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The New California Democrat and America’s New Way Forward

The clear alternative to Trump and the Republicans is thriving in California and ready to go national

By Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira

A New California Democrat is rising, and it’s not Jerry Brown. To use a biblical analogy, the 79-year-old Brown is more like Moses, who got his people to the edge of the promised land — and then handed over leadership to the next generation, who are now pressing on and creating the land of milk and honey.

To be sure, the second coming of Jerry Brown as governor of California from 2011 through 2018 was essential in helping to lay the foundation for the next great progressive era in California politics. But that era is just now fully taking off, with a younger generation leading the way. The New California Democrat is epitomized by a set of leaders in their forties and fifties who blossomed as politicians in the 21st century, well after California’s conservative era (1980s) and its period of polarization and paralysis (1990s). They include:

Gavin Newsom, 50, the current lieutenant governor of California and the leading candidate to succeed Brown as governor. He was a two-term mayor of San Francisco, starting in 2003, at the beginning of the city’s tech transformation. Kamala Harris, 54, a current California U.S. senator who succeeded Barbara Boxer in 2016. Formerly the California attorney general, Harris is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for U.S. president. Eric Garcetti, 46, the popular two-term mayor of Los Angeles, reelected with 81 percent of the vote; also contemplating a run for U.S. president. Tom Steyer, 60, the billionaire former hedge fund manager turned environmental and political activist; currently pressing a national campaign to impeach President Trump. Kevin de León, 50, the president pro tempore of the California State Senate who is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

The Old California Democrat is exemplified by the 84-year-old Feinstein, who has represented California in the U.S. Senate for 25 years, as well as 77-year-old Nancy Pelosi, a representative in the U.S. House for 30 years and currently the House minority leader. These Democrats rose to political leadership in the pre-2000 era of conservative politics, the tax revolt, and the populist anti-immigrant wave. They were shaped by the urgent need to defend against these reactionary political currents and uphold the basics of progressive governance and social tolerance. This they nobly did.

Unfortunately, both of these long-serving warhorses do not want to give up their positions, and they are distorting the natural succession of leadership. Feinstein is running in the 2018 election for yet another term, which has prompted the candidacy of de León, among others. And Pelosi has resisted pressure for a change in Democratic leadership in the U.S. House, which will only continue to mount. The national prominence of Old California Democrats like Feinstein and Pelosi — and even Brown — has obscured the emergence of what truly is a New California Democrat.

This new political animal can be quite radical in terms of national politics — calling for everything from impeaching Trump to establishing single-payer health care. The New California Democrats understand that a healthy society needs a strong government that’s well funded, and they don’t shy from raising public funds through progressive taxation. But the New California Democrats appreciate the market and the capabilities of entrepreneurial business. They are tech savvy and understand the transformative power of new technologies and the vibrancy of an economy built around them. They understand that to solve our many 21st-century challenges, we need business to come up with solutions that scale and that grow the economy for all.

In a national context, the New California Democrat would be recognizable as a progressive, the polar opposite of the conservatives controlling Washington, D.C., right now. They are rooted in similar values as 20th-century progressives, but they have let go of old ideas and solutions that constrained the solution space in the past. The New California Democrat is less ideological and more practical. In this sense, they are different from many Bernie Sanders Democrats. You might describe them as Practical Progressives, or Pro-Growth Progressives, or Entrepreneurial Progressives. A catchall label might be 21st-Century Progressives, since all the hallmarks that make them different have come since the year 2000. And many of the most distinguishing hallmarks will be determined in the next five to 10 years. For now, let’s just call them what they certainly are: New California Democrats.

There are three key ways to fill out the picture of what this New California Democrat is, as well as the new progressive vision around which they are coalescing. First, study the results of the statewide initiatives, which provide an fascinating view into the id of the California electorate every two years and guide the state’s politics. Since 2000, the results have been increasingly big, bold, and progressive. Second, look at the laws that have passed the California Legislature — particularly since the 2010 election, when Jerry Brown returned and both Houses were cleared of conservative Republicans and dominated by New California Democrats. And third, look at the agendas promoted by some of the next-generation leaders mentioned above. In the end, you’ll better understand the New California Democrat and what it means for America.

The 21st-Century Progressive Way Forward

What kind of policies are needed to take America fully into the 21st century and help all of its citizens prosper over the long-term? How do we build a society that works for everyone, rather than just the wealthy? What is needed to take on the great challenges of our time, from climate change to gross economic inequalities? How do we make the most of transformative new technologies and new knowledge and put them in service to building a better world?

The New California Democrats are wrestling with these questions and coming up with solutions that are rooted in progressive values but are often distinct from the programs and approaches of the past. If the 20th-century progressive model was the welfare state, then the 21st-century version might be considered the “opportunity state.” Below are some distinguishing features that are emerging, though this is still a work in progress, with some of the biggest milestones certainly yet to come.

Climate and Clean Energy

One of the most distinguishing features of 21st-century progressives compared to 20th-century progressives is the centrality of climate change and sustainability to their agenda. This is a critical distinction, because 20th-century progressives were environmentalists who mostly just said no whenever they could. They were out to protect natural environments, and they did a pretty good job. But slowing global warming and, ultimately, solving climate change is a far larger problem that requires much more comprehensive solutions. It involves changing the way the economy works and shifting to fundamentally different clean energy sources.

California has dramatically reorganized around this new reality. It is clearly doing much more than any other state and arguably is leading the world in climate change solutions. There are many ways to showcase California’s leadership in this area, from stimulating electric vehicle adoption to solar roof purchases. But these three milestones stand out:

  • In 2006, more than 10 years ago, when Obama was just gearing up to run for president, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which targeted a reduction of around 25 percent in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
  • In 2011, during Governor Brown’s first year in office, California mandated that one-third of all its electricity must come from clean energy. In 2015, California upped that commitment to hitting half of all electricity by 2030.
  • In 2012, California established the nation’s first cap-and-trade program, which put a price on carbon and forced companies to trade for carbon offsets. Just this year, the state extended that law to be enforced until 2030.

Public Investment

Investment in public goods is central to a 21st-century opportunity state. Indeed, the kind of economic growth an advanced society needs will not be possible without a substantial increase in such investment. This increased investment should take a number of forms. Most obviously, there should be a ratcheting up of investment in basic physical infrastructure — airports, bridges, highways, school buildings, water, and so on.

California and the entire United States has suffered since the 1980s from a lack of public investment, because it was at odds with the dominant conservative ideology of privatizing everything. Today, the rate of infrastructure investment in the United States is lower than it has been at any time since 1947. The California public broke that spell by voting for statewide initiatives that sent a very different signal:

  • In 2006, the public worked around the legislature and used Proposition 1B to authorize $20 billion for investment in roads and public transportation.
  • In 2008, $10 billion was authorized for high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles through Prop. 1A. By 2014, the legislature was committing 25 percent of cap-and-trade revenues to continue work on the SF-LA bullet train.
  • In 2017, Brown and the legislature did not need the cover of a public initiative to pass a $52 billion program to fix California’s roads, bridges, and public transportation. This massive investment required raising the gasoline tax and required a two-thirds vote in both houses of the state legislature. Notably, no anti-tax revolt broke out.

Progressive Taxation

Progressives have always believed that taxes are an essential element for ensuring sufficient public investment and necessary government services. They also believe that those who are most well-off should shoulder a larger portion of the tax burden. Californians are way ahead of the rest of the country in re-embracing these principles and acting on them. They realize you get the government you pay for, and the challenges of the 21st century cannot be met on the cheap.

Jerry Brown took the governor’s office for the second time after the 2010 election and immediately had to deal with a state budget crisis. He was aided in doing so by voters who, in the same election, passed Prop. 25, which allowed the budget to pass with a simple majority, not a two-thirds vote. (Again, a constraint dating back to the anti-tax backlash of the late 1970s conservative era.) Brown was able to temporarily stabilize the budget through cuts, but the real key was figuring out how to get back to reasonable taxation that could support a growing state. Otherwise, draconian cuts, especially in education, would have been necessary and further investments that California needed would have been difficult. But the voters backed him, and from that, many things flowed:

  • In 2012, Prop. 30 passed with 55 percent of the vote. This initiative raised the sales tax and increased income taxes on those making more than $250,000, thereby preventing massive education cuts. This was hugely important and a represented a real sea change in California politics.
  • In 2016, Prop. 55 passed, which extended by 12 years the Prop. 30 income tax increases on those making more than $250,000 to fund education and health. Significantly, this initiative passed with 63 percent of the vote—even more than had voted for Prop. 30. This ringing endorsement of higher taxation for necessary social investments really exemplifies California’s evolution on fiscal issues and leadership relative to rest of the country.

Growth Economy

The New California Democrats are committed to economic growth led by new technologies and entrepreneurship. This is the lifeblood of the California economy, and 21st-century progressives support a dynamic economy that prizes these things. They understand that adequate public funds for investment and healthy government can only come with a robust economy that has the potential to share the wealth. To be sure, some portion of the political left in California does have tendencies toward anti-corporatism and opposition to development and growth. And there are strong NIMBY groups in the cities along the coast. But by and large the political center of gravity is shifting toward more pro-growth strategies.

The pro-growth shift is particularly evident in the recent blitz of no fewer than 15 laws that came out of the fall 2017 legislative session all aimed at helping solve the housing crisis. California partly got into the crisis by making it very difficult to build new housing in cities and greenbelts, despite a booming economy that added jobs and drew people from outside the state. The new laws will pour billions into new construction; some of those funds will be provided by a modest new tax on real estate transactions. A series of penalties and incentives aimed at municipalities and developers encourage the production of new housing, especially for low- and middle-income Californians. Here are some details:

  • Most of the money raised by Senate Bill 2 (a $75 real estate transaction fee) and Senate Bill 3 (a $4 billion housing bond) would go toward helping pay for the development of new homes for low-income residents.
  • Senate Bill 35 will make cities approve projects that comply with existing zoning if not enough housing has been built to keep pace with the state’s home-building targets. Such projects will also have to reserve a certain percentage of housing for low-income residents.

Flexible Safety Net

The 20th-century safety net is set for a fundamental revamp given the new realities of the 21st-century economy. The old safety net was devised in a time when pretty much all workers were full-time employees. But today, one-third of American workers are independent, meaning they are contract workers, gig workers, or temp workers, and many have multiple sources of income. No one knows that better than Californians, who tend to be more entrepreneurial and early adopters of the gig economy.

One critical piece of any safety net overhaul is to get portable benefits — benefits freed from an employer, starting with the mother of all benefits, health insurance. The Affordable Care Act was a great start, and no state embraced it more than California, which had the most successful implementation of Obamacare: 1.4 million more people covered, and the uninsured rate dropped from 19 to 7 percent. But California is also shoring up other aspects of the safety net:

  • This year, the California Senate passed a bill to establish a single-payer health care system in the state that would cover health care services (including mental health) for every Californian with essentially no out-of-pocket costs (though the bill ultimately narrowly died in the Assembly).
  • In 2016, the state’s minimum wage was raised from $10 to $15 an hour, to be effective by 2022. (The minimum wage has already been raised substantially in a number of big cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose.)
  • In another first for California, in 2016 the state mandated that private-sector employers that do not currently provide retirement benefits must set up IRAs for workers with opt-out contributions. This universalizes retirement benefit coverage for California workers.

Expanding Education

The central role of education in promoting upward mobility is well-established, but so too is its role in promoting growth and mitigating inequality. Perhaps no single area will be as central to a 21st-century opportunity state as this one. Therefore, 21st-Century Progressives are promoting massive investment in expanding access to education and improving its quality.

Californians understood that early, and some of the first big shifts from conservative to progressive in public policy came from ballot initiatives involving education. These included Prop. 39 in 2000, which overrode Prop. 13 to allow local school bonds to be issued without a two-thirds supermajority; Prop. 1D in 2006, which authorized $10 billion in bonds for K-12 education facilities; and the all-important Prop. 30 in 2012, which raised taxes primarily so massive education cuts could be avoided. More recently:

  • In 2016, Prop. 51 passed, authorizing an additional $9 billion investment in K-12 education and community colleges.
  • In 2017, a law passed that mandates the state of California cover the first year of community college for all residents.

Immigration and Diversity

A central fact of the contemporary United States is its rapid demographic evolution. In 1980, the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today, that proportion has fallen to 63 percent, and by the year 2060, it is projected to be under 44 percent. Progressives embrace these changes, seeing a diverse population as a source of economic strength and cultural renewal.

Nowhere has rising diversity and a burgeoning immigrant population become more accepted than in California. Most recently, and in direct defiance of the Trump administration, bills were passed and signed into law making California a “sanctuary state.” This included limiting cooperation with federal authorities on undocumented immigrants and putting a moratorium on immigration jails for the undocumented. A number of other actions set the stage for California’s current pro-diversity, pro-immigrant stance:

  • In 2011, the California DREAM Act was passed to allow undocumented minors brought to the United States to apply for financial aid so they can attend California colleges.
  • The California Trust Act in 2013 prevented county jails from notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials about undocumented prisoners.
  • In 2015, driver’s licences were permitted for undocumented immigrants.

Rethink Drugs and Crime

One of the hallmarks of the conservative era of California politics was its push to get tough on crime. In 1994, California gained national attention for its infamous “three strikes” law, which permanently locked up offenders after three felony infractions, and its expansive build-out of the state prison system. The national war on drugs started in California and wreaked havoc on many lower-income and minority communities.

Californians today are reversing many of the hallmarks of that crackdown regime. As with many controversial shifts in policy, the first movers are ballot initiatives. Only later do elected officials feel free to pick up on the shift in sentiment. No issue demonstrates that more than legalizing marijuana. It took Prop. 64, passing with 57 percent of the vote, to legalize pot in 2016. There are other milestones:

  • In 2012, Prop. 36, which modified and liberalized the “three strikes” law, passed with 69 percent support.
  • In 2014, Prop. 47, which made many nonviolent felonies into misdemeanors, further undercutting the draconian three strikes law, passed with 59 percent support.
  • Prop. 57, which increased parole availability for nonviolent felons, was supported by nearly two-thirds of voters in 2016.

Digital Government

Progressives generally see the value in pooling resources and driving collective action through good government. The 20th-century version of good government was executed through bureaucracies. That was the state-of-the-art means of organizing national-scale projects. The 21st-century version of good government is digital. Digital technologies enabling networked organizations are the state-of-the-art means of organizing projects of any scale today.

This is an epic shift that will take a long time to fully implement, but California, once again, is on the forefront of rethinking digital government at all levels. In 2013, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom published Citizenville, his book devoted to this transformation. Many projects are in motion throughout the state:

  • Since 2009, the San Francisco–based Code for America has mobilized thousands of public-spirited techies to work on transforming the efficiency of local governments. Many of their biggest projects are in California.
  • The Digital Democracy platform provides a searchable archive of all statements made in state legislative hearings. Anyone can search, watch, and share statements made by state lawmakers, lobbyists, and advocates.
  • In a collaboration between the lieutenant governor’s office and UC Berkeley, a California Report Card has been launched that provides a mobile tool for California residents to grade their state on six current issues of importance.

Electoral Reform

Ever since the progressive era in the early 20th century, electoral reform has been a core goal of progressives. To get good government, you need a well-functioning democracy. A radical reduction in the influence of special interests on the political process is key to making American society reach its potential.

Here, too, California leads the way. While many Republicans controlling red states are working to limit political participation and amplify their partisan impact, California is doing the opposite. They are not waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to force electoral reform; rather, they are instituting a wide range of important changes. Among them:

  • In 2008, California voters rejected gerrymandering and approved a new method of drawing the state’s legislative lines — turning it over to a commission of citizens. These citizens are chosen by the state auditor’s office in an open process removed from political influence. The commission was instructed to follow very specific criteria when drawing lines and to be completely transparent in its deliberations.
  • Then, in 2010, the legislature agreed to place another radical reform before the voters: instituting a “top-two” system for primary elections that would let voters vote for any candidate they wanted for any office, regardless of party, and then advance the top two vote-getters, also regardless of party, to a fall runoff election. The reform passed with 54 percent support from voters.
  • In addition, in 2017, the California DISCLOSE Act was passed and signed by Governor Brown. This will make the sources of campaign spending on political ads completely transparent.

The Next Generation Gears Up

The next generation of Democratic politicians — our New California Democrats — embody and embrace the 21st-century progressive way forward that we have just summarized. They are the ones who roughed out the emergent agenda above. They are the ones who will build from this and take it to the next level. As noted previously, the most prominent among them include:

Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California, Formerly Mayor of San Francisco

Gavin Newsom was way out in front of conventional Democratic politicians on same-sex marriage, famously allowing marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples as mayor in 2004 and supporting Prop. 8 in 2008. He also was way out front on legalizing marijuana legalization (Prop. 47) and now is taking strong stands on gun control. Newsom is also known for his bold actions on promoting digital democracy and increased transparency in government. He is also very strong in the education area, seeing this as key to California’s future, and was a leading advocate for the California College Promise of a free community college education.

Kamala Harris, California Senator, Formerly California Attorney General

The bulk of Kamala Harris’ public profile is from her tenure as attorney general, where she was known for her aggressive action on housing (including a historic mortgage settlement case), criminal justice, environmental, and financial crimes issues. As senator, Harris has supported single-payer health care and tuition-free community colleges and public universities for student from low- and moderate-income families.

Kevin de León, President Pro Tempore, California Senate

Kevin de León is responsible for some of the boldest initiatives in California politics. He authored and drove to passage the breakthrough legislation that requires California to generate half its electricity from renewable sources. He got the legislature to pass a pioneering bill establishing state-managed retirement accounts for low-wage workers whose employers were not providing one and played a key role in the legislation to establish a $15 minimum wage. And de Léon almost single-handedly pushed a single-payer bill through the California Senate in 2017 (though it narrowly failed in the Assembly).

Tom Steyer, Billionaire Philanthropist and Activist, Former Hedge Fund Manager

Tom Steyer may run for high office — including the presidency — in the near future. He is a big supporter of climate change activism through political contributions and support for relevant ballot propositions. He is also associated with efforts to raise taxes and close tax loopholes, believing that effective government needs to be well-funded and that the rich should pay their fair share. Steyer’s current big issue is impeaching Trump, where he is taking a stronger position than other New California Democrats.

Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles

Eric Garcetti, recently reelected mayor of Los Angeles with 81 percent of the vote, convinced voters to approve a $120 billion tax increase for mass transit and a $1.2 billion bond issue for housing for the homeless. He supported the big raise in L.A.’s minimum wage and the move to make community college education free. Garcetti also supports a national single-payer health system and is contemplating a run for president.

Keep an eye on all of these people in the coming years, along with many, many others up and down the state who are helping California invent the future. Watch out, America: These New California Democrats are just getting started.

This argument will continue through more stories to come. If you want to learn more, follow us through this series.

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