Here are the biggest problems the next governor will face.
By Tim Redmond, for Capital and Main
There are 46 people who think they should replace Gavin Newsom as governor of California.
Most of them have no idea what they would be getting into.
Sure, a couple of candidates—like former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer—actually have some experience in government. But even real estate developer (and losing 2018 gubernatorial candidate) John Cox, who is famously running with a live, 1,000-pound Kodiak bear (a beast, by the way, not native to California), might quickly realize that the job they would take on is, well, a bear.
California is hard to govern in the best of times; it’s a massive state split by all sorts of political divides. There’s north versus south, rural versus urban, progressive Democrats versus moderate Democrats, business versus the environment, and not enough water for all those competing for it: cities, suburban lawns, and the $50 billion agriculture industry.
The state has radical economic inequality: At last count, 189 billionaires lived in California, and every major city has a soaring population of homeless people.
COVID-19 cases continue rising, and nobody knows if it’s really safe to have kids back in public schools—which are already radically underfunded.
Oh, and the state’s on fire.
In other words, the stakes we are facing in this recall are frighteningly high.
Newsom—despite granting the nation’s first marriage licenses to gay couples in 2004 as mayor of San Francisco—has always been a moderate Democrat, friendly with big business interests. But there’s a massive chasm between Newsom—who believes in science and is willing to spend money on public health, homelessness, and education—and the leading Republican candidates who would like to replace him.
Here are the top 10 problems the governor—whether it’s Newsom who keeps his job or one of the candidates who wants to replace him—will face in the next 14 months. (Yes: In just 14 months, the person who survives the Sept. 14 recall will be on the ballot again.)
1. Public Health
This, of course, is the dominant issue in the recall, which got a lot of traction after Newsom foolishly went to a dinner with corporate lobbyists while the rest of us were supposed to shelter in place. But the incumbent governor has overall followed the advice of doctors and public health experts, has issued mask and vaccine mandates, and treats COVID-19 as a serious crisis. At this point, more than 80% of eligible Californians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Larry Elder, the Los Angeles talk show host who leads the polls among GOP candidates to replace Newsom, vowed (at an Aug. 22 rally in Fresno) to repeal all mask and vaccine mandates. It’s impossible to overstate the danger that would pose to millions of vulnerable Californians.
2. Housing and Homelessness
At least 160,000 people (as of January 2020) are living on the streets of California, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, mostly in cities. More than half of the state’s renters pay more than 30% of their income for housing. You literally have to be rich to buy a house in most big California cities.
The YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyarders who advocate for more, denser housing) are generally allies of Newsom, but say the state has to deregulate housing to allow developers to build more. The only real solution, most progressive housing advocates say, is more regulation—better rent control and eviction protections—and a lot more nonmarket housing. But the real estate industry is among the most powerful lobbies in the state capital, so fixing the housing crisis will require tremendous political skill—and courage.
But he has promised an unprecedented $12 billion in this year’s budget to address homelessness and build affordable housing; most Republican candidates would get rid of that.
In fact, Cox says he wants to make it easier for the state to force homeless people into conservatorships and use more police to clear out homeless encampments—when there is often nowhere else for the inhabitants to go.
Climate change has caused severe drought across the state and upset the industrial plumbing that allows almonds and rice to grow in the desert; golf courses to thrive in dry, 100° summer heat; and cities to import enough to provide drinking water, showers, and car washes for the 35 million people who live in urban areas. Meanwhile, sucking fresh cool water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of the state’s water system, is destroying salmon runs.
The situation was unsustainable in the best of times; now it’s impossible. Something has to give—and the next governor has to deal with the political pressure of the corporate agriculture industry and the political pressure of cities and suburbs over a resource that simply can’t serve them all.
So far, Newsom has refused to abandon environmental protections to serve Big Ag. Cox, Elder, and Faulconer want to build more dams.
California used to have one of the best public education systems in the country. Then came Prop. 13 and tax-cutting—and now the state has among the worst public schools in the country. These days, the system is somewhat privatized: The residents of wealthy suburban communities raise enough private money to support their own public schools, while poor urban areas can barely afford to pay teachers. Much of this is related to race: As Heather McGhee points out in The Sum of Us, white people have historically resisted paying taxes to fund services like education for people of color, who will soon be the majority in California.
Newsom’s most recent budget includes a historic increase in spending on public education at all levels. Cox and Elder are both big fans of charter schools and want to cut funding for the University of California. Faulconer is also a fan of private sector solutions to education.
Most of the electricity in California is controlled by private companies. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has been responsible for several of the worst fires in the state; the company, courts have found, doesn’t properly maintain its power lines (diverting tree-trimming money to executive bonuses, in some cases). A sustainable energy future is going to be based on electricity—but private companies seeking profit aren’t going to move quickly to renewables. So the next governor needs to figure out how to break up the likes of PG&E, create new public power agencies, and rebuild the grid. While Newsom has a climate agenda, none of the major Republican candidates have much of an energy platform. It’s as if climate change and the state’s energy future aren’t an issue for them.
6. Criminal Justice
California has 737 people on death row, almost all of whom will die of something else before (if) they are executed. The prisons are packed with people, mostly Black men, who were locked up for long sentences during the Three Strikes Era. Many were imprisoned for fairly minor crimes; some may be entirely innocent. The state prison system alone costs taxpayers $15 billion a year—enough to build affordable housing and provide education and job training to every homeless person in the state.
Newsom has declared a moratorium on executions, which almost any of the GOP candidates would almost certainly lift. Elder, who is Black, argues that there is no such thing as anti-Black racism in the criminal justice system. All of the GOP candidates favor increasing funding for police. And remember: The governor appoints all appellate-level judges, including members of the state Supreme Court.
The wildfires are wreaking destruction and disruption all over the state. Newsom inherited much of the disaster, which comes from decades of failed fire-control policies and global climate change. There are so many connected issues here that it’s hard to even start making a list, so let’s just look at one: The California Air Resources Board.
That’s the agency that tells car companies how high their mileage standards and how low the tailpipe emissions have to be. That decision has huge national implications—the standards set in the nation’s largest auto market quickly become the standards everywhere. And that, in turn, has an impact on global climate change. Can you imagine what sort of person the right-wing GOP candidates would appoint to run that agency?
8. Climate Justice
Newsom has long acknowledged that climate change is real, that it’s caused by human activities, and that the state has a major role to play in addressing it. He’s pushing to phase out gas-powered cars by 2035.
It took him a while, but he’s finally agreed that fracking has to end in the state. The leading Republicans all kind of, sort of say that climate change is real, but they refuse to support any measures that would actually decarbonize the state. Elder’s plan is to restore nuclear power in the state.
9. Racial Justice
Newsom has generally supported efforts in the state legislature to start addressing systemic racism in California, including the creation of the state’s first task force to study and make recommendations on reparations. The simple step of eliminating racist standardized tests at the University of California has increased the number of African Americans accepted to the top state schools. Elder, as noted, says he doesn’t believe racism really exists in the U.S.
10. Economic Inequality
For most of Newsom’s career, he’s been cautious at best about taxing the rich. But he at least acknowledges that, as he put it recently, “The people on the top are doing pretty damn well.”
And he’s not talked about cutting any taxes. Cox wants the largest tax cut in modern state history.
Faulconer also trumpets huge tax reductions for the top earners.
Yes, the next governor will face voters again in November 2022. But a far-right governor can do a lot of damage in 14 months. That’s what’s really at stake Sept. 14.
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