Why Democrats Should Pay Attention to California

Ezra Klein talks to state Sen. Scott Wiener about why progressive policies have failed in a state with no Republicans in power.

PUBLISHED MAY 3, 2023 9:27 A.M.
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Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) delivers the keynote address at the  Brookings Institute's Future of the Middle Class Initiative in May, 2019.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) delivers the keynote address at the Brookings Institute's Future of the Middle Class Initiative in May, 2019.   Photo by Paul Morigi   CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ezra Klein, the cofounder and former executive editor of Vox who now writes and podcasts for the New York Times, announced last month that he is leaving his home state of California and moving to New York City. In a recent pod, Klein says the pending move has him thinking a lot about California politics, and he talks about the state’s shifting political landscape with state Sen. Scott Wiener, one of California’s most controversial —and most effective—lawmakers.

For most of the dozen years that he has held elected office, Wiener was famous and notorious for taking strong positions on many hot-button issues. That changed in 2017 with the passage of SB 35—a housing bill he authored that dramatically limits the ability of local governments to block the development of new housing.

These days, Wiener has national political celebrity as the radical champion of YIMBYism (the pro housing movement whose battle cry, of course, is Yes, In My Back Yard!). 

In March, Wiener announced that he is eyeing a run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat now held by Nancy Pelosi “in the event she decides to step down.” If he were to run and win he’d be the first openly gay man to represent San Francisco in Congress.

Make no mistake, Wiener still takes strong stands on controversial issues. He authored a bill that repealed loitering laws regarding prostitution, and bills that would have created safe injection sites for drug users, required corporations to report their greenhouse gas emissions, and decriminalized psychedelics.

Even more controversial, in some circles, is his belief that some progressive initiatives, including the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), are doing more harm than good.

There are some strains of, quote unquote, ‘progressivism’ in San Francisco that are actually quite conservative, because they are opposed to all sorts of positive change,” Wiener told Klein. “Because they want to freeze-frame everything the way it is and just freeze it in amber.”

'To play with the old William Gibson line, the future is already here—it’s just in California.'
Ezra Klein

On this issue Klein and Wiener are in agreement. Klein, who invented an explainer-style of political blogging with Wonkblog at the Washington Post in 2009, and for several years was ubiquitous on MSNBC, labels himself “a supply-side progressive.” His prescription for ending rampant homelessness—and making it easier for middle-class Californians to rent or buy a home—does not require government interventions beyond allowing the housing supply to grow.

California’s severe housing shortage, for Klein, is part of a bigger problem that plagues Democrats nationwide.

From the outside, California, and particularly its two dominant cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco—have these dual reputations. They are world leaders, right? This is where the culture that everyone consumes is made and where the technology that everyone uses is made.

To play with the old William Gibson line, the future is already here—it’s just in California. And then California is also this bogeyman for the Right… . It is often defined by its pathologies—homelessness and inaffordability and inequality and hypocrisy and disorder.

And so the confrontation here … is happening within the Democratic Party. You have these progressive movements rising inside a Democratic coalition, trying to balance their liberal commitments with an analysis of where liberalism has failed.

Wiener points to CEQA as an example of a once-necessary liberal policy that has paralyzed the state.

The purpose of it, which is a very important purpose, is to say when you’re doing something significant, making a significant decision—you’re going to build a new dam, new highway—you should do environmental analysis so you know what the impacts will be.

'Over time, CEQA came to apply to everything, and it could be absolutely weaponized.'
Sen. Scott Wiener

Over time, CEQA came to apply to everything, and it could be absolutely weaponized, so that people who oppose any project, even environmentally beneficial projects, can use this supposed environmental law to stop the project, to slow it down, to kill an apartment building right by a BART station, to delay or kill a bus rapid transit line or a bike lane. And so we have this environmental law that is, in some ways, harming climate action.

Listen to Klein and Wiener discuss California politics on The Ezra Klein Show.

Read a transcript of the Ezra Klein-Scott Wiener conversation.

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