‘Everyone is terrified of King Gavin’: Newsom’s unchallenged anti-homelessness gambit

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SACRAMENTO, California — On one side of California’s Proposition 1 — the ballot measure to overhaul how the state treats mental health disorders — are Gov. Gavin Newsom, an eight-figure campaign fund backed by Uber and ads featuring big city sheriffs.

On the other is a 76-year-old former mental health policy analyst named John Li, whose $1,000 donation makes him the sole funder of the official opposition. Li says he is the only one willing to stand up to a policy change favored by one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats because everyone else is worried about political repercussions.

“Everyone is terrified that if they come out against Prop 1, King Gavin will beat the crap out of them for the rest of their lives,” Li said. “It’s pathological.”

The lopsided contest gives the politically ambitious governor a clear path to a potential landslide victory that includes significant Republican support when the measure appears on the March 5 ballot. The $6.4 billion measure prioritizes county mental health budgets away from preventing mental illness and towards treating people ailing on the streets, redirecting one-third of those funds towards housing.

The meager opposition has also afforded Newsom the opportunity during a budget shortfall to repackage a costly policy priority in a way that better aligns with voter concerns related to homelessness and crime that have intensified on his watch.

With little pushback, the governor and his allies are selling the complex measure as an effort to clear street encampments and provide homes to military veterans. Newsom's campaign has avoided thorny questions about the consequences of forcing people with addiction into treatment or how counties will afford to staff 11,000 new treatment beds being built with one-time bond money.

Ads from the ballot measure committee controlled by Newsom showcase law enforcement officials rather than doctors or therapists in what committee officials describe as an effort to win over right-leaning voters typically wary of the Democratic governor.

“Police speak to a certain segment of the electorate more than others, and showing that they’re part of your coalition I think shows the breadth of support,” explained committee spokesperson Anthony York. “We’re trying to speak to a broader audience, and maybe some of the Blue Lives Matter [supporters] as well will be inclined to support.”

The path to Prop 1

Prop 1 will make changes to the Mental Health Services Act, a tax on incomes over a million dollars that was groundbreaking when approved by voters in 2004. It gave counties fairly wide latitude to spend the money on whatever mental health programs they saw fit, with limited coverage for substance use disorders. Newsom has been itching to rewrite the law for years. When he devoted his entire State of the State Address in 2020 to the problem of homelessness, he excoriated counties for hoarding MHSA funds instead of using them to address the crisis.

After being sidetracked by the pandemic, Newsom finally had the chance to tackle the issue last year. Proposition 1 began its path to the ballot as two separate bills. One directed counties to change the way they spend and report their mental health budgets, requiring they spend more on housing and treatment for people in encampments. A companion bond issue committed $6.4 billion to fund new residential mental health and addiction treatment, and housing for veterans. Because voters approved the MHSA in 2004, they would now be required to weigh in on the dense new policy, rechristened the Behavioral Health Services Act.

The companion bills won early and vocal support from local officials such as mayors and supervisors, along with public safety figures like firefighters, who backed the shift in priorities for the state’s mental health agenda to focus more on street homelessness, severe mental illness and drug use. Cautious resistance from county mental health providers and youth mental health advocates won concessions like adding some budgetary flexibility and setting aside some money to serve people 25 and younger.

The ACLU and Disability Rights California opposed the bills, arguing that taking money from mental health programs to fund housing would exacerbate existing problems and lead to more people being locked up and forced into treatment. But the most visible opposition came from the “lived experience” community, as past and present clients of county-based mental health programs call themselves. They showed up to bill hearings in lime green “no on SB 326” shirts, and used the public comment periods to speak about how the services they currently used, including peer counseling and crisis interventions, would be slashed under the new proposal.

As goes Panda Express

Both bills passed with wide bipartisan margins in September and were ushered onto the March ballot as Proposition 1. Newsom took charge of the effort to pass it, placing his former chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and spokesperson atop a campaign dubbed Treatment Not Tents. The committee has raised more than $12 million just since then, including seven-figure contributions each from indigenous tribes and hospitals and five-figure contributions from companies with little evident stake in mental health policy, like T-Mobile, Airbnb and Panda Express. It reflects the broad coalition that has arrayed behind the measure: At a January press conference to kick off the campaign, the governor was flanked by representatives of both organized labor and the California Chamber of Commerce.

When Li that same month offered to make a contribution to counter Newsom’s push, Californians Against Prop 1 did not even have a bank account, and Li had to write a personal check to the group’s leader, Paul Simmons. A co-founder of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of California, Simmons has written about living with bipolar disorder. He works to rally others drawn to the issue with their own horror stories of treatment gone wrong or a system that has failed them. Volunteers show up or write letters when they aren’t running peer counseling groups or depression support organizations. They claim meager accomplishments as victories, like launching a website and having their arguments against Prop 1 included in the official voter guide booklet that is sent to everyone on the electoral rolls.

“The reality is, they’re a complete failure. They’re a complete tragedy,” Li said of the No campaign. “Do I wish I’d taken my money back? I think about it.”

Californians Against Prop 1 has actually seen its coalition contract, as some of the prominent groups on both left and right that opposed the proposal as it moved through the legislature have kept their distance from the ballot measure campaign.

For months, the ACLU tried to offer behind-the-scenes communications advice without being formally associated with the effort. “Their support is mostly moral support, not real logistical or financial support,” said coalition leader Paul Simmons. Only in mid-February did the ACLU’s state affiliate formally come out against the measure, joining smaller groups like Disability Rights California and Mental Health America of California. The committee also won the support of the League of Women Voters, which asserted Prop 1 would have the “overall effect of reducing counties’ ability to set priorities based on local needs for mental health services."

With few resources, the opposition to Prop 1 has been forced to engage on Newsom’s terms. When the two sides did meet for a debate at Stockton’s public library on a wet Saturday afternoon in February, Prop 1 proponent state Sen. Susan Eggman went up against a “peer counselor” granted only a few minutes to speak. The two never interacted directly.

Veterans’ play

The No campaign has been forced to rely on whatever free media it can get. Simmons met with editorial boards in Los Angeles and San Francisco, both of whom ended up endorsing Prop 1. So far the only editorial boards that have taken their side belong to the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the right-leaning Orange County Register, which called Prop 1 a “costly bureaucratic power grab that robs counties of mental health services funding and saddles taxpayers with $6.38 billion in debt.” (The paper also published an op-ed from one of the state’s most prominent Republicans, Bakersfield Sen. Shannon Grove, supporting the measure.)

Even reliable conservative critics of expanded government programs are avoiding the fight over Prop 1. There has been pro forma criticism of the measure’s cost, which will ultimately total $10 billion after interest on the borrowed funds. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has argued that the measure will steal money from counties and eventually require higher taxes to fund those services. But with other tax-related questions expected on the ballot in November, there’s been no money behind their opposition.

The biggest spending against the measure has come from former San Diego City Councilor and current Assembly candidate Carl DeMaio, who is keeping his distance from Californians Against Prop 1. The Republican has committed $22,000 from his Clean Up Our Streets committee on mailers making the case to voters that the measure is too expensive and will only benefit the rich developers who build new housing.

Newsom’s committee has dominated the airwaves with over $13 million spending to date. The committee’s first ads, released in late January, highlights how the bond measure will pay back military veterans for their sacrifices with new housing and services. “Prop 1 is for them,” Newsom says. The second flight of ads featured sheriffs Robert Luna of Los Angeles and Jim Cooper of Sacramento attesting that the people their officers encounter on the streets are often mentally ill and addicted, and Prop 1 will provide money for their treatment.

Newsom justified the campaign’s initial emphasis by describing veterans as “one of our great rhetorical assets.”

“How can we not?” lead with veterans, Newsom said at a February press conference promoting Prop 1. “It's the one unifying thing, and everybody talks good talk on it, but we're not delivering.”

Early polls showed around 70 percent of those surveyed voters support the measure, though Prop 1 strategists say they expect the final margin to be closer. (A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 59 percent support of likely voters.) Newsom attended get out the vote events around Prop 1 in Los Angeles, San Diego and Palm Springs in the days leading up to the March 5 primary.

Meanwhile, Californians Against Prop 1 now has a bank account, but it holds nothing beyond Jon Li’s thousand dollars. There is no money for campaign consultants or TV ads, just DIY social media videos and webinars about forced treatment. When the committee organized a protest on the west steps of the state Capitol in February, attendees were outnumbered by secessionists, casually milling about and handing out literature in favor of New California. The Prop 1 opponents were a walking illustration of the ways their campaign had not progressed since last fall’s legislative debate, still wearing their lime green “no on 326” shirts.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article did not reflect the get out the vote events that Newsom did around Prop 1 in the days leading up to the primary.