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Kevin de León on policy, politics and the future

State Senate Leader Kevin de León on Feb. 1, 2014, at the Golden Dragon Parade in Los Angeles(Photo: Betto Rodrigues, via Shutterstock)

Kevin de León is the poster child for on-the-job training. He was elected to the Assembly in 2006 as the product of a political deal, anointed by his childhood friend, then-Speaker Fabian Nuñez as the speaker in waiting.

De León came to Sacramento with a level of expectation and lack of political seasoning didn’t always make the best first impression. He inherited all of Nuñez’s political foes, and made a few of his own, and his bid for Assembly speaker fell short.

The son of immigrants, raised by a single mom with a third-grade education in the Logan Heights Barrio of San Diego, de León is at the vanguard of the third wave of Latino political leaders in California.

After some hard feelings and bruised egos, De León accepted his defeat and ran for the Senate seat that he never really wanted. But in the Senate, de León has matured and grown as a legislator. Early on, he helped ease roadblocks between the Senate and the governor’s office. In the meantime, he reconstructed and expanded his personal relationships, and was elected by his colleagues last year as the new leader of the state Senate.

The wagging tongues of the Third House have gleefully watched the uneasy relationship with de León and Senate newcomer Robert Hertzberg, a former speaker and a potential pro tem in waiting — at least in the eyes of many Sacramento lobbyists. But leadership is member-to-member business, and the internal caucus realities rarely if ever reflect the game theories and hypothetical scenarios of the Whispering Class.

Meanwhile, de León is beginning to make his mark. The son of immigrants, raised by a single mom with a third-grade education in the Logan Heights Barrio of San Diego, de León is at the vanguard of the third wave of Latino political leaders in California. It started in the 1980s, with Richard Polonco, Richard Alatorre and Gloria Molina, who were the among the first to take council seats, supervisors chairs and legislative leadership positions. They placed a Latino footprint on Los Angeles politics, while being divided by bitter internal factionalism.

De León has begun to stake out the terms and parameters of his leadership. He is determined to fuse environmental policy with economic growth.

As Latino demographic and political power grew, it birthed the next wave, including Cruz Bustamante and Antonio Villaraigosa, who helped move Latino leaders into the mainstream. They took key state leadership posts — from speaker of the Assembly to lieutenant governor to mayor of Los Angeles — marking the incremental progress of the inevitable Latino political rise in California.

The next generation of Latino leaders, which includes de León and Secretary of State Alex Padilla among others, will help give voice to a political group that will inevitably come into its own over the next decade and beyond. Latinos now make up a plurality of this state, and their leaders will help define what it means to be a Latino in California, and by extension, what it means to be a Californian, period.

De León has begun to stake out the terms and parameters of his leadership. He is determined to fuse environmental policy with economic growth. His definition of inequality extends beyond mere wages and income into allocation of public services and amenities like parks, open space, and a clean environment. While Latino leaders of the past have been a buffer against environmental policy, de León is pushing the envelope.

It remains to be seen whether green jobs can save the old the industrial economy. California’s business leaders will point to study after study that says the numbers simply don’t add up. De León says it is a matter of vision and planning.

Will de León help articulate a vision of economic growth and environmental sustainability that will guide California for the next generation? Or will his platitudes fall flat, while the problems deepen?

I spoke to de León in his Capitol office about his vision for the Senate, the state and the future, including his efforts to change the governor’s mind on child care, how to balance environmental protection and job creation, and his concern that California is creating a system of “economic apartheid.”

How do you see the current state of the California economy?

There’s some good things and bad things. I think the fact that we’ve just surpassed Brazil to become the 7th largest economy in the world again speaks to the resiliency of the Golden State, especially coming off the heels of the worst economic recession since 1929. It really does speak to the resiliency of who we are as a state.

Put that in context, only the U.S. China, Japan, France, Germany and the UK – nations — hold a stronger position GDP-wise than the state of California. And our population is about 40 million and we produce a $2.2 trillion economy.

That being said, we run the real risk of having an economic apartheid system where in some parts of the state it’s almost like the Gilded Age. In other parts of the state, pre-recession they were already in their own recession. The great Recession just made their ecession worse. And they have not participated in the great economic resurence that we’re all witnessing today.

Is that just a lag time, that if you’re at the bottom you just are the last to recover.

Well, I think some of it has to do with the erosion of our manufacturing base. It used to be that would suffice. You could get a job at a manufacturing plant and you could pay for a mortgage. But the economy has really shifted toward services and IT. Those types of jobs that provided a more than livable wage are not as prevalent as they were a generation or two ago.

That’s why education, even career technical education, is more important than ever. Just look at our society now. It punishes you if you have little or not education at all. So it’s a society that demands you have access to higher education or at minimum a solid career-technical education. Short of that, you will not survive in this economy.

Why don’t the new jobs pay what the old manufacturing jobs do? There’s nothing magical why a job at Boeing pays $50 per hour, and why the jobs we’re creating don’t Do you think there’s a role government plays in setting the value of certain kinds of work?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Government can’t by fiat mandate a Boeing or a Northrop or a General Motors set up shop in their regional areas. Short of providing economic incentives with a hope and a prayer they will relocate their plant to parts of the country.

I think government can play a role in enticing job creators to create those jobs in the region, as long as there’s a fair and balanced approached and they’re not bending over backwards and it doesn’t pencil out as a big corporate giveaway. We’ve had big debates on this issue with regards to film tax credits and the issue runaway production. So I think government can play a major role. Obviously, we can’t mandate by fiat, but we can also create the conditions for job creation in California that will entice an employer to set up shop and create jobs.

[twitter-box]De León: Those types of jobs that provided a more than livable wage are not as prevalent as they were a generation or two ago.[/twitter_box]

How would you rate the job the state does currently at attracting those kinds of jobs?

I think that we can do better. I think that we can objectively look at certain regulations that are no longer germane, that are duplicative, unnecessary and that stifle economic growth. I think we can do so in a manner that protects the environment, while at the same time streamlines the process for businesses to grow.

Do you think now that the budget has stabilized, and as you come into the job of pro tem, that we are entering the next phase where we can be a bit more deliberate and do some longer term planning.

There’s a finite number of resources on the table. But that calls for us to be very targeted and strategic in our investments and in our human capital investments.

Early on, you’ve focused on child care specifically as a service you’d like to expand. That’s going to be a priority for you?

It will be a priority. I’m hoping to convince the governor that it’s very important. I think when women can participate in the economy, then our economy does not reach its full maximum potential. A woman has to choose between a job and high-quality child care, it’s a very hard choice for a woman. Tremendous amount of stress.

With Prop. 30 set to begin to expire, there’s been a lot of talk about tax reform in 2016. Do you expect that to happen this session?

I think there has been talk. I think the talk has been more external than internal with tax reform proposals. I think that every proposal deserves scrutiny, whether it’s extraction, whether it’s tobacco, whether it’s sales, whether its other proposals. I think they all deserve scrutiny. That’s our job. We’re legislators. Our job is to look at what’s on the table, what’s being proposed., and what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. That’s not an endorsement of revenue enhancement, but as legislators, it is our role to engage and to scrutinize.

What do we want post 2018? What kind of economy? What kind of society do we want?

Are you open to the idea of earmarking taxes for specific purposes?

Sometimes earmarking is what resonates more with the electorate as opposed to a blank check. I completely understand the political realities of the electorate. They want to know what it’s going for. No one wants to tax themselves. But they want the best rate of return, and that they’re getting the best bang for the buck.

Do you think the green economy can help?

We moved forward with SB 535, the first bill of its kind in the world, where we mandate money be invested directly in the communities being impacted by environmental damage. So it’s a minimum of 10 percent [of cap and trade money] to impact these communities. That wouldn’t have happened if we had not forced the hand of many folks to move forward. The market, left to its own devices, would never have proposed the resources to mitigate the public health crisis in these communities.

And it can help generate economic growth in these areas — energy efficiency, retrofits, upgrade, weatherization. When we think about progressive forward-thinking climate policies, when we think about decarbonizing the economy, we also have to think about growing the economy and we also have to think about how we can allow all individuals to fully participate in the decarbonization of the economy.

Some people say those things are antithetical, the environment and jobs.

I don’t believe that at all. We’re the 7th largest economy in the world. We’re a month into transportation fuels under the cap. The world hasn’t bottomed out. I think a lot of that is the naysayers who may not agree with these climate change policies. But we’re proving that we can move forward with progressive climate change policies and also improve the economy. They’re not incompatible with each other, and we’re actually proving it.

It’s not just a talking point to instill a sense of fear and uncertainty around policy makers. It’s something that’s real, It’s something that’s measurable and tangible. We are witnessing economic growth, and at the same time progressive climate change policies.

Are these good jobs that are being created?

The solar industry grew by 20 percent last year. There’s a lot of energy efficiency jobs. These jobs are labor intensive. These jobs can’t be outsourced other states, or offshore to Guangzhou, China or wherever. They’re labor-intensive jobs. They have to be done on sight.

The best example I can point to is Prop. 39. We closed an egregious corporate tax loophole. And now we’re investing $2.5 billion in our K-12 and college retrofits. That means you’re putting people to work. We’ll create upwards of 40,000 jobs as a result of Prop. 39.

I strongly believe that you can grow the economy and simultaneously move forward with climate change policy. I think the rest of the country is watching us. I think other fossil-fuel drillers are watching us as well, because ultimately their business model is predicated on emitting toxics into the atmosphere and damaging the environment.

If the industries in question had no negative effect on the environment, then clearly nobody would be trying to decarbonize the economy.

But we have to ensure the economy survives the transition.

That’s the real challenge. And that’s why the world will be watching what we do in California. India, China in particular are watching us. They’re not watching Alaska or Texas. They’re not watching the Midwest or the Southeast or the Northeast.

Antonio Villaraigosa has opted out of the 2016 Senate race, but eventually, there is going to be a high-profile debate among Democrats over some of these issues we’re talking about. Do you think that’s needed?

Whatever the field is in 2016, as well as 2018, I think the issues of economic growth, the environment and income inequality are three really important issues. It really does behoove us to make sure that everyone can participate as much as possible in this new economic resurgence. At the end of the day, it ends up costing us money if they don’t. It’s very expensive to be poor in California.

It seems like the wealth gap issues have come to the forefront

It’s a really good thing that because we have the 7th largest GDP in the world, we have more money for our budget, and we’re more in the black. It’s a positive thing. It’s just a little scary when in some parts of the state it’s like a Gilded Age, and then other parts of the state, they’re still being left behind and not participating in the economic resurgence.

For the overall health of the state, it does behoove us to provide the leadership to make sure that we can get as many folks as possible to participate in this economic resurgence.

And you think that government policy can help with that? That Sacramento can help extend that opportunity?

I will give the governor credit in terms of his investments in the Local Control Funding Formula. That could be a game-changer, because I do believe that education is the greatest equalizer that we have. That’s more long-term.

It’s not a really sexy thing, but it holds the promise to be a major game-changer. And going back to income inequality issues, you have to look at issues of poverty – it’s not just an increase in CalWORKS. You have to look at it holistically, the entire picture of poverty. There’s no parks, no open space, no access to higher education. The air quality is among the worst in the country in these communities. You have to look at the total cost of poverty and not just measure it by whether or not we increased CalWORKS or not.

It’s not an either-or equation.

But you really make environmental policy a focus of your policy platform

The environmental issue is with us. I don’t view this with a prism of a liberal/progressive ideology. Or a moderate or conservative ideology. Or business versus environmentalism. I view it through the prism that scientific data clearly demonstrates that this is a real issue, it’s an issue that we as legislators cannot move forward on very far-reaching policies to curb CO2 emissions then it will get to the point where it’s irreversible and its going to impact the public health, businesses and the economy.

So even though superficially it plays out as a partisan or ideological issue – environmentalist versus the Koch Borthers, or Republicans versus Democrats. But the way I view it is the data is convincing. It’s overwhelming, unless we do something.

Now, that being said, I don’t believe we live in a world of absolutes where we move forward with the most far-reaching proposals to curb carbon emissions and the economy bottoms out and you have great job loss. I know the naysayers say that. But I think we’ve been able to demonstrate is that you can move the economy and move forward progressive climate change policies.

And then what do we do for economic growth and job creation, particularly for those in the lower economic strata. We’ve been talking about this green economy for a long time, and it poses a very serious question: What is the green economy? Who’s working in this Green Economy? What kind of jobs? How many? How sustaining are they? These are good, solid questions.

I think it’s incumbent upon us policy makers to say, hey, if we’re going to do this, what kinds of jobs are we creating?

It’s almost like post-World War II in America, when you had the large, expansive economy and all the tract homes were being build, and the aerospace industry. We had the growth of the largest middle class in the world. With no college education, you could get a good job …

So the question is, are we potentially at the cusp of policy makers where we can have another massive expansion of the middle class in this new type of economy? I don’t know the answer right now. And this new type of economy derives from climate change policies.

And it’s mandated in part by government policy.

Well, Aerospace, it was Cold War, the Pentagon…

And driven by lots of government contracts. That’s a question I’m asking. What role does government play to build these industries?

I think with this issue of climate change, it’s a cultural shift too. Folks identify the enviros, the leftists, they haven’t adapted their understanding. It’s not the same cultural, visceral issue as the Cold War was.

I think that’s the thing. Can we be at the cusp of expanding the middle class and by doing so, do so in a similar fashion of what the U.S. Government and Pentagon did in terms of taxpayer dollars. The aerospace legacy built Southern California, especially.

That’s why, at the end of the Cold War, during a very acute regional economic recession, we had so many jobs impacted. You didn’t need McDonnell Douglass. You didn’t need Lockheed. Our marketshare shrunk and all these people lost their jobs.

Well, it’s 20 years later, and those jobs haven’t come back

The economy wasn’t globalized the way it is now.

But that’s not going away. That’s not something that California can stop. Or is it? Can California help create a model for the rest of the country in this post industrial world?

If you believe in programs to take folks from the lowest economic strata and move them into the middle class, if you believe in programs for single mothers with children, you have to believe in economic expansion. They’re tied to each other. You have to make business permitting more efficient.

Economic growth isn’t necessarily thought of as Democrats’ strong suit

That’s what we’re trying to change here. There are so many factors that are beyond our control. Right now, the economy is growing, but that can change. Let’s assume there are no external factors that trip us up. We can’t be in a position where we’re in a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and we’re allowing the current to take us wherever it takes us. If you want continued economic growth, you have to do so with some intentionality.

What does our future economy look like? If it’s the service economy, then we’re talking about poor wages. If it’s tech and IT, then there’s only a certain segment of the population that is in that space.

What is the economy that is going to allow us to have our values? That is the main question.

Ed’s Note: Anthony York has covered California politics for close to 20 years. Before launching the Grizzly Bear Project in 2015, he covered Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration for the Los Angeles Times. He is the former editor of Capitol Weekly, a former Associate Editor of the California Journal and of Salon.com, where he also served as the Web site’s Washington D.C. correspondent. He tweets at @anthonyyork49

 


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