The June 5 primary election is finally approaching, but Lieutenant Gov. Gavin Newsom has been running for California’s top office for a long time.
It was three years ago now that Newsom first threw his hat into a governor’s race that has since heated up, shaping into a battle between Northern and Southern California, and between two ambitious golden boys of state politics. A recent PPIC poll showed Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, with support from 23 percent of voters, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa only two points behind, with 21 percent, which was within the poll’s margin of error. The two are also up against State Treasurer John Chiang and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin.
Newsom swung through the South Bay earlier this month, just a couple days after San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo endorsed his chief rival in the 2018 race for governor. But the state’s second-in-command won support from a few other prominent Silicon Valley pols—namely, Congressman Ro Khanna, state Sen. Jim Beall and Assemblyman Ash Kalra.
San Jose Inside caught up with Newsom after a campaign meet-and-greet at the Laborers’ International Union Local 270, where he talked about education, tech, wealth inequality, clean energy and cannabis.
SJI: What was your reaction to Mayor Liccardo backing your opponent?
Newsom: In all my races, statewide races—I’ve had overwhelming support down here in San Jose. So we look forward to making the case again for governor. And I’m very grateful for the extraordinary elected officials that have stepped up and stepped in to help our campaign.
San Jose, like other major Bay Area cities, is ground zero for income inequality. How do you think we in Silicon Valley arrived at this point of extreme poverty in the shadow of plenty, and what steps would you take as governor to alleviate those problems?
The only substantive way we’re going to address this issue is you’ve got to begin at the beginning. Our interventions come too late. We’re playing catch up, we’re triaging it. At the end of the day, if we don’t focus on the first few precious years of a child’s life, we are making a huge mistake—and we’ve been doing that for a generation. The science is in, it’s overwhelming: billions and billions of neurons exploding at the same time; 85 percent of that brain is developed by the age of three. If you don’t capture a kid by the age of three, we’re going to be spending extraordinary amounts of money playing catch up.
So we have a huge focus on prenatal care, on nurse home visits, early intervention and those first three precious years. Obviously as mayor, I did universal preschool—fully implemented it. That’s profoundly important from a foundational perspective. But that’s, to me, my focus: the readiness gap, and not waiting for it to become an achievement gap.
Do you think that’s something California could do without federal funding?
We can. We’d love to see the federal government recognize what all the experts already know, but the state can amplify better behavior at the local level. Local government needs to significantly increase its investment, counties need to increase their investment, and certainly the state needs to incentivize that. And that’s a big part of what we want to do is incentivize better behavior at the local level.
I think what’s happened in the past is governors have done—we’ve modestly invested in this space, but not to the degree that I’m committed to. This is a very specific distinction between my campaign and the campaign of others, and between the status quo and what I hope to promote as the next governor.
How do you pay for something that ambitious?
It’s a question of priority. We did [universal] preschool in the middle of a recession as mayor. I did universal healthcare in the middle of a recession as mayor.
You garner a lot of support from Silicon Valley, the tech sector, and you’ve championed the tech industry as a way to solve some of the inequalities we’re grappling with. But in many ways, Silicon Valley has exacerbated these social ills. As governor, how would you hold the industry accountable to upholding its end of the social contract?
One of my closest friends, the godfather of my firstborn, Marc Benioff [CEO of Salesforce], is a shining example of someone who gets it and gets it done. Follow his example. He’s been an unbelievable leader. He’s walked his talk, on gender pay and pay equity, and environmental stewardship. He just announced what they’re doing with the Salesforce tower in terms of meeting LEED platinum levels, and the incredible water-efficiency proposals that he’s advancing. My point being that on issue after issue, on homelessness, philanthropy contribution, on what businesses can do in real time—not waiting until a massive amount of wealth is concentrated and then at the end of your life you redistribute it—he has marked, I think, the type of example others should follow.
Giving while living.
Yeah, and also, you know, amplifying the workforce to do the same individually—not just as an institution. It’s a way of saying this: Look, I’m very close, as you know, with a lot of leaders in the community, and there’s an empathy gap, and that needs to be closed, and I’m committed to working in the valley to address those issues. I’d like to see the kind of ingenuity, the entrepreneurial spirit put to address the issues of social mobility as it is for pushing out products and new iterations of releases.
And to see them repatriate their taxes?
Well, it’s also an opportunity—don’t think for a second that when I read Tim Cook’s announcement [about Apple’s plan to repatriate taxes in response to Republican tax cuts] that I didn’t’ think of many things that he could be doing in the state of California with those dollars to address those issues.
By the way, one of the big ways is to deal with the housing crisis in this region. That’s an issue that should immediately galvanize the tech community, particularly when it comes to the missing middle, to workforce housing. We’ve got a $4 billion housing bond that’s on the ballot, but only $300 million is for people earning 60 to 120 percent of [the median income]. So there’s an opportunity to reach out to the corporate sector and address some revolving loans to make up for the gaps in financing to make up for the gap in workforce housing. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity there to do this at scale—because with what we’re talking about, you can’t play in the margins, you can’t play small ball on affordability.
In that same vein, how do you plan to make sure local governments are building their share of affordable housing?
They need to be held to account. In our housing plan, we want to assign sanctions for those who aren’t meeting their housing element. We actually want to be punitive. You got to be tough. How? By withholding transit dollars.
I know the MTC [Metropolitan Transportation Commission] has talked about that for a long time.
Thank you. Yes, and we reference the MTC’s work in our plan. So we’re there. I was inspired by that, in fact. You’re the first person I’ve talked to who’s known that.
Would you sign a bill to repeal Costa Hawkins [the 1995 state law which limits locally written rent-control ordinances]?
I would promote amendments to Costa Hawkins. I don’t know that I would come out with an outright repeal. I think the consequences of that could be pronounced, particularly on housing production and construction. It could have a chilling effect.
That said, I take a back seat to no one on my strong support for rental protections, eviction protections, [owner move-in] Ellis Act—you couldn’t be mayor of San Francisco unless you were raising the bar on those issues. I think there’s a real deal to be made with the advocates of that repeal, and some of the larger organizations, from the realtors and the [California] Apartment Association. So I would encourage that.
Let’s talk about cannabis. One of the complaints we’re hearing from consumers is about the high cost of compliance, the high cost of regulation under Prop. 64, which appears to be prompting people to turn back to the black market. What do you think the state can do to strike the right regulatory balance, preventing illegal sales and keeping things above board?
Look, I was the principal proponent, principal author of cannabis legalization. I spent three years organizing an effort to get it on the ballot, and to get it passed, and I feel, as a consequence, a great sense of responsibility to make sure it’s done right.
I made this point on Election Day, but I’ll repeat it: Legalization is not an act that occurred on Election Day, November last year. It’s a process that will unfold over a course of years, and that’s why you’ve got to be open to argument, interested in the evidence, those kinds of concerns, and iterative in terms of those applications to the rules. As you know, in the initiative we allowed for a simple majority—or a modest majority, forgive me—to amend so we don’t have to go back in front of the voters. So we have the ability to address these issues in a way that won’t allow them to fester.
I’m worried about the small growers—absolutely, unequivocally. I’m worried about the black market being stubborn and persistent because of the regulatory environment, and I want to be in tune and in touch with that and address those issues in real time.
Speaking of which, can you comment on the lawsuit against the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), which came after the agency lifted acreage limits designed to protect small growers? There’s a concern that the rescission of the limit will discourage small-time operators from even complying with the new regulations. Do you know why that acreage limit was lifted in the first place and do you think it was justified?
Well, the governor took the spirit of what he believed was Proposition 64, and that was his framework for the first application of the rule-making. But I completely appreciate the concern because the spirit of what we were trying to achieve with the five-year prioritization was to protect those farmers.
I went up there personally, in Humboldt, and made that case to everybody there. So I feel a great sense of responsibility to have the backs of those folks, and I’m equally concerned. Again, it’s one of those instances where there’s only so much—well, I’m not the governor. I’m not making excuses, by the way, but respecting what the Legislature and the governor just did. I can assure you that at this time next year there will be some amendments.
Do you disagree with the CDFA’s interpretation?
I get the spirit of it, I see the argument. God, I am so black and white in so many ways—because I am the guy who said yes to legalization, marry gays, go after the NRA, etc. On this, though, there are legitimate arguments from both perspectives. I want in real time to see the evidence of what actually occurs on the ground—not what people are asserting, not what people are suggesting. I want to actually see what happens over the next few months when the dust settles. And I will be very, very sensitive to those facts on the ground and the reality of the situation, not the promoted concerns.
On clean energy, you’ve stated in your speeches that, “It’s a point pride and a point of principal for the next governor to change the bar.” In what ways would you raise that bar and turn Gov. Brown’s memoranda of understanding on these issues into actionable steps?
If the governor doesn’t sign a bill to get to 100 percent [clean energy] by 2045, then I will. I want to eliminate diesel by 2030. We have to move forward with regionalizing our grid. We’ve got to focus on storage enhancements. I want to double all local efforts.
Look, I’m the guy who did the plastic-bag ban, I was the one that presided over a city with the first composting requirements in the U.S. and the highest green building standards in the country. San Francisco was the national leader in low carbon green growth. Every year San Francisco is being called out as one of the greenest cities in the United States—if not literally the greenest. Portland, Ore., stubbornly, is right there with us. I’m passionate about these issues. Picking up where Gov. Brown left off is very exciting to me and enlivening, and so this is an area where no one has to convince me to maintain our leadership internationally, not just nationally.
You mentioned in your speech earlier that it’s important to put out a positive, alternative narrative to the Trump administration. What would that “positive, alternative narrative” look like in concrete terms?
All of the above. Everything we just said. From affordability, to healthcare, to the environment, to the issues of promoting our values and the diversity. The entire conversation is framed in terms of what we export that’s so uniquely California. We’re the innovation capital of the world, entrepreneurialism is running through our veins, research and development, diversity is celebrated not tolerated, environmental stewardship, issues associated with healthcare and taking some more aggressive and bold approaches to addressing the needs of our uninsured—all of these areas that I think would provide ample evidence of California’s dominance in terms of mind-share, in terms of economic growth, in terms of advancing our agenda for the future.
Santa Cruz Good Times News Editor Jacob Pierce also contributed to this report.