Calif. Governor’s race: Antonio Villaraigosa interview

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You may remember him as the two-term mayor of Los Angeles, but Antonio Villaraigosa has his eyes set on higher office. He’s one of the top Democratic contenders in the race to be the next governor of California. Villaraigosa talks with KCRW’s Press Play about his plans to improve education, his political track record, and his support for the bullet train.

KCRW: All right, make your case why should you be California’s next governor?

AV: I should be the next governor because, I’ve got a track record – track record as mayor of Los Angeles, the largest city by an increment of five, Speaker of the California State Assembly, and because I’ve been willing to make the tough calls in a way that in contradistinction to the other people in this race. When I was speaker of the assembly, I authored the assault weapons ban, the largest school bond in new US history, healthy Families, 750,000 kids got health care. The first anti-discrimination bill against gay and lesbians in employment and housing.

When I was mayor of Los Angeles I said dream with me that we’d build the subway to the sea and we built three light rail lines and one bus way, more than anyone in the United States of America. When I was mayor I said we improve our schools and we nearly doubled the graduation rate, built more schools than anybody in the United States during that eight year period of time. I took on crime, number one American city in reducing crime, 49 percent drop in violent crime a 45 percent drop in homicides and in a city with dirty air, number one city and reducing carbon emissions, number five in the world. We sign agreements to get completely off of coal. So, willingness to take on the tough issues as you remember, I was mayor in the toughest recession since the 1930s. I had to stave off of bankruptcy by doing things like, pension reform. I got current employees to go from 6 percent to 11 percent contribution.

I made the tough calls. I made it free to open up a business and L.A. and nearly doubled the number of small businesses from 2010 to 2013. So, those are some of the reasons. I think leadership counts, track record is a great way to point to what you’re going to do in the future. The willingness to take on the tough issues I think is what differentiates me from my opponents.

KCRW: Well and certainly you have name recognition you’ve been as you say, around California and L.A. politics for a good long time. So, why is it that in a state that is 45 percent registered Democrat, 25 percent Republican, 25 percent no party preference, and Latinos outnumber whites. Why are you struggling to maintain a number two spot in the polls with a white Republican John Cox who’s a political neophyte from Chicago nipping at your heels?

AV: Well first of all, I think we both know that I have never run statewide, one. I haven’t been in office for five years. And, you mentioned my ethnicity, you know the one group that historically doesn’t vote in the numbers that others do as is the Latino community. In fact in 1100 races since 2001 they’ve only voted their numbers in the electorate four times. That’s the bad news. The good news is that three of them were for me. So, I’m not focused on polls, I wasn’t when I started. I think I was 25 percent down, and now I’ve closed that gap, I’ve gotten closer and moved back a little bit.

I think at the end of the day what I’m focused on is growing our economy and growing middle class jobs. Talking with people about the need for us to acknowledge the fact that we’re the fifth largest economy in the world, with the highest effect of poverty rate in the United States. We have an economy the size of France and a poverty rate akin to Romania and I believe the next governor is going to have to focus on growing together and doing what he can to educate and train our workforce; building infrastructure in the way that I did when I was mayor.

KCRW: But, I mean you must be confounding to you that you haven’t been able to attract broader support. And you’re not just looking to attract Latino votes, you’re looking to attract votes from all over right?

AV: Of course! That’s right, that’s exactly right. But you mentioned Latinos so I responded to it. Look, I’m winning in L.A. and I’m winning in the L.A. metropolitan area. But, my focus is not you know the last poll, or the next one. I think the only poll that counts is the one on election day.

KCRW: Okay, let’s switch to policy and talk about education. You are getting a lot of help to the tune of around $13 million in the last month alone from a group of people who are very much pro-charter including Netflix, CEO Reed Hastings, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. How will their support influence you when it comes to education policy?

AV: Well let’s look back, the teachers unions spent $1.8 million to get me elected in 2001 and 2005. They did because they wanted me to become governor one day. And I took on you know a broken school district that was failing kids – one out of three schools were failing. We had a 44 percent graduation rate. So I was willing to challenge even my friends, even friends that had contributed a lot to get me elected. And the same is true with charter schools. What I’ve said is, I’m for quality schools, quality traditional public schools, and quality public charters.

I’m not for failing schools, in fact when teacher’s union asked me if I would agree to a moratorium on charters I said, meet me halfway. I’ll agree to a moratorium on failing schools. I don’t think they liked that much and so yes, they are contributing. In 2005, the unions gave a lot to my competitor Jim Hahn at the time. I ended up working with him. So there’s no connection between what people give to a campaign and what your public policy is. What I pride myself on is that I call them like I see them. I’ve said to powerful interests, when your interest meets the public interest I’m all for it. When it doesn’t, I understand why you’re for it, but you can’t expect me to be for it.

KCRW: And how do you think the teacher’s union, how do you think they’re not operating in the public’s interest now?

AV: Well look, actually I am a big supporter of teachers and I also support unions. But I can tell you, Madeleine, for me, it caused me great consternation when I got elected mayor and I saw one out of three schools were failing, a 44 percent graduation rate. Not everybody worried about that in the way that I did. But I did, because I saw that these people looked to a public school education the same way my parents did or my mother did. And that’s always been the pathway to the American dream. So, you know, I want to work with everyone. But there’s no question that there were powerful interests, you know, basically making excuses when I got elected.

KCRW: But do you think that the unions need to change? Or do you think that there need to be different rules for teachers? 

AV:  I think we need to all work together is what I think. Traditional public schools with public charters. High quality schools adopting best practices, using data to look at what works, bringing technology into our classrooms, focusing to a much greater degree on teacher training and teacher support. You know I obviously did have some times when, you know, there was conflict with powerful interests but I always tried to put the interests of kids first.

KCRW: Let’s talk about housing the city and state, as we all know we’re in the middle of a massive housing crisis. And you have said that if you’re elected you will get developers to build half a million homes a year for seven straight years. 

AV: Actually, what I said, if you were at that event. I said, the goal is to build 3.5 million units of housing. I recognize it is a big goal. We’re not building anything close to it and we’re going to have to make a lot of changes to get there.

KCRW: So that 3.5 million is by 2025 so that would be 500,000 a year or so.

AV: That’s the goal. That’s the goal. But I’ve also put a path to how to get there. I’ve said we’ve got to give cities and counties the money we took from them, the state took from them in 2010 or so during the middle of a mortgage housing meltdown, they took a billion dollars from cities and counties for affordable housing. I want to bring back those redevelopment dollars, focus it just on housing not economic development. Then, do like I did when I was mayor. In the middle of a recession when we were doing furloughs and layoffs and making other cuts, I put $100 million in a housing trust fund that generated more than a billion dollars in tax increment and build 20,000 units of affordable housing.

So I want to put a housing trust fund together that says to cities and counties, if you have a plan for homeless, workforce, affordable transit-oriented development, density along appropriate places and ADUs, which are the granny flats and back yards. If you’re willing to do permitting reform and zoning changes we’ll give you money and resource that. So it’s a broad you know panoply of things that we need to do to get to the goal of 3.5 million.

KCRW: Okay, so that is the goal but what is the reality and what do you realistically think you can build?

AV: Madeleine, I know you do shows for a reason and I certainly respect that. I just told you, that’s the goal, I just gave you the pathway. I don’t know what else you need to get there. That’s the goal.

KCRW: But should we hold you to that number is my question if that’s your goal?

AV: Well you should hold me to working hard every single day to make that goal.

KCRW: Okay you mentioned bringing back redevelopment agencies and that program was gotten rid of for a number of reasons a big reason was it was filled with abuse. 

AV: Actually, I got to challenge you Madeleine. I was mayor of L.A. and I know this area very well and I could tell you this. The biggest reason was they were balancing their budget on the backs of cities and counties. They were in the middle of deficits as well and it’s true there were problems with redevelopment and this would be a redevelopment 2.0. We’ll look at the loopholes that existed. But the notion that there was rampant problems with cities across the state is just not true it’s not proven out by the facts.

KCRW: OK. It wasn’t. I mean I’m saying that was one of the reasons.

AV: You used the word rampant Madeleine. And it wasn’t rampant.

KCRW: Ok, not rampant. There were cases of abuse that the governor cited and that was one reason he got rid of it.

AV: Because there were cases of abuse. We’re going to we’re going to close those loopholes. But remember this they did this in the middle of a recession the middle of a housing mortgage housing meltdown. And coincidentally, you’ve seen homeless rise 49 percent, you’ve seen this housing crisis get even worse. So yes, I stand by the notion, we’re going to bring that money back to cities and counties. I think most people believe that the city of Santa Ana, the City of Anaheim, the city of Fontana, L.A., and San Francisco know better about what their needs are then Sacramento does.

KCRW: The State Finance Agency has said that $15 billion of that money has gone to schools and local government. $9 billion of that $15 to schools. So would you make up that $9 billion elsewhere. And if so where?

AV: Well those are the challenges that we’re going to have to look at. Obviously there’s finite resources.

KCRW: You, I understand are against the November ballot measure that would repeal Costa Hawkins and Costa Hawkins limits the amount of rent control a city can impose. Why are you against repealing Costa Hakwins?

AV:  I actually didn’t vote for cost Arkan’s, I was one of 16 people that didn’t vote for it. But I recognize that we’re going to have to put everything on the table if we’re going to address this housing crisis. So what I’ve said is, I do recognize that spiraling rents are making it almost impossible not just for renters but for you know people to afford shelter! And clearly we’re going to have to address that. I want to put it on the table because I want to negotiate a bigger percentage of affordable housing, homeless housing, workforce housing, so I’m not against the idea, I didn’t vote for it in the first place. What I’m against is doing it by initiative and not doing it as part of a grand bargain legislatively. You know there’s too much that gets done by initiative because the legislature is not filling the void. And, I believe the legislature and the governor need to do this together with all of the stakeholders so we really can address this crisis in a comprehensive and thoughtful way.

KCRW: There was a recent bill in the state Senate that would have overridden local zoning laws to build dense housing projects near transit and that bill died. But, you have said that had it passed you would not have signed it.

AV: I would not have signed it as written. It didn’t go far enough on the policy and remember I’m the author of the first transit oriented development plan in the United States not San Francisco not San Diego not New York. L.A. was the first one when we did the three light rails and the bus line we did it for the purpose of reimagining the city and putting jobs closer to housing and parks and schools and the like and created nodes along transportation corridors. The reason why it doesn’t go enough far enough on the policy is it doesn’t include density in other places where density’s appropriate, but maybe not next to a transit corridor. And it goes too far on the zoning because I do believe that cities, the city of Newport Beach, the city of Pasadena, the city of South Pas need to have greater control of this.

What I’ve said is, I want to use the housing trust fund, the requirement that they do permitting and zoning changes, the fact that they have to have a plan for homeless and all of this, as an incentive to do the right thing. Now, if cities aren’t willing even with those incentives to do right by the housing for the next generation of young people, for the homeless, for workforce, then I think it is incumbent on us to push harder from the state. I want to start off with incentives.

KCRW: Okay, let’s talk about something that as I’ve said before is not sexy, but it’s important. And that is the unfunded pension liabilities. California has about $330 billion worth of unfunded pension liabilities. What would you do about that?

AV: Well I think you asked me in the beginning, why me? In the middle of a recession when we’re facing a bankruptcy, I was going to have to lay off thousands of people. I ended up sitting down with our unions who wanted me instead to give them an early retirement and said, I can’t afford that. And we worked out something together. And that was we worked out addressing pension reform so I got current employees to go from 6 percent contribution to 11 percent contribution. New employees instead of getting 100 percent of their salary at 55 could only get 75 percent at 65. So I’ve got a track record of taking on this issue.

KCRW: The California rule, are you for it or against it? It basically says that the public employees basically enter a contract with their employer on their first day of work and they get the retirement benefits that can’t be diminished, unless they’re replaced with similar benefits. So, basically they’re guaranteed a set retirement level the moment they take their jobs. Are you for or against getting rid of that?

AV: Well all of the public sector unions are with my opponent Gavin Newsom, and I can tell you this. I’ve said to them and I do believe, I operated, I did what I did in L.A. with the California rule. I did it bringing in our employees, I believe in working with our stakeholders. Now, I know the courts are gonna decide that and you know, even if they get rid of it, I’m going to want to work with our partners. Look the one thing I learned in the eight years I was mayor, you know we have a lot of people who work really hard every single day. I support these people. But as governor, and you said it, we have an unfunded pension liability. You know when people say we have a $16 billion surplus they’re not taking into account that we have you know $300 plus billion unfunded liability, and I’m going to be willing to take on those issues and the best way to determine that is to look at what I did!

KCRW: What was Jerry Brown’s biggest mistake as governor?

AV: You know I really haven’t thought about his biggest mistake. I can tell you this. He took us from you know historic deficits to historic surpluses, that’s for sure. He’s done his job, thank you Jerry Brown. Now there are things – we’re not the same people. I’m going to want to focus for example on early child education but I don’t really have a lot to complain about. I’m just excited and thankful that he’s going to leave me with a $16 billion surplus.

KCRW: Well I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

AV: Look forward to seeing you on the campaign trail.