What’s most encouraging to me is a broader change you can sense in the politics of this issue. At every level of power in California, the state’s political actors have realized they need to find ways to build. Inaction is no longer a viable option. Even the politicians who oppose development have to pretend to favor it. There’s no illusion that the tent cities can continue, nor that they can be cleared without offering housing to their residents. Politics isn’t just about policy. It’s also about will, coalitions and a sense of consequences. That’s what feels different in California right now. And Newsom deserves some credit for that.
“The reason we began suing cities was to provide air cover,” Newsom told me. “I can’t tell you how many mayors privately thanked me even as they publicly criticized me for those lawsuits. We’re trying to drive a different expectation: We will cover you. You want to scapegoat someone, scapegoat the state. We haven’t had that policy in the past. Localism has been determinative. And that’s part of what’s changing.”
This is why I disagree with those, like the economist Tyler Cowen, who argue that a Republican victory in the recall would be a healthy wake-up call for California Democrats, with little downside because Elder would be checked by the Legislature. The political system has already woken up. But the politics of housing are miserable, and there’s much more yet to do. To wreck the governing coalition that is finally making progress would be madness.
“If Gavin were recalled, that’d be disastrous for housing policy in this state,” Brian Hanlon, the president of California YIMBY, a pro-housing group, told me. “The Legislature, I believe, could override Larry Elder’s vetoes on key bills. But all of these hard-fought housing bills that we are not passing with a supermajority cannot survive an Elder veto. All that would die.”
“I also think that if the recall succeeds, in part due to housing, the overall situation in Sacramento would just be chaotic,” Hanlon added later. “It’ll be a lost year as Democrats and the Legislature work to retake the governor’s office in 2022.”
Metcalf, the former head of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, has moved from dismayed to impressed by Newsom’s record on housing. “We’re beginning to see Newsom find the levers to pull,” he said. “We’re seeing him figure out how to get the Legislature to do what he wants. We’re just getting there with Newsom, which would make it very painful to lose him now.”
Every California politician brags that if California were a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest economy. On climate, though, that’s a point of leverage, a way California can try to use its economic might to push the world to decarbonize faster. “There is no peer on California’s climate leadership,” Newsom told me. “We move markets. We move policy globally, not just nationally.”