Black Bart 2019 Nominees: Wiener and Gonzalez

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The Black Bart was a game-player and a schemer. And in 2019, California politics was full of games and schemes.

The early favorite for Black Bart was our own U.S. senator, Kamala Harris, but it turned out that she and her team couldn’t play the presidential game. The year concludes with Harris moving to Iowa, presumably so she can be closer to Devin Nunes’ family.

So I had to turn to other contenders.

I consider cultural figures for Black Bart, because culture is political. And this year has produced two terrific California films—Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Jimmie Falls’ The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Either filmmaker would be a worthy recipient. But film is in decline, and so other figures made a big impact.

Three statewide political figures deserved consideration for Black Bart. 

First, Gov. Gavin Newsom had a huge first year—with some real successes and progress (on housing and an array of issues), some setbacks (particularly those involving PG&E), and some head-scratchers (on vaccines and his changing of high-speed rail to a San Joaquin Valley-only project). Still, he didn’t move the ball enough (the progress on cradle-to-career promises to do more for California’s children was quite underwhelming) to win the award.

Second, Attorney General Xavier Becerra maintained his relentless defense of California against constant false attacks from the Trump administration. He won more fights than he lost. If he isn’t in your prayers, he should be, given the stakes of bowing to the lying white supremacists now in control in Washington. But Becerra has been slow off the mark, and he continued the awful California tradition of attorneys general putting their thumbs on the scale in matters of ballot initiative. So he must remain an honorable mention.

Third, Secretary of State Alex Padilla quietly built on what is starting to look like a historic record of increasing political participation in California. He’s helped make it easier to vote than ever before, and his work on registration has produced record numbers of registrants. He’s also challenge the false Trumpian narratives about our politics. But a Black Bart is premature for Padilla—let’s see him get the state safely through the 2020 elections first.

I thought long and hard about giving the Black Bart award to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who has managed to survive and grow even as people figure out that Facebook is a sewer that is making us sick and threatening our democracy. But Zuckerberg could win every year.

Who really distinguished themselves this year?

In answer to that question, two names keep coming up—two state legislators who changed the game. 

State Senator Scott Wiener, from San Francisco, emerged as a practical and progressive force for change on the biggest issue of the moment—housing. While his SB 50 didn’t pass, it remains alive, and is obviously the most important piece of legislation being debated in the state. Meanwhile, his push to address the issue produced many small advances across the state.

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, from San Diego, rapidly upended the California economy and all of California politics with AB 5. Some of the bill is well-designed to stop abuses of workers. Other parts of it were ill-considered. But it will affect virtually all Californians, and dealing with its consequences, unintended and otherwise, will be a high priority for years. 

Wiener and Gonzalez represent the growing power and ambition of the California legislature, for better and for worse. They played the game best in 2019, and thus they should share the Black Bart award. Here’s hoping that some smarter ways to share housing and jobs will result.

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