
So it was a very strange experience and not having a demo on the general election. And I did in the end, I lost. And that was, you know, that was hard, but life goes on.
Louis Goodman: So what have you been doing since then?
Elizabeth Echols: So after that, I had the wonderful opportunity to work for Governor Brown. I'm director of what is now the Public Advocate's Office, and then stayed on in that role under Gavin Newsom.
Then January of this year, [00:16:00] I was appointed Director of the East Bay Regional Park District Board for ward one to fill the remaining term. After Director Whitney Dotson had retired. That is what's been keeping me busy.
Louis Goodman: Right now you are already an East Bay Regional Park Director. Is that correct?
Elizabeth Echols: Yes, that's correct. Yes. I was appointed in January.
Louis Goodman: Who actually made that appointment? How do you get that appointment to director?
Elizabeth Echols: Whitney Dodson decided to retire. The board opened up a process and put out the word that they were looking for people to apply. And I believe about 16 people applied originally, and then they narrowed the group down to eight for interviews, and then they narrowed it down again for four to have interviews at a special board meetings. So this was an interesting [00:17:00] process where you're actually, it's almost like a job interview, but you've got like a whole, you got the board interviewing there and then you've got like a whole room of people, like a hundred people watching the interview. So yeah, so that's, that's what happened.
There were four finalists, including me, the Board asked their questions and we answered our questions and their questions. And then the Board voted and they voted unanimously to appoint me as the next Director for Ward One.
Louis Goodman: I mean, we’ll let me just comment here that you know, we've talked before going on the podcast and I just told you that I’m very pleased, that you are involved with the East Bay Regional Parks, because I know how caring you are and how competent you are and how much I care about the East Bay Regional Parks, because I really think that they're one of the great jewels of living in the East Bay. So I'm happy personally that you're there and [00:18:00] I do hope that you get reelected.
Elizabeth Echols: Thank you. That's very kind and I couldn't agree more. We're so lucky. It's we have over 125,000 acres of Parkland here in the East Bay that's managed by the East Bay Regional Park District Board. This is the largest regional park system in the entire country. And it's beautiful. I said, it's beautiful. And I want to make it even bigger and even more beautiful. You know, I think it's important when we get the opportunity to acquire more land, because if we don't acquire it, it will be developed and lost forever.
So I want to continue to acquire land, but then also make the parks more accessible for everyone in our community,
Louis Goodman: Regional parks also have a lot of access to the Bay. There's a lot of beaches and water areas.
[00:19:00] Elizabeth Echols: Yes, 55 miles of shoreline along the Bay. So yes, it's fantastic. And one of the things that I'm really proud about this past summer, we were able to open up the Albany Beach and new trail. The new trail connects a one month or actually I should say that the trail closes a one mile gap between Berkeley and Albany, so that now you can walk all the way from Oakland to Richmond or ride your bike or run all the way from Oakland to Richmond.
Louis Goodman: You're talking about that path that's behind the racetrack?
Elizabeth Echols: Exactly. Yeah, just a beautified. And if you've gone on it,
Louis Goodman: okay. I've been there. It's beautiful. And it really came out nicely. It really just, it's just a great piece of construction. Well, it's obvious that you really enjoy public service and that you've worked in government pretty much your whole [00:20:00] life.
I'm wondering if you would recommend it to a young person as a career choice?
Elizabeth Echols: Well, I would. I think, you know, for me, it's important to find your passion and if you're lucky enough to have a job that you enjoy, that instead of the best thing ever.
Louis Goodman: Do you have a 30 second elevator speech for this job?
Elizabeth Echols: It may be a little bit more than 30 seconds.
Louis Goodman: I've always heard politicians have an elevator speech. So
Elizabeth Echols: yeah, but more than this is a one-minute ride. And then give me my one minute ride your representative on the East Bay Region Park District Court. I listened to the needs of our communities and deeply committed to preserving the natural and cultural heritage of our parks and providing open space trails and recreational opportunities for our diverse community.
My commitment to our parks states back to childhood when I served as a junior ranger. Since that time I've dedicated my life to public service with [00:21:00] leadership positions in environmental policy, parks and recreation from serving in the Obama Administration to implementing environmental policies has head of our State's Public Advocate's Office.
I have the experience to be an effective steward for our parks and ensure that the park district is working for you. I'm proud to be endorsed by prominent community leaders like Congressman Mark, this all named State Superintendent, Tony Thurman, State Senator Nancy Skinner, and all of my colleagues on the East Bay Parks Board.
Please visit Elizabeth for parks.org to learn more. I'd be honored to have your vote. Thank you.
Louis Goodman: Yeah, that came in right at about 50 seconds. Was there anything in particular that you would change about the way the park system works? And you touched on this a little bit earlier, but do you think that in doing so it meets the needs of the community?
Elizabeth Echols: I think that there's more that we need to do to create access for our underserved communities. A lot of our parks [00:22:00] are further away from the inner city. And so it's harder for folks to get there, especially if they don't have their own transportation. So some of the things that I'm interested in seeing is, well, first of all, to expand Parkland that is in close proximity to underserved communities and in particular there's opportunities to continue to convert industrial land to Parkland, especially along the North Richmond Shoreline also to increase the summer and year round opportunities for youth.
Louis Goodman: We talked a lot about recreation as kind of a community thing. How about yourself? What about you and your family and what sort of recreational pursuits do you yourself like?
Elizabeth Echols: Well, my husband and I met on a hike in Tilden. So that's where we got our start. And I love walking with my daughter in the park.
Louis Goodman: What kinds of things keep you up at night? What do you worry [00:23:00] about?
Elizabeth Echols: Boy, a lot right now. Well I'm worried, I worry about my daughter. I worry about my daughter, you know, being able to learn what she needs to learn. I think the Berkeley Schools are excellent and they're doing a fabulous job with this distance learning, but it's still very hard. You know, she is six years old. She's an extremely social exuberant little girl. And it's just, you know, to have her locked up in the house with mom and dad, it's just, it's hard. It's really hard.
Louis Goodman: If you came into some real money, a couple of billion dollars, what, if anything, would you do different in your life?
Elizabeth Echols: A couple of billion.
Louis Goodman: I mean, you know, three, $4 billion, real money
Elizabeth Echols: First of all, then I could buy the Parkland that I would like to buy I'd go out and buy Point Molate right now.
[00:24:00] We wouldn't have to fight about sometimes we can just go buy it and give it to the Park District to run, but City of Richmond could have its money. So that would be, that would be great. But, on a broader scale, I think I would put some type of foundation or nonprofit together that it really brought some experts together to, to figure out how do we solve, you know, how do we solve some of the deepest challenges that we face?
Louis Goodman: Let's say you had a magic wand and there was one thing in the world that you could change in the park world, in the world of Washington DC and just society in general and anything in the legal system. I mean, you know, you've had a lot of experience. What one thing would you like to wave your magic wand at and change things?
Elizabeth Echols: I think I would make our elected representatives look like the people they represent. So [00:25:00] they would be 55% women and a whole range of races and ethnicities and sexual orientation and everything else. So I, you know, that's what I would do, because I think if you did that and if you did that globally, that we would have a really different world.
Louis Goodman: What's one thing you wish you had known before you got into all of this,?
Elizabeth Echols: Trying to think of what it is. It has something to do with, I don't think he's in something you have to know in advance, but I think it is something that you learn as a candidate. It is surprising who, who your real friends are.
No, I think that's one thing about running for office. It is you do see. The crew, the people who really are your friends and loyalty, you and are going to stick by you and who are the people who are just, you know, want to be involved because it may help them. [00:26:00] So I think that's maybe one thing I've learned.
Louis Goodman: Yeah. You know, I mean, I've ran for office. You know, 10 years ago. And it was, I mean, for me, it was just a really different, and I don't know, it was just kind of a crazy experience for me really, you know, and I couldn't believe some of the people who really came out and helped me. And I couldn't believe some of the people who didn’t.
Elizabeth Echols: Exactly.
It's surprising. It's not the same. It's not necessarily how you had originally cared that had her guys them in your mind. You know, it's interesting. You definitely find out who your true friends are, but also who your true who the people are, who really do what they say they're going to do, you know, who are the people you can rely on to be there for you?
Louis Goodman: Yeah, I agree. Elizabeth Echols, Thank you so much for joining me this afternoon on Love Thy Lawyer. I've really enjoyed [00:27:00] talking to you.
Elizabeth Echols: Well, likewise, thank you so much for having me. This has been fun and thank you for taking the time to talk with me this afternoon.
Louis Goodman: That's it for today's episode of Love Thy Lawyer. Many thanks to my guests who contributed their time and wisdom and make this show possible.
Bryan Matheson, Tracey Harvey. I'm Louis Goodman.
Elizabeth Echols: That's why I just kind of skip over it because no one has ever asked me except for you. So you're good. You're a good journalist, but yeah,
Louis Goodman: we'll leave this out.