Torie Osborn is a strong, visionary leader who has spent her life working for change and taking action. She is recognized nationally for her community-organizing approach to solving problems and for being at the forefront of the major fights for social justice for 45 years.
A discussion with former State Senator Sheila Kuehl about Torie Osborn’s landmark run for California State Assembly. This is the third in a series of three posts. (First post found here, second post found here.)
Q: What lessons might progressives draw from your campaign?
A: We need to understand better what the voters think of us, and to connect with them on their own terms, in order to be better organizers and educators. Here’s where I would say we are, based on two years of talking to thousands of voters, from conservatives to the far left:
1. Support is surprisingly strong for single payer healthcare. The one reliable applause line I had in over 250 speeches came when I said I favored Medicare for all. I was especially surprised by the “closet cases,” as we say in the gay community. Every week, small business owners, private sector doctors, even a retired insurance exec — all kinds of unlikely people “came out” to me as secret single payer supporters. There is broad, deep and growing sentiment that it’s the only real path to affordable, comprehensive universal health care, and that Obamacare is only one step toward it.
2. We’re ripe for criminal justice reform. I was really pleased to hear so many people voice strong support for change in the criminal justice system. People are concerned about the stranglehold they perceive the prison guards union has on Sacramento, but they felt even more strongly, on economic, if not moral, grounds, that the punitive model of the prison system, especially in juvenile justice, has to be radically reformed to a more rehabilitative model. I often cited the fact that California spends $150,000 per kid for juvenile justice with a 70% recidivism rate while Missouri spends $44,000 with 7% recidivism!
3. Unexpected antagonisms. Again, I was shocked at how anti-government, anti-union and anti-immigrant even this west side district is. Decades of conservative messaging has definitely gotten into people’s heads. In such a liberal district, where women’s and LGBT rights, climate change and environmental issues are ho-hum consensus, I didn’t expect such ambivalence about government and economic issues. At one “Drinking Liberally” gathering, several people challenged me on the Dream Act (access to state college tuition for immigrant kids), on the “retro” unions, and they constantly told me they were fed up with the waste in government. I thought I’d stumbled into the “Drinking Conservatively” crowd. It was more than just a few people.
I think I made a good case to those folks by talking about the fact that government, through providing education, the safety net and investment in small business, is “the delivery system for the California Dream” but I also found I needed to balance my positions and also talk about the need for governance reform, two year budgeting, and pension reform. And we just have lots of education to do around racial justice and immigrants’ rights.
Q: What did you learn about presenting the tough issue of fair taxation?
A: I learned that to talk successfully to broad audiences about taxes you have to convince them that a larger economic vision is at stake, and also that you are willing to look seriously at governance reform.
I ran for the Assembly because I passionately believe that the time has come to implement fair taxation: to stop corporate giveaways, to modernize our tax system, to bring top-tier tax rates back to where they were 30 years ago. When I first started campaigning, I began all my debates and my stump speech talking straight tax policy – and it fell completely flat. The case has simply not yet been made. People across a broad political spectrum think that government is riddled with waste. I would talk taxes; people would talk back pension reform.
As the campaign progressed, I began to talk more about education, about the vast disinvestment in our great universities and K-12 public school systems and how we need to raise taxes to restore this important component of the California dream. That worked better.
I didn’t find the sweet spot, however, until I started talking about an economic vision for CA, the 9th largest economy in the world. A vision that includes smart investment in small businesses as well as rebuilding education and infrastructure. I changed my speaking approach and began to paint a picture of letting “California be California again” by returning to excellence in education and economic innovation. I used an organizer’s approach and listed California’s assets as a first step toward thinking about long-term priorities.
I reported that California receives 60% of all venture capital invested anywhere, that the state relies on small businesses, has a DNA of reinvention and innovation, and 37.5 million of the most vibrantly creative people on the planet, including the hopes and dreams contributed by our immigrant communities.
Even though I didn’t have a finished blueprint, simply getting people excited about hoping for a better California opened up the space to talk about taxes. Fire up folks’ hope neurons, and then you can talk about the tough stuff.
Q: Why were you so out front on amending Prop 13?
A: Restoring prosperity to California begins with goring that sacred cow. In 1978, 70% of Californians voted for Prop 13 in order to rein in volatile residential property taxes. The research shows those voters did NOT know that the cap on tax increases also covered commercial land and buildings, a policy only California has. Nor did they realize that they were voting to require a 2/3 vote to raise any future taxes, a move that has crippled governance ever since. The voters of California need to know that those two parts of Prop 13 are the direct cause of the systemic revenue shortfall and budget woes that are decimating California’s future – not teachers or firefighters.
Again, California is the ONLY state that protects commercial property in such a manner. It costs our state $6-10 billion a year, and unfairly burdens homeowners, who now pay up to 2/3 of property taxes in California, a total reversal from pre-1978. It’s indefensible! On the campaign trail, I found a widespread readiness among voters, including business owners, to tackle commercial property tax reform. A number of groups are gearing up for a long-term public organizing drive to take it to the ballot in 2016. It’s time!
Eventually, we also will have to change the other revenue suppresser in Prop 13 – the 2/3 super majority required to pass tax increases in the legislature.