Q&A: What’s Delaine Eastin thinking? The long-shot candidate for governor explains

Former California state schools chief Delaine Eastin, a Democratic candidate for California governor, greets people as she arrives to speak at a meeting of the East Area Progressive Democrats in Los Angeles in June.
Former California state schools chief Delaine Eastin, a Democratic candidate for California governor, greets people as she arrives to speak at a meeting of the East Area Progressive Democrats in Los Angeles in June.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Accusing Sacramento’s political power barons of neglecting California schoolkids, former state schools chief Delaine Eastin jumped into the 2018 governor’s race in the fall vowing to shove the issue of education to the forefront of the campaign.

Eastin’s done her part, at least, calling for increased funding for schools and lower, in some cases free, college tuition as she travels the state.

She’s also been quick to stoke California’s fiery left, calling for President Trump’s impeachment and the establishment of a state-run, single-payer healthcare system.

But Eastin faces long odds.

A former state Assembly member representing Union City, she has been out of public office since her second term as superintendent of public instruction ended in 2003. Eastin also is up against a trio of well-funded Democratic heavyweights: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang.

A poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies released in June found just 3% of likely California voters supported Eastin. compared to 22% for Newsom, 17% for Villaraigosa and 5% for Chiang.

The long-shot candidate says she is not deterred.

The daughter of parents who never made it past high school, she earned degrees at UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara and then won the state’s top education post. Before entering politics, Eastin taught political science at state community colleges and worked at Pacific Bell as a corporate planner during the court-ordered breakup of the Bell telephone system.

Eastin recently sat down with The Times at a Sacramento coffee shop to talk about her chances, her politics and her frustrations with the state’s leadership. Responses edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s your path to victory?

Do what I’ve always done, which is to run a grass-roots campaign. I don’t need the most money. I need enough money.

I’ve always been gifted to attract small donors and people that really care and will go the extra mile for whom $100 means more than $10,000 for some people. But if I have enough of those donors and I can get my message out, I can win this.

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You had a nice life before you decided to run for governor. Why did you give all that up?

Well, I’ve been out of politics for a little while because I’m not a career politician. But the thing that is key to my life has been education. I had a wonderful life because I had a wonderful education. I think it’s the secret to economic development. I think it’s the secret to crime prevention. I think it’s the best welfare reform program you can have. So I want every kid to have the opportunity that this machinist’s daughter had.

My mom was a dress clerk, my dad was a machinist. Neither went to college. I’m the first in my direct line to go. And it was life changing that I got to go to great schools and go to great universities. I want that for every kid.

When I got to Sacramento I was really surprised that so many people treated everything as if it was an expense. I mean, that’s what I’ve said for years about the department of finance: They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Budgets are statements of values and I think California needs to have a values conversation about how it invests its money. So I’m here to say yes to child development in preschool, yes to K-12 and yes to higher education and career training.

Is education a big enough issue to be the centerpiece of your campaign?

Well, it’s half of the state budget. Ironically, people forget that 41% goes to K-12 and 12% goes to higher ed. So it is the most important thing in the state Constitution. Look up Article 16, Section 8. It says from all revenues there shall first be set aside the money for the education of children.

Having said that, infrastructure is a huge issue. And yet when you go to Sacramento and you say, well I’d like to see the long-range plans, people are like, hunh? The last water plan was done under Gov. Brown. That would be Pat Brown in 1957. So because I was a corporate planner for one of the most successful companies in America I do know the value of planning, and I think it’s appalling that the state of California isn’t planning not only in K-12 and higher ed or preschool. It’s not planning in water, infrastructure. It’s not planning in so many areas. And there needs to be somebody who’s more nimble, who’s looking at the horizon instead of the hand in front of their face.

Within the Democratic Party there seems to be a growing divide between charter school advocates and teachers unions. Why?

I think there hasn’t been enough in leadership who really understand that charter schools must play by the rules. There are some charters that are on the fringes that are doing things that I think are illegal. They’re cherry picking the best and brightest kids. They’re kicking kids out just before the test date if they’re not going to do well. They’re telling special needs children that we don’t have a special educator here for you so you should go to a different school.

Some of them are doing a fine job, especially in some of the inner city charters. We’ve really seen … children who would otherwise be kicked to curb have a second chance. So I think you need somebody who’s nimble enough that they’re going to make all the charters play by the rules and make sure that, in fact, we have the kind of accountability that all public institutions should have.

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At a time when Democrats rule California, the state has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates and is near the bottom in per-pupil spending in schools. How did this happen?

I think a few people have lost their way. They don’t realize that the best economic development program is education. I like to say: Educate them or incarcerate them. So here we are, No. 41 in per-pupil spending and No.1 in per-prisoner expenditure. That is disgraceful.

It’s hurting California. So if you really want to see a decrease in poverty and increase in economic development, what you do is improve education. That’s why the Silicon Valley was born here. We had the finest educational sort of vortex in the world. We didn’t have fertile rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates. We had fertile education.

How would you assess Jerry Brown’s record as governor?

I give Jerry very high marks in a number of areas. I think he’s been a fiscally responsible governor. I think he has really been … a high quality environmentalist. While I disagree with the twin tunnels, most of his environmental decisions have been pretty good. I wish, though, that he had banned fracking.

I give him very low marks on child development. Only 3% of the state budget was child development but something like 20% of the cuts came out of that pot. And he vetoed mandatory kindergarten. Disgraceful. Unacceptable. Fifteen states have it mandatory…. I don’t think he’s done enough for higher education either.

You also support a state preschool program and major reductions in college tuition. How is California going to pay for all this?

I’m convinced that the voters get the value of what I’m talking about and, if we asked them, there would be ways for us to in fact pay for this. It might mean that commercial properties have to be reassessed when 50% of the stock turns over. With that simple change in Prop. 13 … you could do all the things I’m talking about. In fact, it would be good for new businesses because if you were starting a new business across the street from somebody who’s been in business for 40 years, your taxes wouldn’t be 25 times what theirs were.

I’m convinced that, if you asked the voters, that [they would] want to make this change. And by the way, when Prop. 13 was put on the ballot, some of the biggest companies opposed it because they said it would hurt education. And they were right.

On the issue of water, do you support the delta tunnel project or proposals for new reservoirs?

The first thing we need is a long-range plan for water. The idea that the last water plan was done in 1957 is ridiculous. So first you do a long range plan for water, and then you decide what kinds of accommodations you have to make in order to realize the goals.

I’m not convinced the twin tunnels are environmentally or ecologically sound at all. I think they’re a stop gap. Most of the best sites for reservoirs have already been used. Why didn’t we have a plan for saving all that rainwater that fell this year that ran into the ocean? If we had had a plan to capture that saline-free water and inject it into our groundwater aquifers we’d be far better off than if we build the twin tunnels and run the risk of damaging San Francisco Bay forever.

You supported SB 562, a bill in the Legislature to create California’s own single-payer healthcare system. Why?

I do think health care should be a right. … We’re spending more money than any country on earth per person and yet we’re getting less service, less care, less support.

We have the finest research universities in the world, public and private, and we ought to be able to figure out a way to get universal healthcare coverage for all of our people at lower costs than we’re doing right now. We’re spending more and getting less because there’s such a big profit for all kinds of entities, including the pharmaceutical industry.

If we invested in high-quality care for all people we wouldn’t have the big expense of people getting really sick because they didn’t get early support and care.

Who were some of the most influential people in your life?

My dad. He was a rock star. He was accepted to college. Then the Depression came and his family’s house burned down and his father went bankrupt. So he went into the Navy. He was a great parent. He was strict. Thirty-five cents a week allowance, but only if we did our chores. Then it went to 50 cents a week. But we got a dollar for every poem we memorized.

I’ve had some amazing teachers along the way. … I had a couple of amazing aunts and uncles who were role models for me. My mother had some problems, she had a drinking problem, but even she helped me find my voice in a funny way. So I’ve been blessed.

Twitter: @philwillon

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