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Opinion

Column: One of California’s longest-serving political hands is retiring. Here’s his state of the state

By the time the shortest month of the year is up, a man with one of the longest track records in Sacramento government is walking out of the Capitol building, retiring, and taking giga-knowledge of institutional memory with him.

Daniel Zingale, a top advisor to the last three governors and to former California First Lady Maria Shriver, and a veteran of the Jerry Brown administration, was called back for another tour of duty in late 2018 by the newly elected Newsom. Zingale had gotten Newsom’s attention with an essay on CalMatters — a list of “disruptive” suggestions for the new governor to pursue — some of them hefty policies, and some more lighthearted, like California issuing a Real-ID “California passport” for the golden nation-state. The Sacramento-born Zingale has also been founding director of California’s managed healthcare department, executive director of AIDS Action and a top official at the California Endowment. As an 8-year-old schoolboy more than 50 years ago, he went with his mother to a UFW rally on the Capitol grounds, and the sights and sounds of democracy in action stirred him for the first, but clearly not for the last, time.

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How different is California now from the one where you started working on government and policy issues?

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The first thing that would strike someone as having changed if you compare back then to now is the texture of who’s here in the Capitol. When I was first exposed to this building, which was actually back in the 1960s and I was a kid, it was pretty much one demographic of people who ran the place. They tended to be middle aged, too — older white men. Of course, all of them heterosexual at that time, publicly.

And now you go into the halls of the Capitol, it looks at a great deal like California. And not just the sort of the diversity, but democracy actually seems to be thriving more in the halls of the capital than what I remember from the earlier days. Every day, there are hundreds of people here expressing their opinions from all perspectives just lined up outside the legislative hearings and outside the governor’s office.

When you were a kid, California was about building more and bringing more people. And now it seems like we may have hit the wall in some ways with too much of a good thing. Our problems are enough housing and finding how to take care of the homeless and the income gap that seems to be getting only wider.

The early California that I remember — it was just all about growing and expanding and that was just 100% good in everyone’s eyes at that time. And in retrospect, we could have done a better job of managing some of that growth and planning for it. It has served us well that so many people sought to live in California, to come to California. It still serves us well, that it’s a destination for the best and brightest, the dreamers from all over the country and world.

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But I think everyone would agree now, we could have done a better job of planning for being a state of 40 million, which is just mind-boggling. And now we need to make some course correction in terms of making sure that we have affordable housing for all the people who are here, and will still come here.

Why didn’t we see it coming?

It does seem to me that it’s in the DNA of politics to be somewhat shortsighted, I’m sorry to say, in the way we choose our leaders. They come and go. It’s hard to ask a leader to look 10, 20 years down the line when they know someone else will be sitting in that seat, whether it’s the legislative seat or the governor’s seat. But I hope that that lesson has been learned.

And now I think there’s a new generation of leaders emerging in this state who have a greater appreciation for the importance of looking long-term.

About 20 years ago, you became the first head of the Department of Managed Care, the first HMO czar in the nation.

It was an exciting time in California because, frankly, the people of California had had enough in terms of how the HMOs were charging them and then denying them care when they were most in need. So it was really kind of a popular uprising against what was happening in the HMO system, which I think is where most good policy, transformative policy, comes from — is from the people rather than originating with the politicians.

So that kind of people’s HMO revolt resulted in the creation of that new department. That department had and has extraordinary powers to protect patients and connect them with care and prevented HMOs from denying medical treatment when it is needed, to people who paid for their coverage.

If I had to tell you the thing I’m most proud of, it may be having had some involvement in getting California closer to universal health coverage. We’ve known for some time that we paid a terrible price for excluding so many people from access to health coverage. By now, I think most people know they end up oftentimes in the emergency room with some of the least efficient, highest-cost care later than medical intervention should have happened — not just for their health and well-being, but for the health and well-being of the system and the cost of the system.

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So we’re doing a better job now of early intervention, preventive care, which is lower cost than at the other end of the healthcare continuum.

We hear that California is hostile to business.

I think that’s mostly overblown, to be honest with you. Especially when it comes to big business, this is still a very attractive place to do business.

I do think we’ve made it too difficult for small businesses in this state and other parts of the country not only to get started, but then to sustain a small business. We have erred sometimes in treating small mom-and-pop startup business as if they were a giant corporation who could afford lawyers and accountants and all the things you sometimes need to navigate important regulations that are there to protect people’s health, safety, workers’ rights.

But I think increasingly there’s an awareness among the elected officials I’ve worked with that we have to treat small businesses differently and better than we have in the past.

And you hear the phrase “nanny state,” that we’re the people who ban plastic bags, we’re the people who think, like New York, that soda cups are too big.

I think it can go too far. I definitely think there are examples, just as a resident of California, I feel like those kinds of things get too intrusive and the benefit is so minimal that it’s not worth the intrusion.

On the other hand, we never want to lose sight of the fact that the reason the lifespan in this state and nation has increased dramatically just in the last couple of generations is not primarily about medical interventions. Primarily, our lifespan has been extended because of regulations that require safer water, safer working conditions with people in factories and fields. It’s all those things that we like to complain about as government intrusion that have actually made our quality of life and literally the length of our lifespan increase because we have greater protection.

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And if we slack off on that, as we’re seeing in Washington, D.C., now on clean air, clean water, we will pay a terrible price.

The great positive example in my experience is the way California has approached tobacco. I know [the tobacco] industry and others felt we were going too far under previous governors when we imposed ways of making cigarettes cost more, prohibiting their use in certain public spaces because of the danger of secondhand smoke.

The truth is, what those things ended up doing was putting California in the lead in the nation in terms of reducing smoking and thereby reducing lung cancer and other health consequences related to smoking. But it’s right to argue that those things had way more benefit than they did intrusive consequences for our state.

Sometimes, being across the table from political stardom, knowing what you know, and then seeing the man — in every case — that you’ve been advising go a different way — how frustrating is that?

For me, it’s about that person being elected by 7 or 8 million people to be governor of California. I’ve seen enough governors up close to see that it is a very tough seat to sit in and have the responsibility to make decisions entrusted in you by all those people. So for someone like me, the role is to give our best advice, best research and data, but I’m very comfortable in knowing that someone else has signed up for that most difficult task of making the ultimate decision.

I’d think one of the biggest changes since you were a schoolboy is Proposition 13. Before, you went to a school system that was ranked No. 1 in the nation. The dream was that higher education would be free for Californians at state schools. And then came Prop. 13. Do you think that Prop. 13 is a help to Californians? Is it a structural handicap? Does it need amending?

I’m glad you brought it up. I think Prop. 13 is one of the monumental markers in the history of California state government, and a fascinating story — the politics of it and how the policy has played out.

There’s no question that it has been a benefit to homeowners, many of whom were struggling at the time of its passage. My parents ended up living in the home that they lived in when Prop. 13 was passed — for 65 years, all told. And it was a lifesaver for them to have their property taxes controlled like that. So there’s no question that had a benefit.

This is sort of a cautionary tale, what happens when politics ignores struggling middle-class people, when it comes to something as central to having a roof over their heads.

So I think that’s why it passed. That’s what was good about it.

Unfortunately, it went too far I think in extending some of those benefits to the private sector; companies that were less in need of that relief, especially over time, have been able to capitalize on it in ways that have not been good for the schools, because, of course, that money came out of the schools.

It is not a coincidence that after Prop. 13 was passed and our public schools’ funding levels started dropping, putting us down toward the lower end of the list of states in terms of our per capita funding, that our schools have fallen in quality.

We have to figure out how in the long term to sustain our schools at a level of excellence, but obviously without doing any damage to what was good about protecting homeowners with Prop. 13.

It seems like now California has maybe five Priority Ones, all jostling for the No. 1 spot. Whether it’s energy and climate change, whether it’s housing, infrastructure and water, income gap, homelessness — everything wants to be first. What does government do in those circumstances?

While everybody knows the conventional political wisdom is, choose one thing and be known for it — that’s kind of the political formula for political success — this governor has been clear that these are times that they require the fierce urgency of now, that we cannot tell the senior citizen that you can’t afford prescription drugs for lifesaving. Now is not the time to fight Big Pharma over drug pricing.

You cannot look a young person in the eyes and say, now is not the time to fight climate change.

You certainly can’t tell people living in the fire zone, now’s not the time to prioritize fire prevention and resiliency.

At the same time, there have to be priorities. And I think what you’re seeing coming out of the Capitol now makes sense to me. No. 1, again, the energy crisis as it relates to the wildfires has to be Priority No. 1, just for the basic competence of government. We have to show that we can deal with that in a responsive and responsible way.

The second you also mentioned, a housing and homelessness emergency, has to be treated as an emergency, which it is. We’re seeing this governor and I think we’re going to see this legislature step up to that in a way that is unprecedented and recognizes the emergency nature of that.

And the third is this crisis of affordability, which is now afflicting most Californians, where it’s becoming impossible to afford housing and college and child care and all the things that are adding up to putting the California dream out of reach for millions of people. So the root of that, of course, is income inequality. We have to address that head-on in ways that won’t make everybody happy. But I think if we take on those three priorities in a bold and decisive way, you’ll keep California on the right track.

As you leave, you look at California trying to stand up to the federal government in the embodiment of this man, President Trump. How do you size up that battle?

What I think is new and terribly troubling now is to have a federal administration that is just overtly hostile to California and the 40 million people who reside here, in the form of punitive actions repeatedly aimed at California to undermine the good things that are happening here.

I’m still hopeful we can move beyond that, somehow rise above that. But it just feels wrong at a very deep level to have a president who seems to have it out for a state of 40 million people.

Are you at all worried about a Democratic supermajority in Sacramento that can pretty much do what it wants, and may do things that are not in the long-term best interest of the state, but in their own interests?

No, I have not spent time worrying about that. I do caution anyone in power that you have to be very careful not to lose sight of the fact that you are accountable to all Californians, in this case. I was involved in this work at a time when the Democrats controlled Congress and forgot that they had to be accountable in ways that would later come to haunt them.

So it’s always important, whether it’s Republicans, Democrats, legislators or executives, to just check yourself and remember who you work for.

Every day, we work behind these big double doors of the governor’s office. When anybody tells me there’s a group of people out there, for whatever issue, who have come to be heard, to protest, to say they’re angry with us, I do my best to get out there and just hear what they have to say.

If somebody goes to the trouble of traveling to Sacramento from this big state, take time out of their busy lives, their work schedule, their family obligations, the least we can do is give them a good listen and respect the fact that they’re really in charge here.

I still get moved every time I walk into the Capitol dome building, because I believe it’s a monument to democracy, to people being in charge. That is an exception in terms of human history, and still something people long for, die for other parts of the world.

If you keep that in mind, whether you have a majority, a supermajority, or you’re in power or not, you’ll do a better job and you’ll be more likely to succeed.

What makes a successful governor? Is that the times? Is that the individual temper? What are the components?

The times have a lot to do with that. I had the honor of working for Gray Davis, who was a very skilled, intelligent, earnest public servant who took that job to heart every day, but was governing in very difficult times.

I think now in retrospect, we understand some of the early burgeoning of this populist movement that just was angry at the world and was going to take it out on whoever they could. So despite all [Davis’] best efforts and significant accomplishments and at some points in time, high standing in terms of the polls and regard of the people of California, his tenure, of course, ended in a recall.

I’ve seen them all have highs and lows and successes and setbacks. I think the most important thing is just to stay humble. Be in awe of the privilege of being here, and expect that there will be tough times, that the times will throw you things that you would rather they didn’t, that you didn’t anticipate. And then just do your best.

Before Gavin Newsom took office, you wrote an open letter to him with some ideas and suggestions about what to do for California. Can you run through a few of those?

Life is filled with surprises because that was a piece I wrote purely from the conviction that I was done working for governors.

In my experience, newly elected governors are not looking for someone who will go out and give them public advice in a somewhat cavalier and even at times flippant way. The irony was that Gavin Newsom saw that piece and really liked the creative approach and didn’t bristle at all at having somebody put those things out there.

That’s really a big part of how we came to work together.

There were ideas that I hoped the new governor might enact, some of them over four years. He enacted most of them in the first year.

He created the office of the surgeon general. He started plans to close a prison. He got the university for Stockton, California, underway and in the planning process.

Youth prison reform was on my list, and he is moving the youth corrections system out of the adult prisons and into Health and Human Services [agency] — which is a radically transformative new approach.

I talked about breaking barriers in terms of appointment of trans Californians. He’s done that and then he’s gone beyond it.

Medi-Cal expansion was on my list, to make Medi-Cal available to more Californians. Newsom has created subsidies for Californians who are here with immigration papers but are just not able to afford healthcare.

And the whimsical ones?

The least whimsical was I could ask him to abolish the death penalty or put a moratorium on that, which again, I’m deeply grateful for.

Some of the whimsical ones he did. He did have a taco truck on the steps of the capital, which was a highlight for me. He did decorate the governor’s mansion for Halloween, which was cool.

The one that struck me was a Statue of Liberty West, welcoming immigrants.

I meant that in seriousness. The Statue of Liberty represents all that is best about this nation in terms of our values and welcoming the people who have made this country thrive in the great country that we are. And that is truer for California than any place.


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