California Democrat Zev Yaroslavsky Tells Robert Scheer Why the State Is a Model for Progressives
On his KCRW show, “Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer speaks with Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the leaders of California’s Democratic Party, about the California paradox, or how progressives swept the nation’s largest state in the 2016 election while Hillary Clinton got Trumped elsewhere in the country.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence hopefully comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Zev Yaroslavsky, who I’ve known about and known for a very long time. He’s just retired as a supervisor of LA County and before that was on the city council. For people who are listening to this who don’t come from Los Angeles, that might not sound like that big a deal but in Los Angeles … The city of Los Angeles is just like the city of Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. We’re a collection of a lot of different cities and we come under a county system of government, where a handful of people called supervisors really have the big power here.
One reason I was interested in Zev and summarizing his career … Well there’s basically two. One, I’ve known him as a very idealistic yet hardheaded politician. He started out … I remember when he was a kid at UCLA and he cared about Soviet Jewry and was demonstrating and so forth on a number of other issues. Then went on to be a practical politician and accomplish a great deal. In many ways the most impressive progressive politician in this part of California.
The other thing is we’re at a season where the Democrats, and he is a democrat, have done terribly in the country, running against what should have been a very weak candidate, Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton, the anointed democrat, lost. The question is, why is California so different? California is now the deepest blue state around and it has presumably a mixture that’s similar to the rest of the country. It has immigrants. It has angry white people. It has problems. Yet in California, voters voted in what I would consider to be a very reasonable fashion. They elected an African-American woman to be our new senator and sent her to Congress. They have supported basically Democrats in power.
The other night I had Zev Yaroslavsky in my class at USC. I thought he provided one of the most interesting explanations of what went wrong for the Democrats in terms of … I guess I can use the word their alienation for what should have been their normal base. I’d like to begin with that, Zev, and ask for your assessment of where this party is now. What did this election mean?
Zev Yaroslavsky: Well I don’t think it was just this party. I think it was both parties. I don’t think Donald Trump is your classic Republican. He’s Donald Trump. I think at the end of the day, two factors. One is people in the United States all across the country are experiencing a high level of anxiety. It manifests itself through anger and other electoral exercises, but primarily people are anxious. While there has been an economic recovery on paper in this country, and certainly the stock market reflects that and corporate salaries reflect that, the average person, especially between the Colorado River and the Hudson River, has not benefited from that recovery.
Seared in the memories of many Americans was the experience of the collapse of the economy in 2008, 2009. Not quite The Great Depression but it reminded me of my dad telling me how it was during The Great Depression. You should eat everything on your plate because in The Depression, we didn’t have this. It was seared in his memory 30, 40 years after The Depression. We’re only six, seven years out of The Great Recession. People are still nervous, still anxious. They don’t know whether their pensions are going to be there for them when they retire. They don’t know whether their benefits are going to be taken away from them while they’re working. There’s just a high level of anxiety.
At UCLA I direct the LA Initiative at the Luskin School of Public Affairs. We did a quality of life index. It’s an annual project at UCLA that asked Angelenos … Los Angeles County residents, not just registered voters but all county residents, to rate their quality of life in nine different categories. Then we asked them a couple of standalone questions. One of the questions was in the last few years, have you worried about losing your home and becoming homeless as a result? When we bounced that question around our team, I said, “You know, if 10% of the people say yes to that question, that will be news. That would be quite stunning.” Well the number of people, the percentage of people who responded yes to the question of fearing becoming homeless as a result of losing their home was 31%. 31% of Los Angeles County residents have in the last few years feared becoming homeless. 24% of people making between $90 and $120 thousand a year fear becoming homeless.
It was one of those light bulb moments. Intellectually I understood this but viscerally, I didn’t get it until I saw that figure. I said, “Jeez. One out of three people walking down the streets of this county today have worried in the last couple years of landing on the street.” I’m not one of them. I’m thinking to myself, “If I was one of them, what would my psychological quality of life be? What would my married life be? How would my family life be?” It would be pretty miserable because I’d be nervous all the time. Well that’s what’s going on in LA and in Southern California. It’s the same thing I suspect that’s going on in the Rust Belt, in Pennsylvania, in the suburbs of Detroit, in Ohio, on and on.
That level of anxiety has been totally missed by the political elite. This gets to the second issue. The political elite in Washington, Democrats and Republicans. The political class, as it has been termed, does not walk a mile in the shoes of any of these people who have this high anxiety level. Why should they? A congressman gets a pretty good salary, good benefits, healthcare taken care of, gets a car, car allowance for his district office. They don’t pay for a thing. I was a county supervisor for 20 years in Los Angeles County. I was a city councilman for almost 20 years in the city of Los Angeles. The city provided me with a car. The county provided me with a car. My point is that those of us who are in this bubble of the political elite who have everything taken care of … If I didn’t want to pay for a dinner for 40 years, I wouldn’t have had to pay for a single dinner.
That’s not the life that most Americans lead. I made it my business as an elected official to walk a mile in the shoes of my constituents. All of them. The very poor, and I represented a whole lot of very poor people, marginally poor, lower middle class. I wanted to viscerally understand what they were going through. I don’t think that’s what you get out of Washington today.Scheer: Let me ask you why California is so exceptional because we have white people. Not only white people, but minority should be really angry about what’s happened. Black and brown people who graduated from college, according to The Federal Reserve, lost three-quarters of their wealth. This hit brown and black people more and they haven’t recovered. They lost thousands. They were targeted but we still also have plenty of angry white people. Why in California did the Democrats do so well? Why do they continue to do so well and what is the difference-
Yaroslavsky: Well they didn’t always do so well.
Scheer: I know but I’m talking about now. This Democratic Party. I must say, we could refer to the second coming of Jerry Brown in a way. It seems that in California, people are angry. They have a lot to be angry about. They’ve lost their homes and so forth but they didn’t turn to the right-wing message. They turned to what is a by national standards, a far more progressive Democratic Party than what Clinton represented with this triangulation that’s reaching out to Wall Street. After all, the attorney general here who is now our senator, she led the fight against the settlement that Obama wanted to make with Wall Street and said, “You’re not giving enough back to help home owners.” Right? Why don’t we talk about what makes California a center of hope?
Yaroslavsky: I’m not sure I can answer that question easily. First of all, we do have a lot of angry whites in California and they vote accordingly. I think it’s a progressive … The coastal California is a very progressive place. It’s also economically better off than it was. In 1998, George H.W. Bush beat two caucus comfortably in California. That was the last time that a Republican won. At the same time, you had Pete Wilson, a moderate Republican or at least started out as a moderate Republican and became governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger recalled to Democratic governor in California. I think it would be a mistake for Democrats in California to think that they’ve got a lock on this-
Scheer: No, but let me just throw in a statistic. In this election where the Democrats managed to lose every branch of government on the federal level, California, the Democrats have a super majority in the legislature.
Scheer: That is astounding.
Yaroslavsky: Well it’s astounding but it’s a product of redistricting also.
Scheer: Well but the whole statewide ticket won.
Yaroslavsky: It did.
Scheer: At a time when … We don’t have a large African-American population in California, yet we are electing a progressive African-American woman to be our new senator.
Yaroslavsky: Well let me take another crack at this. The state of California is a state of immigrants. Just like America is a nation of immigrants, we are really a state of immigrants. Immigrants from overseas and immigrants from places like Iowa and Nebraska. Most people have roots somewhere else or at least they have, certainly their parents do, in California. We have the reality and the benefit of having a robust immigration from Asia, from Latin America, from Europe. Certainly from Canada, which still I think is the number one immigrant population.
Scheer: Well we have I think a very significant percentage of the undocumented population-
Yaroslavsky: No question.
Scheer: -that Donald Trump says he wants to … Aren’t we maybe I think 40%?
Yaroslavsky: Here’s my point. I think that in California there’s a different kind of culture than there may be in some other parts of the country about the value … Not the burden, but the value of immigrants because so many of us either are immigrants … In my case, my parents were immigrants. I channel them. The attack on immigrants that launched Trump’s campaign fell like a lead balloon in California. It just got no traction. We had been through that in California some 20 years ago, 25 years ago with Prop 187 and a couple of propositions on the ballot that targeted people of color, that targeted immigrants, targeted undocumented immigrants.
We’ve matured as a state since then, I believe, but I also warn that as we saw in this election, you’ve got to be vigilant about these things because people can turn on a dime when they personally feel threatened, insecure, anxious, afraid they’re going to be homeless, afraid they can’t get medicines, afraid they’re going to go hungry. People, human beings do tend to scapegoat. Even in California, it’s something to be vigilant about. This is a different state than the Midwest, the Rust Belt.
Scheer: Yeah but I think we can learn from this state because in this state, no leading Democratic politician can turn their back on undocumented immigrants. They support it.
Yaroslavsky: That’s right.Scheer: The unions in this state, service employees and so forth, organize people, whether they’re documented or not, to have their rights. The supervisors have supported them. You folks have even voted for a living wage increase in the minimum wage, haven’t you, on a county level?
Yaroslavsky: We certainly established a living wage. After I left when the minimum wage campaign got going and the city of Los Angeles passed a $15 an hour minimum wage, the county was waiting for the city to act. The county, in terms of where it has jurisdiction on a wage is only in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Yaroslavsky: All the 88 cities can make their own decisions.
Scheer: It sets the floor.
Yaroslavsky: No question. The county in 2015 voted to … As did the city, to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by the end of this decade, which is a huge deal. Yeah, there’s certain basic things … I wouldn’t even call it ideological. There are differences in the Democratic Party in California. You look at the legislature. There are more liberal, more pro-environment segments or caucuses and less liberal-
Scheer: More Latinos.
Yaroslavsky: Certainly more now.
Yaroslavsky: One thing that the Democratic Party in California understands is the economy stupid. Trump understood that it was the economy stupid. People listen to … They were open to his argument not because we didn’t make the … Not because he had better looks but because we didn’t make the argument.
Scheer: We made the opposite.
Scheer: Let’s cut to the chase here. I think there was a world of difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton. You’re a politician. Come on, Zev. You’re a progressive politician but you’re a very successful politician. You’re preparing to run for the Senate for the President of the United States. You’ve been a Senator from New York. What do you do? You go to Goldman Sachs and take three-quarters of a million dollars for three speeches that weren’t even speeches. They were little blather there and you don’t even cover yourself by saying to these folks in case those speeches become public, and any speech you give should be public, you don’t even say, “Hey, you guys bear some of the responsibility.” On the contrary, you say, “We need you down in Washington to write better laws because you understand it so bring it.” What was this woman thinking?
Yaroslavsky: I don’t know and you have to ask her, but I’ll tell you one thing. That’s not the reason she lost the election. I think the reason the Democratic Party and its candidate lost the election is because … The reason Jeb Bush and John Kasich and all the others on the Republican side didn’t get any traction on their side was because they were not in touch with what the people of this country were going through. A big chunk of the people and a critical mass of them who tilted the election from her to him.
Scheer: Right, but there were-
Yaroslavsky: She should have beaten this guy by 25 points.
Scheer: No, she wanted this guy to be the candidate. The Democrats thought they lucked out. We’re going to sweep both houses of Congress. We’re going to have the White House. They’re so out of touch but the person who wasn’t out of touch, and I’m not trying to pin you down … You vote for who you want and support who you want.
Yaroslavsky: Well I appreciate that.
Scheer: Clearly. There’s a big argument of, “Oh, he’s for the lesser evil.” I don’t want to get into all that. We don’t have that much time.
Scheer: I want to say something happened on the Democratic side. I thought Bernie Sanders was going to get two, three percent of the vote.
Yaroslavsky: Oh, I didn’t.
Yaroslavsky: I didn’t think he’d get as far as he did but I didn’t think he’d stay at three percent.
Scheer: Okay. What Bernie Sanders showed in exactly the places where she failed to carry up there in Wisconsin and so forth, Bernie Sanders showed that he could talk to working people, the people the Democrats were supposed to be able to talk to and get them excited and get them to feel that he represented some change. Instead of really incorporating that message and saying, “Okay, let’s learn from the primary,” the Democrats went back to their old business as usual. They’ve been criticized by leaders of the party in the states, they didn’t address these concerns.Yaroslavsky: I don’t disagree with that. I ask my friends who are troubled by this result, “Tell me in one or two sentences what the Democratic message was in this presidential general election.” I can’t tell you what it was. I can tell you what his was. I don’t think any of us know exactly the reason why. Maybe over time it’ll become clear. Maybe they were playing defense all the way along. It’s uncharacteristic of the Clintons to play defense. They’re very aggressive and they take the offense. In this particular election … They were dealt a few bad hands, but by and large, it was a tough enough election because you had a Democrat who is as popular as he is. He’s been around for eight years. It’s very unusual, rare in fact, for a Vice President or a member of a party of a two-term incumbent presidency to win. In my lifetime, only George H.W. Bush was able to do it after Regan. It’s tough enough to get over that hump but to have no message and to miss the boat about what was going on in the key battleground firewall states.
Scheer: We are speaking with Zev Yaroslavsky and discussing what went wrong with this election and what has he learned from 40 years of experience in government. We’ll be right back.
Welcome back to my guest, who is Zev Yaroslavsky. He’s been a supervisor in Los Angeles County and one of the major politicians in California. Discussing what went wrong in this election. First of all, we were talking about California and these fools on the East Coast who control the media tend to trivialize this, “Oh, it’s California,” granola and everything. The fact is we are the sixth largest economy in the world.
Yaroslavsky: That’s right.
Scheer: In the world, okay? What happens in California is very important to the world’s economy. California under Jerry Brown and under the legislature really went a different way on a whole number of issues. Certainly immigration, certainly the right to … You can drive a car if you’re undocumented. You can actually graduate law school and practice. All sorts of things have been done for immigrants. The law enforcement authorities here in Los Angeles and elsewhere have said they’re not going to cooperate with goons coming in and just grabbing people and so forth. The state has been quite progressive on a number of those issues, social issues. Even on climate change, which you think of as an international issue that has to be negotiated, actually under Jerry Brown, the state has taken a number of initiatives to set a global standpoint.
Yaroslavsky: Oh, huge initiatives.
Scheer: Well maybe talk about it. That’s a positive way to think about moving forward.
Yaroslavsky: Well I think California, led by the governor and my good friend and colleague … We represented parts of the same district, State Senator Stan Pavley, who authored two key pieces of legislation on climate change, on reducing our carbon footprint. California again, we’ve got to start back 50, 60 years. Environmental problems hit California really hard, especially Southern California. Smog. All of us who grew up here understood what the implications of air pollution were and water pollution. When people went swimming in the ocean and got sick. I guess you could say that in California, once there was a commonality of political interests in Sacramento, they did something about it. They didn’t just bemoan it. There wasn’t just gridlock but they did something about it. It passed legislation. Even going back to the Pat Brown-
Scheer: Well even Schwarzenegger did.
Yaroslavsky: Even Schwarzenegger did some … Yeah, there’s no question. He was more of an environmentalist than just about any other Republican that occupied that office. Yeah, climate change has been a huge deal. California, being the sixth largest economy and given the fact that nationally, federal government has not been as aggressive for a variety of reasons, California is leading the way for the United States, as cities have. Los Angeles, the city of Los Angeles under Mayor Villaraigosa and now under Mayor Garcetti made this a big issue. The feeling around the world is among mayors and municipal officials is if our national government isn’t going to do anything about it, there’s nothing to prevent us from trying to do something about it if we can get into common cause.
You have cities like Paris and London and New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, who are coming together to try to influence the … Retard the rate of damage that the climate change is doing to our planet and to our communities. If you look around … This is again another subject, but the climate change, the implications for coastal cities. Many of them heavily populated in Africa, West Africa, East Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh. Water level rising just a few feet will impact hundreds of millions of people. Talk about a refugee problem from Syria. It’ll make Syria look like a walk in the park.
Scheer: Can we really expect either of these parties to find a path out that in California now seems sensible? Okay, we have these 12 million people that are not documented. Can we get a path to citizenship? Can we? These trade agreements suck. People are hurting. One way you can deal with these trade agreements is make people pay their taxes here, support the public schools, give people an opportunity. The sort of thing you did as a county supervisor. Yet when I look at the Democratic administrations we have, sure, they may be the lesser evil but it’s still an evil. Isn’t it? Why didn’t we get immigration reform? Why didn’t we get better progress on … Why is our healthcare … Okay, we know that Obamacare is better than the alternative, but why didn’t they control costs? Why aren’t people more enthusiastic about it?
You’re my model of a progressive politician. I think if you had been in the White House, you would have said, “Hey, let’s solve the immigration issue. Hey, let’s control the costs-“Yaroslavsky: Well I think there was an effort to solve the immigration issue by this president, by President Obama. I think even George W. Bush for a fleeting moment wanted to solve the immigration issue, but the politics of Capitol Hill and the inflaming of the issue on the hustings did it in. I do believe that there’s a path forward to comprehensive immigration reform. I think both parties … The Democrats certainly understand it and the Republicans understand maybe they got lucky this year, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. Just do the math. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. This isn’t calculus. This is arithmetic. They got away with it this time. They’re not going to get away with it over time.
Scheer: All right. Let me end with this question. How worried are you? This guy does have … President-to-be Trump does have his finger on the button. He could do a lot of damage. President of the United States is the most important human being in the world. He could without even thinking, and maybe that’s the problem, can cause a lot of harm. Are you losing sleep over this?
Yaroslavsky: Well I’m not losing sleep but I tend to sleep better now than I used to. My waking hours are … Give me stomach aches. Let me put it that way. I’m worried about it mainly because I don’t know … Aside from his behavior and having his finger on the button and his clearly tempestuous personality, I don’t know what he stands for. I don’t think anybody knows. I’m not sure he knows what he stands for. In a world which is so dynamic and there’s so many things changing so rapidly, even in the course of a 24-hour period, dependability or at least knowing where somebody stands is still an important commodity. If I’m getting knots in my stomach over him at the helm, imagine what our friends around the world are feeling. There are a lot of implications to what he’s doing.
Scheer: Well finally, do you think the Democrat Party that you’ve been a major figure in, you have, do you think they learned any lessons from this or is it all going to be shoot the messenger? “We were betrayed by Julian [inaudible 00:27:02]. It’s Putin.” Or what did Hillary Clinton say? “A basket of deplorables.” Do you think that there’s any kind of serious reexamination of where is the Democratic Party? Why was it in bed with Wall Street? Why was it so dependent upon that money? Are we going to listen to Elizabeth Warren? Are we going to listen to Bernie Sanders?
Yaroslavsky: I hope there’s a lesson to be learned that will be taken to heart. I don’t know how you could be politics as a democrat at the national level these days, having lost to this candidate, to Donald Trump. If it had been any other Republican, it would have been worse. I think that’s safe to say. They’ve got to change the-
Scheer: When you say worse, you mean not for the country but for the party.
Yaroslavsky: No, no. Worse for the Democrats.
Scheer: Oh, yeah.
Yaroslavsky: I think it would have been a wider margin. If it had been Jeb Bush, assuming he did not flame out, or any of the other moderate candidates. John Kasich. You think she would have won the popular vote against John Kasich given what we know now? I don’t think so. The public was ready for a change. The one thing that we can say with certainty, it was a change election. You could foresee that before the election certainly. As the Trump people said, if we can make change the issue, we will win. They may change the issue. There was no response on our side. There’s got to be not a retribution, not a finger pointing at the Democratic Party, but I think everybody’s got to take a look in the mirror and say, “What did we miss?” I don’t think it’s a complicated question.
Now remember, 107,000 vote difference would have flipped the election the other way. It’s not exactly a landslide but it should have been a landslide in her favor. I look at it as what could have been, what should have been 10, 15, 20 points. She basically comes to a draw with him. If we don’t want to go through that again, we’ve got to understand what we missed. I think we compartmentalized our campaigns and didn’t have an overarching theme, an overarching message. What was that overarching message? To quote Bill Clinton, this is 25 years ago, “We feel your pain and we’re going to do something about it.” There was not that empathy that came across in this. I don’t mean empathy as a charade, but real empathy. If you’re really empathetic with somebody, you’re going to do something about it.
I think this is the umpteenth wake up call that political parties have had in this country. If the Democrats want to rule again, then they’re going to have to come to grips with that. I don’t think it’s that complicated. I don’t think it’s necessarily alien to their way of thinking. This is what the Democratic Party should stand for and it’s got to be more sensitive about who they get into bed with between elections. I’m fond of the Jesse Unruh quote where, “If you can’t take their money and vote against them, you don’t belong in politics.”
Scheer: No, it’s more than that.
Yaroslavsky: I didn’t want to say that.
Scheer: “If you can’t take their money, drink their booze and sleep with their women and vote against them, you don’t belong in politics.”
Yaroslavsky: This was a family show. I didn’t want to …
Scheer: Oh, okay. Let’s just hope there is a soul left in some of these leaders. It’s time to wrap it up. I want to thank you, Zev, because you certainly didn’t lose your moral bearings during these 40 years you were in government and I appreciate that.
Yaroslavsky: Thank you.
Scheer: I want to thank Josh Scheer and Rebecca Moonie for producing another edition of Scheer Intelligence, and Mario Diaz and Kat Yore for providing the great engineering. See you next week.
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