California is difficult to rule at the best of times; it is a massive state, divided by all sorts of political rifts. There's North versus South, Country versus City, Progressive Democrats versus Moderate Democrats, Corporations versus Environment, and not enough water for everyone competing for it: cities, suburban lawns, and $ 50 billion agriculture.
The state has radical economic inequality: California last had 189 billionaires, and every major city has growing numbers of homeless people.
COVID-19 cases continue to rise and no one knows if it is really safe to have children back in public schools that are already radically underfunded.
Oh, and the state is on fire.
In other words, the stakes we are making on this recall are shockingly high.
Newsom has always been a moderate Democrat who was friends with big business interests, despite the fact that in 2004, as Mayor of San Francisco, he issued the country's first marriage licenses to gay couples. But there's a huge gap between Newsom – who believes in science and is willing to spend money on public health, homelessness, and education – and the leading Republican candidates who want to replace him.
Here are the 10 biggest problems the governor will face in the next 14 months – be it Newsom keeping his job or one of the candidates looking to replace him. (Yes: in just 14 months, the person who survived the September 14 recall will be back on the ballot paper.)
1. Public health
This, of course, is the dominant theme of the recall, which caused quite a stir after Newsom foolishly went to dinner with corporate lobbyists while the rest of us were supposed to take shelter on the spot. However, the incumbent governor has generally followed the advice of doctors and public health experts, issued mask and vaccine mandates, and is treating 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 polls of GOP candidates to replace Newsom, vowed (at a rally in Fresno on Aug. 22) to lift all mask and vaccination requirements. It is impossible to overestimate the danger that would pose to millions of endangered Californians.
2. Housing and homelessness
At least 160,000 people (as of January 2020) live on the streets of California, mostly in cities, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. More than half of the state's tenants pay more than 30% of their income for housing. In most major California cities, you literally have to be rich to buy a home.
The YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyarders, who advocate more, denser housing) are generally Newsom's allies, but say the state needs to deregulate housing construction so developers can build more. The only real solution, say most progressive housing advocates, is more regulation – better rent control and evacuation protection – and much more non-market housing. But the real estate industry is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state capital, so overcoming the housing crisis requires enormous political skill – and courage.
As Mayor of San Francisco, Newsom sponsored a program called “Care not Cash,” which practically all progressive housing advocates denounced as punitive failure.
But he has pledged an unprecedented $ 12 billion in this year's budget to tackle homelessness and build affordable housing; most Republican candidates would get rid of it.
Cox says he wants to make it easier for the state to force homeless people into conservatories and use more police to clear homeless camps – when residents often have nowhere else to go.
Climate change has caused severe droughts across the state and disrupted the industrial pipelines that grow almonds and rice in the desert. Golf courses that 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, drawing in fresh cool water from the Sacramento-San-Joaquin Delta, the heart of the state's water system, is destroying salmon runs.
The situation was untenable at the best of times; now it is impossible. Something has to give in – and the next governor has to deal with the political pressure of corporate agriculture and the political pressure of cities and suburbs for a resource that simply cannot serve everyone.
So far, Newsom has refused to abandon environmental measures 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 cuts – and now the state has one of the worst public schools in the country. Nowadays the system is somewhat privatized: residents of affluent suburban communities raise enough private money to fund their own public schools, while poor neighborhoods can barely afford to pay teachers. Much of this has to do with race: As Heather McGhee points out in The Sum of Us, white people have historically refused to pay taxes to fund services like education for colored people, who will soon make up the majority in California.
Newsom's latest 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 educational solutions.
Most of California's electricity is controlled by private companies. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) was responsible for several of the worst fires in the state; Courts have found the company is improperly maintaining its power lines (in some cases, tree pruning money is being diverted into executive bonuses). A sustainable energy future will be based on electricity – but private companies looking for profit will not be quick to switch to renewable energies. So the next governor has to figure out how to break up PG&E, create new public electricity agencies, and rebuild the grid. While Newsom has a climate agenda, none of the major Republican candidates have a major energy platform. As if climate change and the energy future of the state were not an issue for them.
6. Criminal Justice
737 people are on death row in California, almost all of whom will die of something else before being executed. The prisons are overflowing with people, mostly black men, who were incarcerated for long sentences during the three-strike era. Many were imprisoned for relatively minor crimes; some can be completely innocent. The state prison system alone costs taxpayers $ 15 billion annually – enough to build affordable housing and provide education and training for every homeless person in the state.
Newsom has declared a moratorium on executions that almost any of the GOP candidates would almost certainly lift. Elder, who is Black, argues that there is no racism against blacks in the criminal justice system. All GOP candidates are in favor of increasing the budget for the police. And remember, the governor appoints all appellate judges, including members of the state's Supreme Court.
The forest fires are wreaking havoc and destruction across the state. Newsom has inherited much of the disaster stemming from decades of failed fire safety policies and global climate change. There are so many related issues that it's hard to even make a list, so let's look at just one thing: The California Air Resources Board.
This is the agency that tells automakers how high their mileage standards need to be and how low their tailpipe emissions need to be. This decision has huge national implications – the standards set in the country's largest auto market are quickly becoming standards everywhere. And that in turn has an impact on global climate change. Can you imagine what kind of person the right-wing GOP candidates would appoint to run this agency?
8. Climate justice
Newsom has long recognized that climate change is real, that it is caused by human activity, and that government has an important role to play in addressing climate change. He is pushing for gasoline cars to be phased out by 2035.
It has taken a while, but he finally agrees that fracking must end in the state. Republican leaders kind of say climate change is real, but they refuse to support measures that would actually decarbonise the state. Elder's plan is to restore nuclear power to the state.
9. Racial Justice
Newsom has generally supported efforts by the state legislature to address systemic racism in California, including the creation of the state's first task force to investigate reparations and make recommendations. The simple step of abolishing racist standardized tests at the University of California has increased the number of African Americans enrolled in the best state schools. As mentioned earlier, Elder says he does not believe that racism really exists in the United States.
10. Economic inequality
For most of his career, Newsom has been wary of taxing the rich at best. But at least he admits that, as he recently put it, "The people at the top are doing damn well."
And he's not talking about tax cuts. Cox wants the biggest tax cut in modern state history.
Faulconer also proclaims huge tax cuts for the top earners.
Yes, the next governor will face the electorate again in November 2022. But a far-right governor can do a lot of damage in 14 months. This is what is really at stake on September 14th.
This story first appeared on Capital and Main.