During four years as California controller, former eBay executive Steve Westly was known for his innovative approach to making California’s creaky revenue system more efficient.
Since leaving office in 2007, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and former Tesla board member has mounted an unsuccessful primary effort to gain the Democratic Party nomination for governor. He also was an early supporter of then-candidate Barack Obama and he helped introduce the president to California’s technological elite.
But with California’s open primary figuring heavily in the calculus, he’s been talking seriously about running for governor in 2018. An announcement is expected in early September.
And in the run-up to that announcement, I sat down with him in Pismo Beach on July 22 for an extended conversation about the future of California and the Central Coast.
Westly, a youthful looking 58, likes to talk about himself as a “suburban soccer dad and pro-business Democrat” who thinks California’s rising economy is just the beginning of a big wave of change.
“The sharing economy, big data and the Internet of things,” are going to create “a whole new world out there,” he said in remarks that were repeated later as he talked to the board and sponsors of the San Luis Obispo County Economic Vitality Corp.
Westly, who made a fortune from cashing in on e-Bay shares, thinks it’s just a matter of time before the autonomous driving vehicles being piloted around the Silicon Valley are common sights on California roads.
But the challenges of adapting California to lead the next generation of technology are big, he told me. First, on his prospective to-do list, is meaningful education reform to expand the appeal of the California work force beyond its Silicon Valley core.
The need for a highly skilled workforce was underscored for me a few days later when UC Santa Barbara announced it will share some of the $110 million the Defense Department is handing out to develop laser-on-a-chip computer technology. The grant comes with a mandate to train an entirely new generation of manufacturing workers and $30 million in California Go-Biz money to back that up.
Second on the Westly to-do list is infrastructure. “It’s not just roads and bridges, but access to broadband and creating utilities that can adapt to the 21st Century,” he said. The need for more broadband penetration is dire on the Central Coast, where a consortium based at the Chamber of Commerce of the Santa Barbara Region is working on a three-county broadband initiative.
To free up state money for infrastructure and education, he said, some form of public pension reform will be necessary. But he said the state can’t walk away from obligations to current employees.
“Commitments are commitments,” he said.
Westly, a pragmatic and pro-business politician, has had an uphill battle winning over parts of the Democratic Party establishment, especially in heavily unionized San Francisco. It was a lesson he learned the hard way when he lost to party insider Phil Angelides in the primary race to face Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
However, in an open primary in a heavily blue state, independent voters have a lot to say about who will be the two top vote getters. And unless a big name such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice enters the race, it’s anybody’s guess who the GOP will nominate.
As a result, it is possible to imagine that the 2018 race might come down to a face-off between Westly and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the ambitious former San Francisco mayor who has had a sometimes frosty relationship with Gov. Jerry Brown. After opting out of the race to succeed outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer, Newsom announced his candidacy for governor in February.
In a showdown between the two Bay Area Democrats, Newsom can probably count on core urban voters in Los Angeles and San Francisco and public employees who don’t want to see a change agent take over in Sacramento.
Westly’s strengths will likely be in the suburbs and high tech centers with swing areas such as the Central Coast up for grabs.
After years of being largely ignored in statewide races, it would be a rare treat to see the Tri-Counties in the spotlight.
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