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California’s issues could set the agenda for tonight’s Democratic debate

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Homelessness, housing affordability, and tech regulations are challenges facing the state and the nation

Pedestrians crossing a busy street in Los Angeles.
Traffic and pedestrians on Hollywood Boulevard at dusk. 

When the seven qualifying Democratic presidential candidates take the stage tonight at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, the setting may play an even more important role in the debate than it has in past candidate forums.

There are many reasons California, and the urban issues facing its major cities, may get significantly more attention during this election cycle. With home state senator Sen. Kamala Harris now out of the race, competition among the remaining candidates has stiffened, suggesting a prolonged battle to win the state’s delegates.

In addition, the Golden State’s primary vote has been moved up to March 3, making its large delegate pool more decisive this election. Late entrants to the race, especially former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, have skipped early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire and plan to focus on California.

Here are some of the issues that might be front and center for the Democratic contenders tonight.

Homelessness and administration policy

The homelessness crisis facing most California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, was once again a national story this week, with the Supreme Court agreeing to pass on hearing arguments in an appeal of Martin vs. Boise, a case concerned with the criminalization of the homeless. That decision leaves the ruling of the 9th Circuit of Appeals, which includes California, in place, which argues that cities can’t criminalize the homeless unless they provide adequate shelter.

On Tuesday, CityLab’s Kriston Capps broke the story about the Trump Administration’s plans to move aggressively to get rid of homeless encampments in major cities, including issuing an executive order to remove camps and withhold federal funding from cities that don’t comply with such initiatives. Candidate Julián Castro visited LA’s Skid Row, making the issue, and how candidates aim to address it, impossible to ignore. (Castro, however, did not qualify for tonight’s debate.)

The environment and climate change

California has stood up to the Trump Administration’s systematic dismantling of environmental standards and deregulation, especially when it comes to mileage standards for cars. It would be useful to hear how candidates would plan to reduce air pollution and transportation-related emissions, since getting past car-centric planning is such a big challenge for Southern California. A discussion about electric cars would be fitting in the hometown of Tesla—Andrew Yang is a fan—and, after the year’s blackouts that exposed fragility in the state’s grid, candidates need to talk about how electrification can become a long-term strategy to reduce emissions.

Housing affordability and public housing

It’s impossible to talk about California cities without discussing housing affordability. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles struggle with building new housing and expanding the amount of affordable, accessible units available for residents. The candidates have recently laid out extensive housing plans, so expect some back-and-forth over the benefits and costs of each, and how they can help the U.S. overcome its housing affordability crisis.

Tech responsibilities and regulation

Loyola Marymount University sits on a ridge overlooking Playa Vista, a neighborhood that has been transformed by the tech industry, with massive campuses for Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and others. It’ll provide a great backdrop for questions about tech competitiveness, responsibility, and regulation, such as AB5, the California labor law meant to rein in abuses by companies such as Uber and Lyft and the use of private contractors, as well as municipal efforts to regulate the growth of Airbnb.

Universal basic income

It seems likely that Andrew Yang will talk about his Freedom Dividend plan tonight, given that the largest experiment in Universal Basic Income is taking place right now in Stockton, California (whose mayor, Michael Tubbs, just endorsed Bloomberg). Yang’s plan would provide $1,000 per month to everyone in the U.S. in an effort to offset the loss of jobs due to automation and artificial intelligence, but would also come in handy in a state where an estimated 55 percent of all renter households are cost-burdened.

High-speed rail’s future

Will the dream of high-speed rail in the United States ever take shape? After years of cost increases for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route—the current tab is estimated to be nearly $80 billion—as well as Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he’s concentrating on current efforts to complete a Central Valley route, the future seems dim. But high-speed rail is central to many of the Green New Deal proposals being floated by progressive groups and primary opponents.