The Governor’s Race Doesn’t Need Steyer

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 billionaire Tom Steyer is widely reported to be exploring a campaign for governor of California.

Here’s hoping he doesn’t get in.

The race doesn’t need him. The 2018 gubernatorial field, as it currently looks, is an exceptionally strong one. I’d suggest that any of the five leading candidates would be an improvement on the fading incumbent, Jerry Brown.

All contenders have their flaws of course, but they are seasoned, with energy and ideas that could shake up a Sacramento that has gotten a little bit stagnant. The frontrunner, Gavin Newsom, has done the lieutenant governor’s job as well and as aggressively as possible; he was a successful two-term mayor of San Francisco, and is a Niagara Falls of ideas. He also brings some business sense to liberal politics, a welcome combination.

Antonio Villaraigosa was a hugely consequential mayor of Los Angeles – bringing people together to transform transit and South L.A., and building on the city’s successes in crime-fighting. L.A. is a very different and in many ways better place as a result of the work of Villaraigosa and his many collaborators.

John Chiang, another strong Democratic contender, is a deeply experienced statewide official who outworks everyone and knows every corner of the state’s fiscal infrastructure. He also is unusually in touch with the state’s many communities, since he’s constantly on the road talking with people.

And even the longshots have strong virtues. Delaine Eastin, the former state superintendent of public instruction, is thoughtful and experienced, and making very strong points about the need to refocus on education.

And the Republican in the race, a former Illinois official named John Cox, has been a risk-taker in political reform. He has suggested the politically problematic but governmentally wise idea of making California’s tiny legislature (the smallest per capita in the country), much bigger and more connected to neighborhoods. And he’s raised all kinds of fundamental questions about our state’s governing system in interviews and campaigns.

All five of these people deserve to be better known, and to have their ideas and policies get more attention and scrutiny. Indeed, the campaign is shaping up as an opportunity to create a broader and more inclusive discussion about California’s future.

Steyer threatens all that. His money, and the attention it could buy, would drown out some if not all of the other contenders. And his views are well represented by the Democrats already in the race.

A gubernatorial campaign might be good for Steyer. It’s harder to see how it would be good for California.

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