Calif. governor’s race: Gavin Newsom interview

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is seen as the frontrunner in the race to be the state’s next governor. The Democrat has a solid lead in most of the polls. Newsom talks about his run for governor and his ambitious agenda. He plans to build millions of new housing units and get a single-payer health care system off the ground, despite an estimated $400 billion price tag.

KCRW: OK so, make your point. Why should you be the next governor of California. Will it be four more years of Jerry Brown, essentially?

GN: No, I want to build on Jerry Brown’s legacy. I think he did a remarkable job at solvency and triaging in the state, and we’re debating no longer deficits, now, we’re debating the sizes of surpluses. I think he’s done a remarkable job, but for me the issue that is the stubborn issue, that’s an issue that’s bigger than even the state of California, is the issue of the haves and the have-nots. In California, we, as we all know, are in the richest, now the fifth largest economy in the world and the poorest state in this country.

Eight million people living below the poverty line and depending on you look at supplemental poverty index, by some estimates, 46 percent of our kids are at or near poverty levels. That’s a disgrace. That issue has to be addressed. That’s the issue to me that defines all other issues.

KCRW: And what is the number one issue within those issues that’s contributing to that?

GN: It’s a 50 year trend line and it occurred to me a number of years ago that our interventions simply come too late. It’s not people being left behind. It’s not an achievement gap; it’s a readiness gap. People start behind. Eighty five percent of the brain is fully formed by the time you’re just three years old. If we don’t have a prenatal care policy, if we’re not focusing on those first three critical years, then we’re not getting serious about addressing the issue of poverty. And so for me, our interventions come too late and I want to change that trajectory.

KCRW: And you say that will go a long way to erasing the gap between the rich and the poor?

GN: I think the only way we’re going to address the issue of poverty is systemically addressing the root causes of it. The number one predictor of whether or not you’re going to end up in the criminal justice system– number one — is how many words you speak in kindergarten. It’s the 45 million words that are heard in a high-income family by the time you get into kindergarten versus the 13 million words in a low-income household. That’s the 32 million word gap that seemed to get a lot of attention a decade ago, but hasn’t been a tone of focus in terms of our public policy. If that’s the number one predictor of whether or not you’re going into the criminal justice system, maybe we should begin to do something about it.

KCRW: How does that then connect to the fact that most people who live in our cities can’t really afford to live in a house in our cities, that they are spending upwards of a half to three quarters of their income just to rent an apartment?

GN: Well the issue of affordability is the bubble word. It’s the word I hear more often than any other word, affordability to find – you’re right- by cost of housing number one, cost of child care number two, cost of education number three. But the issue of affordability as it relates to housing is pretty obvious. We’re 49th of 50th in the United States in per capita housing units; only Utah develops less housing than the state of California. By some estimates we need to develop three and a half million housing units by 2025, which means not doubling, not tripling, but quadrupling the annual production of housing.

KCRW: So, that’s 500,000 a year.

GN: It’s 500,000 when the next governor gets sworn in

KCRW: And that’s just to tread water.

GN: Well, the argument there…we haven’t done that since 1954, so it’s been done but it just hasn’t been done in half a century

KCRW: So how would you do it?

GN: The fact is we have no choice. The audacity of the goal is the audacity of the problem. You can have a solution that doesn’t solve the problem that people think is realistic, but then you’ve just argued to fail more efficiently. I think you have to be audacious, you have to be bold and so we laid out 15 specific strategies to achieve that. And I could bore you with the issues around land use fiscalization and addressing some of the categorical consumptions for socially desirable projects under SEQUA, etc. and addressing the time value of money. But I can more substantively make this point.

Here’s the value proposition: cities are not incentivized to develop housing and cities, at the end of the day, are the ones that will ultimately determine the fate of our housing production disproportionately. Mayors need to be incentivized for good behavior, not bad behavior. I would argue the most important thing we can do is shift the funding, shift the incentives. We’re all creatures of incentives. Redirect dollars in a very different way than we do to cities versus counties as it relates to housing production. And number two –that’s the carrot. On the other side is you’ve got to look at this issue as a transportation issue as much as it is a housing issue and we’ve got to link transit dollars to housing production.

KCRW: But you were against a state Senate bill that would have done just, that would have mandated more housing construction near transit centers. The bill died but you had said that had it passed, you would not have signed it.

GN: I also was criticized for celebrating its intent and the champion behind it, Scott Wiener who’s a big supporter of mine, and Scott was the first to acknowledge it was a moving target. So, Scott’s going back to the drawing table, recognizing what we already knew and what he already knew, where 470 plus cities 58 counties –each is unique, each is distinctive — and the difficult problem of selling down a vision top-down, is creating the energy bottom-up. So the spirit of it is spot on. It was audacious and bold, but he recognized and I think all of us recognize that the details matter, and that’s why I think that fell short.

KCRW: But I think you’re always going to come up against local opposition to these kinds of projects for various reasons, for a myriad of reasons as you’ve just laid out. And the bottom line being that the people who control the localities kind of like it the way it is and they don’t want a lot more development, because it means more traffic, it means maybe more potential problems. How would you, as the governor of the state, override those local concerns and say, ‘All right, we’ve given you enough carrots you’re not you don’t seem to be biting on the carrots. We are going to force you to do this in the interest of the entire state?’

GN: Well we haven’t provided the carrots and that’s what I’m arguing for, nor have we exercised the stick as I’m also arguing for so I think that’s a way of answering your question substantively as it relates to the disincentive for bad behavior and the incentive for bad behavior, which is there’s no cost of not doing your job at the local level. And localism, you’re right, is determinative. And as a former county supervisor, as a two term mayor in a very, very challenging, dense, urban environment, San Francisco, where NIMBYism reigns supreme and affordability is the issue that defines all other issues, I have a little bit of experience with it.

KCRW: But looking at San Francisco, though, it’s as you say, it’s a mess right now when it comes to affordability and the homeless everywhere. So, I mean, can you argue that what you did in essence failed because if you look at San Francisco now…

GN: No, we built more housing than any other time in our five year history, at least previous to [excuse] me, ten year history previous to my ten year and of course the next mayor did the same, it’s a firehose. San Francisco’s challenge is success. Everybody wants to move in. It’s a macro-economic challenge. The only way San Francisco as a city is going to address affordability is to broaden and regionalize approaches to addressing the issues. So yeah, we have an affordability crisis broadly defined in cities, specifically, more broadly defined in rural areas, as well, because we simply aren’t building enough housing, we’re not preserving enough existing housing stock and we’re not addressing the issue of prevention, which is addressing the issue of owner move-in evictions, Ellis Act evictions, making sure we preserve and protect the opportunities for tenants to get counseling services and legal aid as well as subsidies to keep them in place so they’re not displaced in the first place.

KCRW: But has it been a failure of leadership? Has it been a failure of vision on the part of Democrats who have by and large controlled the state?

GN: It’s been, I think all of us have a responsibility, society becomes how we, collectively, behave. All of us. And you made the point that NIMBYism reigns supreme. I got mine. That’s not a Democratic lens or a Republican lens, that’s people that enjoy their quality of life. We’ve got to create a mindset that includes in the vernacular the commonwealth, community, something bigger than ourselves. And yeah, it’s been a lack of leadership, but leadership can be found anywhere. It’s not just the folks up there in the white horse that are going to come save the day in Sacramento. It’s also as you say, it’s the city council members, it’s the county Board of Supervisors, it’s the neighborhood activists that also have to say, ‘You know what? Time for change. And it’s time for us to have audacious goals.’ The state doesn’t even have a housing goal. There’s no specific strategy.

KCRW: So your audacious goal of 500,000 units or so per year for the next seven or so years?

GN: Well Yeah, we can extend it. It is profoundly audacious, correct.

KCRW: And we are going to hold you to that number? Is that a number we should hold you to?

GN: No because, I don’t… With respect, that’s sort of the usual politicking. Here’s my point. Be audacious, because in the process of being audacious you’ll discover what you’re capable of being. So hold me account to being audacious and in the process doing more than we’ve ever done. The worst thing you should argue for is someone who says you know what I’m going to increase by 5 percent our housing production and then everyone says boy you exceeded it by 10 percent, but you know what? This place is even worse off than it was a few years ago.

KCRW: And that’s a very good point. And by that point may I hold you accountable for the 12,000 units that you talked about in San Francisco? Was that not audacious enough given the result is now worse than it was when you proposed it?

GN: Well every city, as I said, you can show me a city and I could show you a challenge in one specific area above any other, homelessness and housing affordability. It is a broad issue.

KCRW: Right, but should you have done more when you were mayor of San Francisco to prevent what we see now?

GN: I should have done thousands of things more. Absolutely. In a world of hindsight, everybody should be accountable for all the things they missed and didn’t do. But we certainly did some things that I’ll put up against any big city in the state.

KCRW: Are you or are you not in favor of and are going to introduce the idea of single payer healthcare?

GN: I support single payer, been consistent, but I’m not ideological about how to achieve it. SB 562 if you’re referring to, that was amended 17 times by the authors before it was killed in committee. It’s a work in progress. It’s a complicated issue and it requires leadership, requires resolve. I was a county mayor not a city mayor of a lot of history on health care. As I said we did it regardless of preexisting conditions, ability to pay, regardless of your immigration status. We fully implemented, it’s actually enjoying its 10th anniversary this year, our universal health care plan wasn’t easy.

KCRW: But that’s not single payer. That’s universal. There’s a difference.

GN: Of course there’s a difference. But the fact is, it was novel. It was unique. No one thought it could be done. It’s really a robust public option, has a lot of the core tenets because there is a single payer financing component to it. It’s health care not health insurance. I understand its limitations. But at the same time it was bold, we got folks together. My resolve is to do that as governor for one reason alone, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do. But it’s also the economically most important thing the state can do, because the budget is being devoured by health care costs. And if people just believe you can you know you know pony up for the status quo, I can assure you the issues of tuition increases, the issues of stress and burden that’s going to be placed on county budgets as a consequence of health care spend is going to devour all of their investments unless we tame it.

KCRW: S you are going to, that’s going to be one of your top priorities, is to take on single payer health insurance? And try to get that through?

GN: I am committed to the goal and I’m committed to bringing all the parties together not even my first 100 days this has to be a priority during a transition. If we’re actually going to achieve something big.

KCRW: What does that mean for people who pay taxes here in California?That’s the estimate was that this would cost $400 billion, that’s twice the amount of the budget the governor just unveiled?

GN: Those are sort of profound misleading. I’ll say this to the-

KCRW: But it would require a tax increase would it. Right?

GN: Yeah. But yeah on the one side of the ledger then complete elimination of a cost structure on the other side which arguably is well it’s just interesting-

KCRW: Meaning you would pay more in health insurance premiums that you’re saying than you would pay in taxes?

GN: You will be eliminating copays, you eliminate deductibles you eliminate any of the cost burden.

KCRW: So it would be net less per-

GN: Of course for this reason: single payer exists in countries all around the world.
The one thing that’s universally factual about single payer is there’s not a country in the world that on a per-capita basis spends more than the United States which is a multi-payer system. So you can say anything you want about single payer. The one thing you can’t say with any evidence to back it up at least, is that it cost more money. So the fact of cost is a transitional question is how you go from one system to a new system. And how do you mind that gap.

KCRW: But I mean you do have to be honest with the taxpayers that there could be a tax increase – might be offset with the fewer health insurance premiums and the deductibles and all that that you’re talking about but there would be a tax increase in one of the highest tax states of the union.

GN: Well the point is I want to bring down the cost of health care and the only evidence in the world suggests that a single payer financing system is a way of achieving that. There’s zero evidence to argue in favor of the status quo on a multi-payer system that is inefficient wasteful and costly. And one thing I know there’s certainly ample evidence that you ain’t seen nothing yet as it relates to the taxes that will have to be increased to pay for the status quo. And that’s just interesting that’s never offered up as a point of conversation.

KCRW: I just want to ask a sort of a general question about you and how people might perceive you. A Sacramento Bee columnist has called you, ‘The living embodiment of privilege’ as someone who has the backing of the Gordon Getty

GN: I read that. It was  one of the most insulting articles I’ve ever read. But let me tell you a little bit about my background. I come from a single mom who was a teenager when she had me. Single, divorced, a couple of years later raised two kids on her own came from nothing. My mother passed 16 years ago, breast cancer – left nothing except grit hard work, and an example. I worked my way up. I had severe dyslexia growing up I went from four to seven schools in 10 years and bounced around and worked hard. Janitor, paper route, construction did the kind of things that all of us do with a family that is trying to make ends meet. So there’s a lot of mythology out there to the extent that I started a business 13 investors everyone put up big investment with $7500, it was a lot of money. I built that business, opened a second business and have built a series of other businesses. The fact is if those businesses weren’t successful if we didn’t make them work they wouldn’t have grown and I’m very proud of that business background. I’m the only candidate on the Democratic side with a small business background, credit 800 plus jobs and I don’t know if that’s privilege but I’ve been privileged by my mom’s example, by the extraordinary example of my father who is a big environmentalist and someone who cared deeply about public policy and probably is the reason I’m sitting here in front of you today.

KCRW: A well respected judge. But weren’t you also considered by Gordon Getty, basically a surrogate son?

GN: News to me. Last name is Newsom not Getty plenty ample evidence of that.

KCRW: He’s a big supporter of you and took an interest in you as young boy.

GN:  I’ve got 129 I don’t know how many investors there are in all the businesses were really proud of that and he was one of those first 13 early investors and I think owned 4 percent of the business. So you can make you know you could connect whatever dot you well and now I’ve got some other businesses of what she’s my principal investor as the businesses have grown and I’m very proud. He’s an extraordinary person that I’ve had the privilege of growing up with. But my last name is Newsom.

KCRW: Do your kids go to public school?

GN: Yes.

KCRW: And will they go to public school in Sacramento if you you’re elected?

GN: I hope so. I’m going to do what’s in their best interest and I love our public school. I love our public school teachers. I’ve got four kids the oldest just turned eight. Looks like she’s got the same learning disability I do and that’s a challenge. So I’m going to make sure I do what I can to make sure she gets the kind of support that everybody deserves.

KCRW: Your wife is very active in women’s rights issues. Correct?

GN: She’s has been extraordinary. She’s done four films, two she’s produced, two she’s directed and written on the issue of women and girls called misrepresentation about the misrepresentation not just the under-representation of women one on hyper masculinity called ‘The Mask You Live In.’

KCRW: Right. And so misrepresentation is about women not being in positions of power. And that if you don’t see women in positions of power as a girl you can’t imagine yourself in a position.

GN: I mean…I have quibble with her a little bit but she says, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ I think that could also be limiting because if you don’t see something it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be it. But she makes that she posits that it’s interesting there’s a great clip in her film when Nancy Pelosi said. Nancy said you know the number one question I got when I was running for Congress was, ‘Who’s going to take care of the kids?’ It was the number one question Nancy said. Everywhere I got, every town hall, ‘who’s taking care of the kids?’ She joked that three out of four of them were in college. And the point is this. I’ve been doing this now for a couple of years. Finished those 30 plus town halls, I’ve done 10 debates, and not one person has ever asked me, ‘who’s going to take care of the kids and yet I have a 2 year old, a 4 year old, a 6 year old.’

KCRW: Well I’ll ask you, who’s going to take care of the kids?

GN: We’re all doing our best. But it shows the bias that shows again that’s the misrepresentation.

KCRW: Who is going to take care of the kids?

GN: We’re doing it. I mean is working her tail off. I’m working hard on it going to see them tonight. I’ve been on the road six days.

KCRW: What I was leading up to is given what your wife is talking about misrepresentation. Why is it not time for a woman to be governor?

GN:When I was elected I appointed the first female police chief, first female fire chief, first female director of Office of Emergency Service, first female director of the Public Utilities Commission and the Port Commission. I say that to make this point – all dominated historically by men. And I did that because it was the right thing to do I replaced myself on the County Board of Supervisors with Michela Alioto-Pier who happened to be a woman. Also she happened to be in a wheelchair and disabled. So I think you could be a champion for woman. I was a champion for LGBT community, I’m not a member of that community, when we started sanctioning same sex marriage you can represent diverse communities regardless of your fate.

KCRW: When do you think there should be a woman as governor?

GN: Any opportunity any chance. I think it’s fabulous.

KCRW: Just not this time.

GN: No, I mean obviously I don’t I don’t want to be flippant about it, but I’m running. And I think we offer something very unique and different, particularly with Jen’s work that we can bring into this office that I think will really elevate the issues of women and girls.

KCRW: And would she have a role in your administration?

GN: She’s she has a role in my life. I mean she’s I’m here, I’m a product of everything she advocates. It’s a big part of our lives. The work she does and the work I do so absolutely unequivocally.

KCRW: Your family would be living in Sacramento?

GN: I’ll be honest with you, I cannot think past the next 20 days and I couldn’t even think past November in that respect.

(Photo: Gavin Newsom/ Chris Ho)