As we enter the Christmas season here in California, bringing to mind Dickensian literature, let’s examine a tale of two cities—Los Angeles and San Jose—and what last month’s election results say about their near-term futures.

It’s not often that the two Golden State metropoles (first and third largest, by population) are lumped into the same sentence. Los Angeles embodies entertainment and Southern California glitz, whereas the more northern San Jose rests amid Silicon Valley and California’s tech sector.

However, the two cities have this much in common in terms of local politics: both held mayoral elections last month; each election pitted a man versus a woman; and in both cases, the more experienced female candidate offered herself as a “traditional” Democrat (i.e., beholden to labor unions) whereas the male opponent fashioned himself as something of an anti­–status quo Democrat (i.e., less beholden to special interests). 

The results? Los Angeles preferred the “traditional” Democrat, with congresswoman Karen Bass defeating businessman Rick Caruso and in the process becoming the first Black woman to lead the city. In San Jose, the opposite held true: Matt Mahan, a freshman city councilman, edged out Santa Clara County supervisor Cindy Chavez in the most expensive mayoral contest in that city’s history.

So what to make of these two outcomes? Two observations.

First, in Los Angeles, money couldn’t topple the machine. At last report, Caruso poured more than $100 million of his personal fortune (he’s a Southern California land developer) into his mayoral run.

How did Bass overcome that spending barrage? In part by calling upon her party’s “machine”—for California Democrats, prominent national politicians (Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden) who chose to appear alongside Bass and in doing so served as something like comfort food for the local electorate. Party fealty wasn’t an advantage for Caruso, as he reregistered as a Democrat only back in January, right before he announced his candidacy.

One side note to the Los Angeles race: it was the only mayoral race nationwide to merit an Obama intervention (perhaps because his two daughters are now Angelenos); governor Gavin Newsom was the rare establishment Democrat not to line up behind Bass (he endorsed neither candidate).

But also helping Bass: changes in California election rules making it easier for residents to register to vote (a “motor voter” law that couples driver’s licenses with voter registration) and ensuring that all registered voters receive mail-in ballots. In 2022, and despite the same 45% turnout as a mayoral election three decades ago that produced an “outsider” winner, these changes meant that Bass was able to produce the right blend of party loyalists to propel her to victory.

The second observation: both mayors-elect now have to figure what to do about their cities’ chronic homeless populations. But here, the mayors-elect’s paths diverge.

Bass, who assumes office on December 12, has pledged to “hit the ground running” in dealing with her city’s problems—that includes a vow to declare a state of emergency to address Los Angeles homelessness on her first day in office. (“We are definitely going to identify some of the most challenging encampments and make sure that we can get those people housed,” the mayor-elect told reporters. “But declaring a state of emergency really allows us to rally, bring together the city agencies and allows us to look at, especially city-owned land and fast track things.”)

Mahan, on the hand, hasn’t made bold pronouncements—not yet, at least. Perhaps that’s a by-product of an unusual political clock that forces the mayor-elect to figure out how to max out on productivity in a limited amount of time for a newcomer. (Thanks to this year’s voter-approved Measure B, which aligns future San Jose mayoral elections with presidential ones, Mahan was handed only a two-year term to make good on campaign promises)

So what will Mahan do about San Jose’s homelessness? During his campaign, he told reporters that one approach might be to produce a mass number of tiny homes on county-owned land, while requiring homeless individuals to accept placement in them or run afoul of local anti-camping rules.

Mahan reiterated this approach during a pre-Thanksgiving photo-op at a local housing project (the locale a cautionary tale, as it took six years to realize). “The truth is, we have often been in the way in government and made it too difficult to build housing,” Mahan told reporters. “We have to speed up permitting, keep fees under control, streamline our review process and help those who want to build the housing we desperately need do to.”

There’s one other reason why Mahan may not “get over his skis” when it comes to San Jose homelessness, and that brings to mind another Northern California city that turned to a young tech-fluent mayor to cure its woes.

In December 2003, San Francisco voters elected Gavin Newsom as their mayor. (Newsom was 36 at the time; Mahan, who shared a Harvard dorm with Mark Zuckerberg, is 40.) Within days of his victory, Newsom offered a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in San Francisco. “I recognize that I'm setting myself up. I’m not naïve to that,” Newsom told reporters. “I don’t want to over-promise, but I also don't want to under-deliver. I want to hit the ground running.”

Yes, the same words as Los Angeles mayor-elect Karen Bass . . .

Did Newsom succeed in his quest? No. In January 2005, San Francisco’s overall homeless population stood at 6,248. Six years later, amid Newsom’s final days in office (he was elected California’s lieutenant governor in November 2010), the number was 6,455.

Newsom’s gubernatorial approach to California’s homeless quandary—lots of starts and fits—serves as a cautionary tale to the two mayors-elect in terms of raising rhetoric (and expectations) but not always delivering an end-product.

During his 2018 run for governor, Newsom vowed to appoint a “cabinet-level secretary committed to solving the issue, not just managing it.” In year two of his first term, the governor somewhat sarcastically put himself in charge (“You want to know who’s the homeless czar?” Newsom said, index finger pounding a podium. “I’m the homeless czar in the state of California.”) and did what he tends to do when confronting crises—he created a task force.

A year later, homelessness was the lone topic of Newsom’s annual State of the State address. (“Let’s call it what it is, a disgrace, that the richest state in the richest nation—succeeding across so many sectors—is failing to properly house, heal, and humanely treat so many of its own people.”) Two years later, in his 2022 State of the State missive, Newsom was a more cliché in his rhetoric. (“We know that government cannot be the entire solution. But we know government has always been part of the solution.”)

However, if recent days are any indication, California’s state government is competing parts solution and confusion. 

After sending shock waves through California’s local governments by withholding $1 billion in homelessness funds due to local plans the governor deemed to be unimaginative, the Newsom administration reversed course and said it would green-light the money to cities and counties. With one caveat: come the time they reapply for a new round of funding, local governments have to promise bolder results (the plans Newsom at first rejected promised to lower visible street homelessness by a mere 2% by 2024 —or, about 2,000 fewer unhoused individuals statewide).

Will Newsom strike a tougher tone with regard to homelessness in next year’s State of the State address? If so, will it mark a new chapter of heightened tension between state and local government? Meanwhile, what will the two mayors-elect in Los Angeles and San Jose have to say in their inaugural addresses other than warmed-over campaign verbiage. (As a recovering speechwriter myself, I offer a piece of advice for mayor-elect Bass: clarify that the status quo in the city she’ll soon run—housing units for the homeless population that cost as much as $700,000 apiece and take years to materialize —isn’t tolerable).

Not that California mayors and governors should be in the business of referring to Dickens, but fictional characters from Victorian England help explain why the Golden State can’t get the upper hand on its cities’ homelessness problem: California is haunted by ghosts of Christmas past and previous policy blunders, with too few incumbents willing to take on the role of Mr. Bumble and the observation that “the law is an ass.”

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