By definition, all legislators are politicians. But not all politicians are legislators, officeholders committed to making their city/state/country better and willing to compromise and work with anyone to get that done.
State Sen. Scott Wiener is a legislator. And his willingness to take up important but controversial issues and fight hard to do what he believes is best for the state is what makes him my nominee for Californian of the Year.
In his first term in office, the former San Francisco supervisor has become the face of the state’s housing battle, taking on cities, counties and politicians across California in his effort to make it easier to build the housing the state desperately needs.
While leaders of virtually every city agree that the state is facing an unprecedented housing shortage, many want to solve it with homes and apartments built in someone else’s city.
But Wiener has worked to put the needs of all California’s residents — and the state’s economic future — ahead of local political concerns.
In 2017, Wiener pushed through a controversial bill designed to make it harder for cities to block affordable housing projects. Today, about 6,000 housing units have been proposed under SB35 and cities across the state have approved projects they otherwise might have rejected without Wiener’s bill.
To Wiener, it makes perfect sense to put multi-story, high-density housing near transit centers, like BART stations in the Bay Area and Metro Rail stops in Los Angeles. Adding those homes not only helps a state that experts believe needs as many as 2 million housing units by 2025, but also puts those units where people have easy access to the jobs in urban centers, a plus for businesses desperate for workers.
But local officeholders, even in his home town of San Francisco, don’t agree. They see Wiener’s efforts to force zoning changes and require cities to approve housing developments that meet statewide standards as a threat to local control —and not incidentally, something that’s unpopular with the politically active owners of single-family homes, who aren’t anxious to see a fourplex or a midrise building go up next door.
So, Wiener compromised. He amended his original bill, SB827, cutting the automatic height allowance from eight stories to five. He also added requirements for affordable housing and banned demolition of low-cost housing to make way for new development.
When that bill died in committee, he brought it back this year as SB50, which limited most of the density changes to the state’s 15 largest counties. This time, the bill had more support and made it further before being bottled up in the Appropriations Committee, at least until next year.
Wiener was disappointed but plans to push the bill next year, even though more compromises likely are coming.
“Elected officials don’t want to necessarily touch the real root causes of a problem like housing because it’s so controversial,” Wiener said in an October interview with C/Net. “I’m in politics, so I accept that kind of heat. But it’s so important to begin solving this problem.”
In the Legislature, it’s often the hard stuff that’s the most worth doing. To accomplish those changes takes time, commitment and a willingness to accept half or even a quarter of a loaf if that’s what it takes to get something important done.
Wiener hasn’t gotten his latest housing bill passed yet. But his high-profile efforts have moved the housing availability question to center stage in California and ensured that it can’t be ignored.
And that’s what good legislators do.
Wiener isn’t the only California figure who’s made an impact this year.
In 2007, San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi became the first — and so far, only — woman to become speaker of the House. This year, she became the first woman to ever win the job back after she led Democrats to a House majority.
In the months since, she has faced as many problems from her raucous fellow Democrats as she has from Republicans. But Pelosi has managed to keep her members in line, pushing forward their legislation even as she has become the face of the Democratic opposition to President Donald Trump.
A pair of congressmen, Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank and Republican Devin Nunes of Tulare, are at the center of the battle that could lead to the impeachment of President Trump.
As chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Schiff has been the point man on impeachment, organizing and leading the hearings aimed at ousting Trump from office.
Nunes, the committee’s Republican ranking member, is defending the president and working to block Schiff and the pro-impeachment Democrats wherever he can.
The two men agree on almost nothing and don’t have a good word to say for each other. But they’re fierce partisans, each doing what they believe is in the country’s best interests.