Villaraigosa is the best strategic choice for California governor, even though Shellenberger has the best policies

California June 2018 Primary

Max Ghenis
5 min readJun 2, 2018

California’s state elections are nearly unique in sending the top two primary candidates to the general election, regardless of party. Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s achievements in that office and as Mayor of San Francisco have put him atop the polls, so the main question to the voters on June 5 is who will challenge him. This result could have broad impact: without a Republican on the ballot, Republicans could be less likely to vote in the general election, improving Democrats’ chances of retaking the U.S. House of Representatives. So while I most support environmentalist Mike Shellenberger’s policies, I will take the strategic vote for the second-highest-polling Democrat in the race. As of this writing, that candidate is the former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Alongside Newsom and Villaraigosa, top Democratic candidates include State Treasurer John Chiang and former State Superintendent Delaine Eastin. One candidate hasn’t been in the polls, but stands out from the pack on policy: Mike Shellenberger, founder and president of Berkeley-based research and policy organization Environmental Progress. In particular, his policy proposals on housing, energy, and governance take on the special interests at the root of our most serious challenges.

California’s housing units per capita is the second-lowest of any state, and we’re short an estimated 3.6 million homes. This shortage has driven up rents and given California the worst poverty rate in the nation. Democratic gubernatorial candidates agree with this assessment, and aim to grow the housing stock by between 145,000 and 500,000 units per year. Their strategies range from subsidies to redevelopment to permanent supportive housing to accessory dwelling units. Eastin is alone in supporting a potential ballot measure that would end limits on rent control, a measure which would increase market rents and reduce the housing supply (this makes her ineligible for the job in my opinion).

Shellenberger recognizes that when it comes to housing, the main issue isn’t money but NIMBYism. Too many cities set meager housing goals, such as 0.1% per year in Beverly Hills, and too many homeowners use whatever tools available to block housing in their neighborhood to preserve property values. The environmentalist is the only candidate who supported CA SB 827, Senator Scott Wiener’s bill to legalize apartments near transit (Newsom supported the intent of the bill, but didn’t endorse it). And the centerpiece of his housing platform is reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which currently allows anyone to file a complaint against a development for any reason, anonymously and repeatedly. CEQA is so broken that it now could do more damage to the environment than good: this means of frivolously blocking green infill development pushes housing to the suburbs and people into ever-lengthening exhaust-filled commutes. In addition to his continued support for upzoning near transit, Shellenberger proposes ending anonymous and duplicative CEQA lawsuits to speed development where we need it most.

Energy is Shellenberger’s expertise as an environmentalist, and here he doubles down on nuclear power. Despite its promise and cleanness over its main substitute of natural gas, California only has two nuclear power plants, both scheduled for shutdown. Solar panels will not cure climate change alone in the near future — especially in urban areas where we need to expand population to broadly reduce emissions. Nuclear power can significantly shrink our carbon footprint, and it should be expanded.

In both housing and energy, Shellenberger is unafraid to favor the public interest over special interests: NIMBYs abusing environmental law to block housing, and the fossil fuel industry using scare tactics against nuclear power. His positions on pensions and education also favor California’s budget and children, respectively, even if it conflicts with public sector and teachers unions.

California’s two largest pension systems have a combined unfunded liability well in excess of our entire $180 billion state budget; this has contributed to our credit rating being among the lowest of U.S. states. This crisis is the product of unrealistic growth projections and cowardly politics. We’ve offloaded costs of public services to the next generations, rather than applying normal compensation systems where public employees retire on Social Security and savings as all other workers do.

Most private sector employees do not have a pension and rely almost entirely on Social Security benefits totaling an average of $16,000 per year. By contrast, California’s public employees have pensions [to which most contribute 5 to 11 percent] that pay an average of $96,000 per year that they start to enjoy at the age of 54, which is eight years earlier than the national average. — Mike Shellenberger

Shellenberger proposes public employees hired after 2020 contribute to their own retirements. (In my opinion, pension savings should in part fund higher salaries for new public employees and/or a California-wide Social Security supplement for all retirees, though Shellenberger doesn’t mention these.)

On education, Shellenberger’s recommendations shouldn’t be controversial: “flipped classrooms” combining online content with personalized education from teachers; and a “grand bargain where teachers would exchange higher pay for a reformed school day and the end of tenure.” This is more aggressive than my favored State Superintendent candidate, Marshall Tuck, whose support for extremely mild measures such as extending pre-tenure probationary period from two to three years has cost him endorsements of teachers unions. But these are common-sense reforms that research suggests would improve student outcomes, as well as living standards for many teachers.

Shellenberger is the only candidate with policy prescriptions matching the severity of our state’s challenges. I wish I could vote for him.

Unfortunately, Republican John Cox has steadily crept up in the polls. President Trump just endorsed him, which sadly still matters. Cox has a strong chance at facing off Newsom in November, improving Republican turnout in key congressional districts. The best way to avoid that outcome is voting for Villaragiosa.

Author’s calculations from RealClearPolitics

As the Los Angeles Times wrote in May:

In 2016, the first year with a major statewide race between two Democrats — Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez, who ran for a Senate seat — registration among Republicans in the state hit its lowest number for a presidential election year since 1984.

Of course, there was also an extremely unpopular presidential candidate in 2016. I couldn’t easily find these statistics from other states, but would guess a similar trend is evident. That two Democrats made it to the general election itself reflects the state’s partisan lean.

Regardless, if there’s even a small chance that a Democratic-only general election could improve the odds of a Democratic-controlled House, providing a critical check on President Trump, it’s worth doing. At this point, the closest thing to a vote against Trump in California may be a vote for Villaraigosa.



Max Ghenis

Co-founder & CEO of PolicyEngine. Founder & president of the UBI Center. Economist. Alum of UC Berkeley, Google, and MIT. YIMBY. CCLer. Effective altruist.