In our series of interviews with the candidates running for office in the November election, we speak with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom.
Q: Lt. Governor, you were born and raised in California. What does the California Dream mean to you?
A: I think the dream is about the ability to imagine one day replacing generationally the aspirations of your family and your parents. The fact is from one generation to the next generation, there’s a hope and an expectation of social mobility and the reality is the American Dream and increasingly the California Dream is a lie for too many people. And so the fact remains we have a lot of work to do, not just again in this state but in this country to reconcile that. Someone said to me the other day the American Dream is alive and well in Finland, not necessarily in the United States.
Q: How has the changing California Dream touched you personally?
A: It’s touched everybody. Aristotle said it best, “You can’t live a good life in an unjust society.” Not in this state with 134,000 people out there living on streets and sidewalks, quarter of the nation’s homeless, 24 percent of the nation’s homeless. Not in a state where we have such high childhood poverty. At or near poverty levels, north of 40 percent. That 19 percent of Californians who are struggling to make ends meet particularly because of the cost of living, which is ultimately a cost of housing. So the reality is we’re all better off when we’re all better off.
Q: How do you respond to some of your critics who say you’re too wealthy, too elite to really understand the struggles a lot of Californians are facing today?
A: The reality is that I grew up with a mom, a single mom as a teenager. And she raised me with nothing. She came from nothing, except hard work and grit and example. I had a severe learning disability, dyslexia. Went to public schools, many many different schools. Worked jobs without exception throughout my life. So there’s a mythology out there that somehow I was born at 22 years old when I opened my first business. And I’m very proud of that business because we were able to make a business grow from one part-time employee to now over 800 employees, 22 businesses.
Q: California is in the middle of a housing crisis. For the first time, a typical home in the state now costs over $600,000 and is out of reach for many people who live in this state. What will you do to build affordable housing?
A. We have a production problem. We're 49th out of 50 in per capita housing units, meaning we're just not building enough housing. We’ve averaged about 100,000 housing units per year, plus or minus. We need to be closer to 3, 4, 500,000 housing units over the next decade on an annual basis in order to address the legitimate affordability crisis that exists in California. At the end of the day, the state of California is just frankly resting on its laurels. We haven't been intentional in terms of addressing this issue. We haven't provided incentives and disincentives for communities that are not producing under their general plan enough housing units, pursuant to their housing element goals, which are required of municipalities large and small across this state.
Q: What did you learn as a mayor of San Francisco on this topic that you know you’d need to overcome as a governor?
A: Mayors may claim to care deeply about housing and they do but they’re incentivized perversely through the nature of tax allocation for big box retail. Our goal is to get 3 ½ million housing units over the next decade or so, plus or minus. In order to incentivize good behavior, I think we have to look at that tax allocation very differently. And that’s a hurdle for mayors and county administrators to reconcile because we’re used to that allocation of resources but I think you need to change the incentive structure so cities can get back more aggressively in the housing business, accordingly.
Q: The state’s renters are also hurting. More than half are spending over a third of their income on rent. Another third are paying more than half. What’s the solution?
A: The solution is more housing. Now, it’s not the state’s job to build housing. It’s the state’s job to create conditions where the private sector invests in new housing production and that’s why we laid out 15 specific strategies on land use fiscalization, on zoning around transit quarters, enhanced infrastructure, financing districts, taking affordable housing tax credits from 85 to 500 million dollars, focusing on the workforce housing.
Q: Where do you stand on rent control?
A: You couldn’t be mayor of San Francisco if you didn’t support rent control. I couldn’t have survived one term.
Q: California has 134,000 people living on the streets, the highest of any state in the country. What hasn’t the state tried, that you’d push for?
A: What you’re experiencing in California is not a California problem. It’s a national problem. I’ve spent a great deal of time on this issue. I was successful as a former mayor of getting over 10,000 people off the streets, quite literally over 10,000 people, quite closer to 12. One of the key goals that I have is to bring an agency director into the cabinet of the administration to elevate the status and elevate our efforts to address the blended need for interventions meaning right now, a lot of our interventions on homelessness are siloed. Every county probably has a dozen such agencies that are somehow responsible to connect in one way shape or form to address the issue of an individual. We need to look at this from a whole person care perspective. And by the way, homelessness can be solved. For people who think it can’t be solved, they’re simply wrong. And I can prove to them that’s the case because tens of thousands of people in this state are no longer homeless because our interventions have worked.
Q: The middle class is vital to a healthy economy. But California’s middle class is shrinking. What’s your plan to rebuild the middle class?
A: You’ve got to deal with the issue of affordability which is substantively a housing crisis, a housing issue and more production. More preservation of existing housing stock, working against the pressures of gentrification and prevention efforts, I think, will begin to address that issue. It can’t be done overnight but that substantively will address that squeeze on the middle class that millions and millions of Californians are feeling.
Q: California has been hyper-successful at creating highly skilled, high paying jobs. But many companies that pay middle class incomes have left. How do you intend to bring similar companies into the state and or help create new industries that can support a middle-class lifestyle?
A: We’re still the largest manufacturing state in America. And it’s important to remind people of that. Obviously, we need to do more and we need to do better. Wages are a big part of that. I have an economic and workforce development plan. And we’ve laid out as a paradigm, economic development plans in 14 regions of this state. We call it regions rising together. Each economic region is unique and distinctive from one another and our goal is this that the vision for economic growth cannot be realized from Sacramento and that vision can’t be sent down. It’s a bottom up vision that will be realized at the local level.
Q: And yet some economists say the state is headed toward a feudal economy with the super rich on one end and workers in low-paying service jobs on the other and a welfare state that will make up the difference to enable people to get by. Is that a doomsday prediction?
A: Yeah. I see the trendlines and those trendlines exist around the world, not just in the United States or in California. And that’s a big part of globalization and IT detonating at the same time. The nature of work has changed, not just as it relates to automation but new work styles, new arrangements. And the commensurate benefits that you used to get having a career are gone particularly in a gig economy when you’re working at TaskRabbit and you’re working at Postmates and then you’re doing a part-time gig at Lyft. And you’re not getting the commensurate workers’ comp benefits and benefits in health care, retirement benefits . And so we’re going to have to reconcile that, portable benefits, new strategies on enhanced earnings, earned income tax credit, child tax credits. We have a lot of plans in that space. I don’t, with all due respect to economists, accept their analysis because theirs is an intellectual analysis. They may predict certain things but we’re not bystanders in the world, we have agency. We can set a different course.
Q: California is the richest state in the U.S. But at 19 percent, the state also has the highest poverty rate. Two million children in the state live in poverty. Some say the problem is solvable. It’s just a matter of political will. Do you agree?
A: One hundred percent. All of this is a matter of political will. We’ve allowed these conditions to persist. And child poverty is the ultimate manifestation of our failure. Homelessness and child poverty, I would argue are the twin manifestations, the ultimate expression of our failure as Americans, not just Californians. So the question is what are we going to do about it? I’ve made ending childhood poverty my North Star. In fact, all my campaign commercials are not attacking my opponent, they’re about attacking this issue of child poverty. And the way you address the issue of child poverty, you’ve got to begin at the beginning. So we have to focus on prenatal care, early Head Start, reading to our kids, talking to our kids, counting to our kids, playing with our kids, singing to our kids.
Q: One in five seniors in California are living in poverty. As a wave of baby boomers move into retirement over the next decade without enough savings to live on, how can the state help those people while not overburdening taxpayers?
A: Number one, we need a long-term ageing plan in the state of California. I’m committed to doing that. Number two, we need to prepare our workforce because right now we have an LVN and an RN shortage. Number three, we have to deal with the fact that we’re bed locked by 2021, 2022 in terms of the facilities needed for those that cannot stay in place in their communities. We also need a strategy for in-home supportive services which is one of the best cost-effective programs out there that allow people including family members to be caregivers and be compensated for that caregiving to allow some supplemental income so they can take care of dad or they can take care of mom and the like. All of that is part and parcel of a responsibility not just for the next governor but I hope the next president in the next two years to act on this more broadly. But in California we will lead if the nation doesn’t.
Q: You’ve made the California Dream your campaign theme. But there’s a lot of angst in this state over housing, wages and homelessness. How do you instill hope in a way that has substance?
A: You look at the evidence. We have the lowest unemployment rate in history. We’re debating the size of surpluses. We’ve got 100 consecutive months of net job growth. We lead in every factor of innovation. We have more scientists, more researchers, more engineers, more Nobel Laureates, more patents emanating, more startups emanating out of California than any other place on the globe. We have the finest system of higher education of anywhere in the world. We’re the most diverse state in the world’s most diverse economy. We’re hardly perfect. We have these stubborn issues, poverty driven disproportionately by cost of living. You address the housing issue in a substantive significant way, begin to address the growth framework of early interventions as it relates to poverty eradication. California’s best days will not be behind it. They will absolutely be in front of it. At the end of the day, income and wealth disparity, the issue of social mobility connected to the dream is the issue of our time but it will be addressed in an enlightened way by not taking down the spirit and pride of Californians.