- Interview by
- Piper Winkler
California’s San Mateo County is home to large working-class and immigrant communities. It’s also home to mega-billionaires and massive biotech corporations. For too long, argues State Assembly candidate James Coleman, the county and state political systems have exclusively met the needs of affluent residents, supported by the big-money contributions these residents can provide. Meanwhile, the working class struggles to make ends meet: there are six times as many jobs in the county as there are homes, too many workers make minimum wage, and residents are still feeling the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elected to South San Francisco City Council in 2020, James is running for State Assembly on a platform that includes the construction of social housing, a Green New Deal for California, and addressing the state’s economic inequality through a wealth tax. Jacobin’s Piper Winkler sat down with James to discuss how the liberal status quo is failing Californians, what his democratic socialist agenda has to offer voters in the face of housing and climate crises, and why a leftist sea change is on its way to California politics.
On the City Council of South San Francisco, you’ve launched a guaranteed income pilot program and focused on fighting for universal childcare. How are these measures important for your constituency? What are the key issues it faces?
The COVID pandemic has disproportionately wreaked havoc on our working families. Its effects extend from housing and health care to childcare and our education system. Through the guaranteed income pilot program, we’re trying to provide everyone with a minimum income to ensure financial stability, so that everyone is able to buy food, have more flexibility in their schedules, and provide for themselves and their families.
Our guaranteed income pilot program is very similar to Stockton’s; it is providing $500 per month for twelve months to 160 families in need. We’ve seen that there is so much demand for these programs; guaranteed income has been very successful in its implementation in Stockton and elsewhere. Many of its recipients benefit not only from the added financial stability but from better mental health and from feeling more supported in our community. It’s very important to make sure that our working families, especially undocumented and immigrant families, as well as our service workers, are being supported.
The second big initiative we’re working on is universal childcare. It’s a ballot measure being led by Peninsula Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), in conjunction with local unions AFSCME, which represents a lot of our childcare workers, and UDW-CCPU, which represents family care providers. The measure would provide universal childcare and preschool for all children from two and a half to five years old. It would also raise teachers’ wages to a living wage.
This measure will be paid for by taxes on the largest corporations — big biotech companies located in South San Francisco — and it’s a modest tax of $2.50 per square foot per year on commercial office space. This would yield $30 to $50 million every year, which will mean a lot for working-class families, as well as for our teachers, many of whom are underpaid for the important work that they do.
The third initiative we’ve been working on is building social housing. Oftentimes on the city council, we’re at the whims of private developers in terms of what gets built. These private developers are never concerned about building housing, but instead about making a profit for themselves and their shareholders.
If we want to truly treat housing as a human right, we need to take away that profit motive and ensure that we are building housing for the community that maximizes social benefit, maximizes affordability, and strives to achieve deeper levels of affordability. That way, we’re supporting all income levels in our community and building mixed-income communities where the housing projects are self-sustainable.
As a candidate, you’ve brought attention to the issue of massive wealth disparity not only in your county but across the state. How does this issue show up in the lives of everyday Californians? What makes it a top priority for you to address in office?
Wealth inequality is so stark in California, as well as in San Mateo County. California is the fifth-largest economy in the world. We have Silicon Valley, we have Big Tech, we have Hollywood, we have so much wealth. And yet we have hundreds of thousands of people who are struggling to make ends meet, who are experiencing housing insecurity, and who are living on the street.
At the same time, we have dozens of billionaires profiting immensely from the COVID pandemic. Worldwide, billionaires have seen their wealth grow by trillions of dollars during the pandemic, while many working-class families suffered. Our biggest corporations are currently bragging about record profits over the past year, despite striving to cut pay for their workers.
In San Mateo County the inequality is especially stark. We have very working-class communities and large immigrant communities. Adjacent to them are neighborhoods of very affluent people living in mansions. And in our county, the average home has reached a median value of over $2 million; we’re the first in the nation to hit that milestone. Yet we have so many families who are struggling to make ends meet and making nowhere near a living wage.
Right now, to afford a single-family home in the county, you need to earn over $200,000 a year to be able to afford the mortgage. That is incredibly disappointing. It shows a lack of empathy and policy perspective on behalf of our state, which has yet to create a housing policy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.
You’ve listed implementing a wealth tax as a priority. What makes this an important goal for you and for your constituents?
California has some of the largest regressive taxes, sales taxes, and so forth in the country. We need a shift toward more progressive taxes that will make sure that the richest among us are paying their fair share. I support a wealth tax on the biggest billionaires and corporations — and we have a lot in California — to make sure they’re paying their fair share and to fully fund the resources and the programs that our working families depend on.
We are way past due for our paradigm shift in California politics. I believe that we are very close, as Bernie won throughout the state and about a third of our legislature will be turning over in 2022. And as the fifth-largest economy in the world, we can lead in a variety of policy areas, including health care, climate change, a wealth tax, and building truly affordable housing.
You’re focusing on democratizing politics for working people, first in your community and now at the state level. What negative effects of politics “working for the wealthy and well-connected” has your community felt? What will it take to change that, and who’s involved?
One of the biggest negatives of California politics is the amount of corporate money and special-interest money that floods into our political systems. Repealing Citizens United is a federal issue; direct contributions from corporations to federal candidates are banned, but it is legal in California for corporations to donate directly to local and state candidates. Oftentimes you see thousands and thousands of dollars flooding toward candidates, directly from corporations.
Of course, that affects policymaking. We have a lot of legislators and electeds who represent not the will of their working-class constituents but the interests of the corporations, big fossil fuel companies, and big pharmaceutical companies. A clear example is that despite the immense popularity of single-payer health care throughout the state of California, AB 1400, a bill for single-payer health care in California, didn’t even come down to a floor vote.
I’ve heard that we were not even close to passing the bill. AB 1400’s supporters were down in the double digits. And this is a state where we have a supermajority of Democrats; we’re supposedly the progressive bastion of the country, and yet these popular, bold, progressive ideas can’t even come down to a floor vote.
Another example is Ellis Act evictions. We have a loophole where large landowners and landlords can say that they’re going to go out of business, evoke the Ellis Act, and then evict all their tenants. The Ellis Act basically allows landlords to evict their tenants without a legitimate reason. We need to repeal or reform the act to protect against unfair evictions. There was a bill called AB 854 that tried to do this, but it also did not make it to a floor vote. That’s a massive shame, too.
A core element of your platform is “ensuring people who work in San Mateo County can afford to live in San Mateo County.” How have traditional liberal approaches to the housing crisis failed the working class in your community, and how will your housing platform support them?
In San Mateo County we have a lack of housing. We have six times as many jobs as we have housing units. Of course, we have many people competing for homes in the housing market. And when we do build housing, and it’s all market rate, then who loses? It’s the working class: folks who work service jobs and make minimum wage. They don’t benefit from the construction of new housing.
One of the ways that I differ from all of the other candidates in this race is that I want to build mixed-income social housing. I want to treat housing as a human right and make sure that it is not being treated as a vehicle for profit. When we build mixed-income social housing, we can maximize the affordability of the units being built to ensure that we are prioritizing working-class families, ensuring that they don’t have to wait until we build who knows how many units of housing to keep up with demand.
One of the big problems is that when we build a lot of housing, who are we building that housing for? If it’s solely market rate, or if the largest proportion is market rate, then we are only building housing for those who can afford that. But we’re not building homes for the working class.
You’re also focused on protecting your community from climate change, taking measures like transitioning to green union jobs and decarbonizing your energy economy. How is climate change an imminent threat for South San Franciscans, and why is your democratic socialist approach the answer?
In San Mateo County, we are at risk of sea-level rise, both on the coast side and on the bay side. We’re also at risk of wildfires, whether it be in the hills of our own community or in the polluted air that follows wildfires throughout the state of California. Our generation will bear the brunt of climate change: sea-level rise, wildfires, pollution, and so on. So our generation needs to have a hand in shaping policy to ensure that we are leaving no communities behind in our transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
I support a Green New Deal for California to ensure that no one is left behind. That means a just transition, ensuring that former fossil fuel workers have pensions and job retraining programs. It means democratizing our energy production: making sure that we have small-scale solar, where individual residents can take part in energy production, as well as taking ownership of public utilities out of the hands of for-profit, investor-owned utilities and transitioning it into community-owned utilities.
We could have the California Public Utilities Commission regulate energy transmission. Right now we have local community choice aggregate (CCA) programs that handle energy generation and prioritize the production of renewable energy. They’re already employed throughout California, but right now, only Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) handles transmission.
However, transmission could be handled through the CCAs, so we can make the necessary investments in keeping infrastructure updated and safe for all of our residents. PG&E has mismanaged their infrastructure, causing a lot of the wildfires in California. They were also responsible for a gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010 that killed eight people. They need to be held accountable for their actions.
You’ve been endorsed by the largest union in the state of California. Tell me about how you plan to interact with unions and with the labor movement as a member of state government.
I don’t want to be just another vote in the state legislature. I want to be an organizer in office and ensure that we are providing a voice and a platform for working families and labor unions. I plan to work hand in hand and take the lead with our labor unions, from AFSCME to SEIU and the many others that are represented in California, ensuring that all working people have a voice.
I believe in mass unionization, fostering democracy in the workplace, and expanding union membership throughout the state of California and, of course, in our district. That means legislatively empowering union rights, whether it be the collective bargaining process or making it easier for workers to unionize, but also going on the streets and making sure that we are supporting workers when it comes to their strikes, their pickets, and their unionization efforts.
You’re running openly as a democratic socialist. Why do Californians need an alternative to the state’s dominant liberal politics? What aren’t they getting from that political orientation that they need?
California’s current state is a clear example of why liberal politics is not working for the majority of people right now. It’s only working for the wealthy and well-connected. California is currently in the midst of an immense housing crisis. The private market is not solving that. We have so many people who are uninsured or underinsured. We are facing a climate catastrophe. Fourteen percent of all Californians live within one mile of oil-drilling wells. We are failing on the environmental justice front.
Liberal politics and the status quo are not working. I believe that most people see that, and they want change. People want to ensure that our future generations, as well as our working class, have the right opportunities and the economic bill of rights that ensures they don’t have just enough to survive but enough to really thrive.
Democratic socialism is an alternative that can get us there by guaranteeing that economic bill of rights. It can give us the right to a high-quality education extending from childcare and preschool through college or trade school. It can give us a high-quality universal health care system that ensures that cost or distance is never a hindrance to one’s ability to access care, and includes dental, vision, hearing, reproductive care, gender-affirming care, and mental health care as well.
It can give us the right to housing and the right to live in safe communities with housing security, as well as the right to clean air and water, without the risk of pollutants or carcinogens that can harm us. And, of course, it can give us a living wage, and it can get the influence of corporations and big money out of politics.
In 2020, Californians voted decisively for a democratic socialist platform at the federal level, offered by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Now, 40 percent of the state’s seats will be up by 2024. Is there a leftist sea change coming in California politics, and if so, how do you see yourself as part of that?
Yes, definitely. Bernie Sanders won in San Mateo County as well as the entire state of California. And if you combine the votes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in San Mateo County, they won over 50 percent of the vote. We also elected our first democratic socialist through the state legislature in 2020 — Assemblymember Alex Lee, who represents the South Bay. (He’s also one of our endorsers.)
Alex won in a crowded field, outraised and outspent fifteen to one. And he won because the status quo is not working for a majority of people, and people realize that. I believe that California is way past due for that paradigm shift, and for a shift toward a more progressive, more democratic socialist left politics. And it’s coming now. Other organizations like DSA, Courage California, and the Working Families Party are starting to organize at the state level. I’m happy to be a part of that, organizing as well as running for office to bring about that change that we all want to see.
You’ve mentioned that you’re the only working-class candidate running for your seat. How has your background influenced your politics?
Growing up working class profoundly shaped my values. When I was five years old, my father suffered a traumatic injury that left him largely paralyzed. My mother had to work two jobs in order to make ends meet. At a young age, I experienced what it was like to fall through the cracks. This made me want to study biology to learn how people can heal, but I also wanted to study government to learn how we can make our government and our medical system truly work for everyone, not just a wealthy few.
We ran for city council last year to bring about the justice and change I wanted to see in our community, both because of the disproportionate effects of COVID and because of the public health crisis of police brutality. Now we want to bring that energy to Sacramento to make sure that Sacramento works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.