SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Seeking to set himself apart from his chief rival in the race for California governor, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday decried “Davos Democrats” who pander to rich liberals but neglect the middle class.
"We can't just subsidize people who drive a Tesla and not people who drive a pickup or Toyota, like my mother did,” Villaraigosa said during a forum Thursday night at the University of San Francisco.
Villaraigosa's use of the term “Davos Democrats” was a not-so-veiled attempt to paint his primary foe, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, as a well-off and out-of-touch party elite.
Villaraigosa said Democrats’ failure to talk more about issues that affect the country's middle and working classes was a major reason why Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.
“As progressives, we’ve lost our way,” he said. “We weren’t talking enough about the economy.”
Villaraigosa, mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 to 2013, touted the increase in the city’s graduation rate in those years from 44 percent to 72 percent, and a $100 million fund that built 20,000 new units of housing in the midst of a recession.
Asked by moderator Davis Siders, of Politico, if he bears any blame for the rise of homelessness in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa said, “Everyone bears responsibility,” including the city, state and federal governments.
Villaraigosa, who was speaker of the Assembly from 1998 to 2000, said that loosening onerous environmental review requirements could encourage new housing construction.
“It's very difficult to build anything in this state,” Villaraigosa said. “I think progressives need to acknowledge that the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] is broken. We have to address a broken CEQA system.”
Asked if he would support efforts to repeal the state’s Costa Hawkins Act, which limits rent control laws in cities and counties, Villaraigosa declined to answer directly, saying “everything should be on the table” when it comes to solving the state’s housing crisis.
He said the state should take a more active role in working with cities and counties to tackle housing issues.
“The state needs to say to cities and counties, ‘If you have a plan for work force, density, transit-oriented development, if you're willing to do permitting reform, we'll partner with you to do it,’” he said.
He pledged full support for the state's increasingly pricy $10.6 billion high-speed rail project to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“High-speed rail will connect the two engines of the California economy with the one place where there’s affordable housing and a high poverty rate, primarily because they’re dependent on just one sector of the economy,” Villaraigosa said, referring to the agricultural Central Valley.
He called the bullet train a “game changer” that will bring prosperity to the long-neglected Central Valley.
Turning to health care, Villaraigosa said that while he supports a single-payer system, the focus for now should remain on protecting coverage for up to 5 million Californians who could lose health insurance under the Trump administration.
“Job No. 1 is protecting those 2 to 5 million people,” he said.
On taxation, Villaraigosa refused to make the same pledge Governor Jerry Brown made in 2010, when he vowed not to raise taxes without voter approval.
Villaraigosa called Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure that reduced property taxes and limited tax hikes, “broken.” He called for reform of the state’s tax system, saying California should tax professional services, such as software coding and web design services in Silicon Valley.
“We have a tax system that encourages sales tax and not payroll taxes,” Villaraigosa said. “It doesn't tax the fastest-growing part of our economy.”
Villaraigosa said he supports sanctuary state legislation signed by Governor Brown last fall. Villaraigosa, whose grandfather emigrated from Mexico, said he also favors increasing the state's $25 million legal defense fund for immigrants.
“The kind of due process we take for granted, you don't have that in immigration court,” Villaraigosa said. “These people are almost sent to the wolves, no representation. Giving these people a shot with a lawyer I think is really important. As governor, I want to continue that.”
Oakland resident Jessica Rothhaar, who attended the forum, said she was impressed by Villaraigosa’s record as mayor and his “ability to master a huge bureaucracy and navigate it to policy outcomes.”
But she felt uneasy with his reluctance to support repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Act.
“If I didn't have rent control, I wouldn't be able to stay in the Bay Area,” Rothhaar said. “Unwillingness to repeal Costa-Hawkins could be a third rail for me.”
Basil Saleh, a 21-year-old senior at the University of San Francisco, said he thinks Villaraigosa has more “grit” than his rival candidates. He said he supports Villaraigosa, though none of the candidates’ positions align perfectly with his socialist ideology.
Philip Bailey, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of San Francisco, lamented that Villaraigosa does not appear fully committed to a single-payer healthcare system for the state.
Bailey said he hopes Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom will spend less time talking about Donald Trump and more time talking about issues that affect Californians.
“They’re all against Trump. We get it,” Bailey said. “We're not about the rhetoric. Let’s get to the issues.”
The forum was the first in a series of five question-and-answer sessions with gubernatorial candidates sponsored by Politico and the University of San Francisco’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.
The next forum will feature Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday night, Feb. 5.
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