February 11, 2020 - From the February, 2020 issue

Sen. Holly Mitchell Outlines State Budget Priorities & Race for LA County Supervisor 

Following a state legislative session that saw over 200 bills purporting to address the state's housing affordability crisis, SB50 failed to garner the support necessary to survive another session. Prior to the winter legislative break, TPR spoke with Sen. Holly Mitchell, chair of the Senate Budget Committee and one of the 15 votes against SB 50, for her thoughts on the bill and her approach for prioritizing the state's discretionary spending, as well as her ambition to succeed LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to represent District 2 on the LA County Board of Supervisors. 


Holly Mitchell

“The luxury of being involved in local government is really focusing on what's best for your own community. SB 50 is a perfect example of how my constituents—not only at the Holman meeting, but many others—didn’t feel that the strategy my colleague Sen. Wiener took was an appropriate fit for the city of Los Angeles.” —Sen. Holly Mitchell

Ten years ago, you were motivated to run for state office in part because of the 2008 economic crash, the resulting budget deficits in Sacramento, and the cuts that were made by the legislature to programs you believed were essential. Now, you chair the California State Senate budget committee prioritizing a $7 billion surplus. Have the allocations made in the last few years addressed the needs of your senate district?

Holly Mitchell: You’re right. I sat in budget subcommittee hearings and got mad enough to decide to run for office. I knew then that the pendulum would swing—it always does—and I wanted to be in a position when the opportunity presented itself to reinvest in California, and I've been able to do that for the last three as chair for the Budget Committee. We've reinvested in a smart, strategic way under the previous administration and the first year under Governor Newsom’s first budget.

I never want to be in a position, nor should California residents, have to continue to experience the peak and valley cycles of state or government budgeting. When the economy’s healthy, we can invest, but when the economy is not, that's when we cut services that constituents rely on the most when we're experiencing a recession.

We've been able to invest but also create savings. This last $216 billion budget also has a historic high series of savings accounts, for the lack of a better term. We are putting one time dollars away to help shore up safety net programs in the event of a recession when we don't have the resources to continue to fund those life-sustaining programs.

As budget chair, I took the lead last year and created an additional way to save funds exclusively for a safety net program. We've tried to invest and expand MediCal and Covered California to provide support for both net-account-eligible recipients and low-income people. Even in Covered California, we’ve done more for middle income California to help afford health care coverage.

I'm very proud of that work, because those first couple years I was in the legislature were very tough budget years. We cut MediCal down to the bone, and we were making decisions that I knew would create harm to California. Now, thanks to the voters, we need a simple majority to pass the budget. We have several infrastructure fixes and changes that will allow a more humane budgeting process on a go-forward basis.

Affordable housing  and homelessness, as you note, are of great concern for your senate district constituents and most all of coastal California. Some two hundred housing bills-  to prove the point, were introduced in this last legislative session. Several have passed, and the county and the City of Los Angeles also approved ballot measures to finance and address both housing and homelessness. Given the aforementioned, is the state, county and city of LA doing enough to address the needs that have long motivated your public engagement? 

We're doing better than we had been. For the first time probably ever, every level of government is confronting the fact that our current homeless crisis didn't happen overnight, and that government and some of our policies or lack of action perhaps contributed to the moral dilemma we're all experiencing today.

Voters are stepping up to the plate by taxing themselves through various measures at the local level, and the state has stepped up over the last two years. Quite frankly, the state has been missing in action when it came to the discussions around affordable housing when we as a state, under the Brown administration, stepped away from redevelopment—which I believed then, and believe today, was the wrong thing for the state to do.

I think we're all coming full circle in terms of recognizing now that it's going to take aggressive policymaking to step up and deal with the one-million-unit housing shortage that LA County alone is experiencing. How do we manage the reality, conservatively speaking, that we have 60,000 unhoused county residents? At least we're now on the same page in acknowledging that there is a problem, and now the debate begins at every level of government, as well as the private sector, about what to do next.

There was a fascinating town hall this last week hosted by CalMatters, LA Times, and the Milken Institute. I wasn't able to attend, but I've been listening to the recordings of various panels with all kinds of ideas and solutions. It's important that we as policymakers to tap into stakeholders and subject matter experts to figure out what our policy really should be.

I've worked hard at the state level to address the issue of how we stop the massive inflow of new homeless. It's exciting to do ribbon cutting and talk about new construction, and that's important, but I don't believe we can build our way out of this dilemma quick enough. New construction is important and it has to happen, but we also have to look at how to stem the tide of new homelessness and deal with our current housing stock.

I care to deal with source of income discrimination, and try to encourage and fully utilize the Section 8 voucher system in a more effective way. I was proud to work with my colleagues in Northern California to talk about rent increase limits statewide, and take a multifold, multi-strategy approach to get us out of the hole that we’re currently in.

Senator, you recently announced that after a career in the California legislature, that you wish to run next year for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Could you share with our readers what you would most want to accomplish as an LA County (District 2) Supervisor?

Three generations of my family have called LA County home, and what motivated me to run for the assembly in 2010 was that many of the greatest challenges we face at the state level are exasperated right here in my home county of Los Angeles. I'm clear that the time for bold, courageous leadership is now, and I made the decision to run because I want to be part of the solution. I've worked my entire career to attempt to address and remove barriers that keep families in poverty and strengthen communities across the state. Achieving that successfully really starts with our most populous county in the state, Los Angeles.

As I've talked to voters and looked at my own experience serving in the legislature, my current senate district comprises about 75 percent of the second supervisorial district. When I look at my entire professional career—as an elected official and as CEO of Crystal Stairs—many of the issues continue to be challenges disproportionately experienced by residents of the second district: the number of unhoused residents of that district, the ongoing and ever-increasing need for culturally appropriate and acceptable mental and physical health services, the lack of open green space and tree canopy compared to other districts in the county, and jobs.

Looking at the role of the county in terms of the safety net, as well as trying to improve the quality of life for residents in terms of job creation and affordable housing has got to be the priority. That’s the core, reoccurring issue—access to a safe, affordable place to live and critical health and mental health services—that continues to hold resident of that district access

Much of the rhetoric emanating from the legislature this past year broadly critiques local government as being an impediment to meeting the state’s high priority housing production goals. As you campaign to transition from state to local government, are you torn by how to articulate what level of government is most responsible for the lack of affordable housing in Los Angeles?

My first office was State Assembly, and many of my colleagues came from local government. Many of them were former members of Boards of Supervisors, city council, and even mayors. I think for many of them, they were speaking firsthand in terms of their experience in serving in local government and the challenges they experienced in terms of zoning policies at the local level.

People assume that the state acts like Big Brother to come in and take over something they know nothing about. Whereas, so many of my colleagues actually served in elected positions at the local government level. They draw from that direct experience that helps inform some of the policy they bring forward.

My experience was the reverse, having chaired the Senate Budget Committee and developed policy at the state level. My humble beginnings are from running a large community-based organization that was focused on low-income, working families in LA County. That's the lens that that governs my actions as a policymaker, member of the Senate, and budget chair.

That's the same lens that I would bring back home, engaging—and sometimes pushing—communities to have the hard conversations around policymaking, equity, and access to resources. One of my priorities in running for District 2 is that I'm running to represent the district and acknowledging the lack of equity for the residents in that district compared to people in other county districts.

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Could you address, using the issue prism of housing affordability, what distinguishes state and the local government politics and lawmaking? Are there differences?  We ask, as you no doubt are aware, because 350 community leaders in West Adams gathered earlier in the year at Holman United Methodist Church to protest your colleague Senator Wiener’s SB 50 which would have granted to the state  - and usurping local government historic authority - to zone residential neighborhoods.

As I personally transition from the state to the county level, I get to narrow the lens or prism for which I view policy. At the state level, it really is looking at what's in the best interest at a statewide level. The luxury of being involved in local government is really focusing on what's best for your own community. SB 50 is a perfect example of how my constituents—not only at the Holman meeting, but many others—didn’t feel that the strategy my colleague took was an appropriate fit for the city of Los Angeles.

I asked Senator Wiener, and he obliged to tour a portion of my district. He spent some time with Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson and saw areas of the 8th Council Districts—which is also the 30th Senate district—because it was important to us that he see the real-life ramifications of SB 50 were it to become law and what impact it would have on many communities that live very close to transit hubs.

With my transition to the local level, the focus would be policymaking in terms of what we know exists in LA County; policymaking based on the shape, feel, and culture of communities in LA County. That's the beauty of local policymaking, it really gives you the opportunity to focus more narrowly on what's in the best interest of your own community.

The golden rule in politics—which perhaps you first learned as a Coro Fellow—is that ”money too often determines what and how rules are made.” In California, a state of 40 million people with the geography the size of the eastern seaboard, are the competing economic interests engaged in lobbying policy different than those involved in local government? If so, does this explain why state and local elected officials of the same party and overlapping jurisdictions often approach & prioritize critical issues differently?

I also learned as a Coro fellow, the wise teachings of Jesse Unruh, perhaps the most powerful speaker in state history, who famously said that money is the mother of local politics. It's also important to recognize that I represent a million Angelenos who expect me, during my professional and ordinary life experience and in the policymaking arena, to reflect what is in the best interest of their needs.

I think there are all kinds of opinions about the sources and role that money plays in politics. I can confidently say that what I have witnessed as a legislator are people who are working very hard on behalf of the 40 million people every day. You can't get rich doing what we do. It's term-limited, and unfortunately offers no pension. You really have to ask yourself what motivates people to go out there and do this work. Fortunately for campaign finance laws, we can't get rich doing it, nor should we.

Yes, I have stakeholder groups and people whom I work with collaboratively with the goal of bringing forward public policy that's in the best interest of California as a whole. Yes, fundraising is important in terms of supporting leadership, kind of keeping the machine and the legislature moving forward. But, I'm also very clear that I'm not for sale.

Whether I fundraise for support from labor, the environmental community, or whoever, that has no bearing until you get the type of policy I bring forward. I bring forward policy that I believe is in the best interest of the working families and their children who elect me to represent them.

What have you learned from your state legislative tenure that's applicable to governing the county of Los Angeles? Are there equivalent interests engage in county government to those involved in state legislative politics – i.e.  labor on working conditions, environmentalists on CEQA, or Blackstone subsidiaries - the largest owners of residential real estate in largest metros of California- on removing local restrictions on landuse development?

I don't know that they play at a different level. As I look at both, the city in terms of the role developers play with the ongoing conversations at the city level about whether or not your councilmembers should accept donations from developers and the several council members attempting to introduce resolutions to stop that. I don't know that it's difficult at all at the county level. If you look at the money spent 12 years ago by Labor alone in the election for the 2nd district, the County Employee Union played very strongly. I don’t really see much difference in terms of the role special interest plays with contributing to the campaign at the state-level versus the county or city level.

Accompanying your TPR interview will be an interview with Effie Turnbull-Sanders, executive director for SLATE-Z who is point for South LA's Promise Zone. She speaks to the complicated balancing act necessary to encourage economic development in distressed communities without displacing the historic communities in these neighborhoods. How would you address that balancing act if elected to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in District 2?

The whole focus of the Opportunity Zone is to bring opportunity to the people who have historically not had it. No community is interested in bringing development and enterprise for the sole purpose of drawing interest to people outside the community. It’s important to make sure that people who live there have access to education and training programs to prepare them for those specific jobs.

Look at the work happening in Detroit with the support of JPMorgan Chase. They are investing billions of dollars in the city of Detroit proper and bringing new industry, and they recognize that many of the people remaining in Detroit didn't have the skills to do those jobs. The focus was on making sure that those people have access to trade programs funded by both JP Morgan, the government, as well as the employer to move into those positions. That's the strategy that I think makes the most sense. Making sure that the long-term residents of the second district who experience disproportionately higher rates of unemployment have access to the new enterprises that come in. That would be my focus.

Elaborate please, as we conclude this interview. 

Los Angeles County’s District 2 spans from a small section of East Hollywood, to south Carson, West Culver City, and east downtown. It’s clearly one of the most diverse, dynamic, fascinating gathering of 2 million people you could ever identify anywhere in this country.

One supervisorial board is responsible for 10 million people, and I’m making sure I keep my belly low to the ground and stay connected with constituents and the community to build a team that understands our core shared values and mission of connecting to constituents. And having frank, honest conversations about what the government can and must do to support them, and keeping those lines of communication open.

For housing affordability, it’s about humanely and appropriately housing our own brothers and sisters, bringing necessary mental health and health care services into the community. Right now, the city of Compton has the highest amputee rate of any municipality in the nation; that is indicative of a deeper, more systemic problem. That is a reflection of food deserts, lack of access to appropriate preventive health care services, the number of people or people who don't have stable housing—because you can't refrigerate your insulin if you’re diabetic. STI rates have skyrocketed; the gonorrhea that has resurfaced is one of the top three STIs in 2019 in an urban setting.

Those are just a couple of examples of the clear challenges residents of the 2nd District are experiencing that are going to require focus and attention from appropriate county departments. Eleven years ago, during the last election, the closure of King Hospital and the commitment to reopening it was a singular, galvanizing issue that brought people to the polls.

Clearly, from my perspective, the issue around housing and mental health services are the galvanizing issues that everyone in Los Angeles County is talking about in public meetings, private meetings—across the board. Those are the issues that must be a priority for a supervisor of the 2nd District. How do we allocate and best utilize existing public resources? These are the kinds of issues that I know are going to be important—not only in this election—but they must be on the forefront of the agenda for the next District 2 County Supervisor.

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