Ting may sometimes be the California Assembly’s Don Quixote, chasing seemingly impossible dreams. But he says it’s a win to just get people talking.
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Dale Carnegie could have been talking about Phil Ting when the positive-thinking guru said, decades ago, “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.”
Ting is that person. Sometimes he’s the California Assembly’s Don Quixote, chasing seemingly impossible dreams. He has tried to persuade skeptical colleagues to punish companies that do business with the Trump administration and to tell Californians to park their gas-fueled cars forever — even as he performs the more practical task of managing the Assembly’s purse strings as chairman of the powerful budget committee.
For some practitioners, political accomplishment is a zero-sum proposition, with success measured by wins — legislation signed into law — and losses — bills that may die a lonely death in committee.
But Ting doesn’t see his work that way. He’s playing the long game. It’s a win, says Ting — a key figure in California’s fight to slash auto emissions in the battle against climate change and — if his legislation does nothing more than start a conversation.
“I’d much rather raise the issue and have people pay attention,” he says. “Sometimes behavior changes.”
Ting is perhaps best known for environmental legislation, but he also has a particular interest in California’s housing crisis. In that arena, he’s opted for an incremental approach, crafting small but consequential solutions. His bills helped make it easier for homeowners to construct backyard “granny flats” and made sure affordable housing projects get priority when surplus government land becomes available. Both took effect Jan. 1.
The 51-year-old San Francisco Democrat is a happy warrior as he works in his cluttered and busy Capitol office. Ting’s distinctive neckwear affords him a place in the Legislature’s Bow Tie Caucus and has the effect of making him appear whimsical. But colleagues have learned he’s a serious lawmaker.
“Any meaningful thing takes time, and it takes persistence and it takes the ability to be strategic,” said Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democratic senator from Santa Barbara. “Phil is one of those guys.”
Ting worked with Jackson and Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced) for years to establish an industry-funded program to provide safe disposal sites for pharmaceutical drugs and medical needles.
A Ting-fostered conversation may take a year or two, or three, but no matter. Peruse Ting’s website, and it’s possible to find the same proposals, reframed and re-introduced, over and over again.
“Every time we do legislation, we hope to change the world,” Ting said. “That’s what we are always after. But for me it’s about the end result….I’m a realist. I know that we can get small ideas done in a year. Big ideas or major changes will take longer.”
Ting has a secret weapon: his Bay Area constituents, who have sent him to Sacramento four times with overwhelming electoral wins. In his 2018 race, he received nearly 84% of the vote. That support gives him a wide ledge to balance on when his proposals, even the extreme, face significant obstacles.
Take, for example, his 2018 Clean Cars 2040 Act, which would have required that all new passenger cars registered in the state after Jan. 1, 2040, be zero-emission vehicles — cars that don’t run on gasoline. The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil-industry group, dismissed the proposal as “crude and overly simplistic.”
Taking on powerful oil interests would send some lawmakers fleeing. But Ting is undeterred; he hopes to maintain robust state rebates for buyers of electric vehicles and expand the network of charging stations for zero-emission cars.
“It’s very clear we have to reduce our dependence on fossil-fuel in transportation,” he said. “There are billions of dollars at stake in the fossil-fuel industry; they are fighting for survival. (But) for me, it’s absolutely clear, this is what we need to do; it’s what is right.”
He points out that forward-gazing former Gov. Jerry Brown was once called Governor Moonbeam, mocked for radical ideas that are now mainstream. “All those things he talked about became reality” later, Ting said.
“You can’t have your whole legislative package so forward-thinking that it’s way too far ahead of its time,” he said. “But to have none of your bills do that is a travesty for the pulpit that we have.”
Ting used that legislative platform to offer a “border wall resistance” measure in 2018 that would have barred companies from claiming tax credits and other California exemptions if they contracted to build President Donald Trump’s wall along the southern border. But lacking sufficient support, Ting withdrew the proposal.
“I’m fortunate I come from a district that allows me to do more of the shooting-for-the-moon bills than other places, because those reflect my constituents’ values. I don’t go home and get yelled at for doing those bills. They wonder why they didn’t pass: What is everyone else thinking?”
Ting is an ardent supporter of electric vehicles (yes, he drives one). He has been tenacious in helping build California’s electric-vehicle charging network and wrote a law that requested a state analysis of how to increase adoption of electric cars. But his legislation directing air authorities to create a strategy for phasing out polluting cars failed, as did a move to punish automobile manufacturers that don’t conform to California’s tailpipe-emissions standards.
Bill Magavern, policy director for the advocacy group Coalition for Clean Air, has lobbied Ting in support of zero-emission vehicles and has observed the lawmaker’s penchant for swinging for the fences.
“He’s shown he’s willing to push big ideas and think about the long term,” Magavern said, “in a building where a lot of people are only focused on the next election.”
Ting did not start out toward a life of public service. His parents fled political instability in their native Taiwan, arriving in California and starting a family. They wished for their son nothing less than a quiet, prosperous, safe life below the world’s radar.
He grew up in the Southern California beach town of Torrance, where he could be easily overlooked in a sea of white faces. He said he rarely saw other Chinese Americans.
It wasn’t until he arrived at UC Berkeley and merged with the Bay Area’s populous Asian community that he experienced what he describes as a cultural awakening. Ting took Asian Studies classes and read about the historical and social contributions of people who looked like him, discovering a rich ethnic history that until then, he said, had been “a blind spot for me.”
“College is a time when many people find their identity,” Ting said. “My awakening was that I could make change happen. It gave me a purpose.”
After graduating from Berkeley, Ting attended Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He spent a summer organizing renters, advocating for affordable housing.
Returning to California, Ting was appointed Assessor-Recorder of San Francisco in 2005 by a young mayor he didn’t know, Gavin Newsom. The two coalesced over a shared interest in the environment and transformed San Francisco from a city with dormant participation in solar-power generation to one of the nation’s clean-energy leaders.
In the Capitol, from his position at the helm of the budget committee, Ting is able to collect political chits, a stockpile he can go to in search of supporters for new proposals on homelessness, the state’s recycling programs and new forms of energy storage, not all of which are in bill form at this point.
Jay Obernolte will likely oppose many of those proposals. The Republican Assemblyman from Big Bear, who is vice chair of the budget committee, sits at the opposite end of California’s political spectrum. But he said he appreciates Ting’s collegial approach.
“He’s a progressive liberal from the Bay Area; I’m a pretty conservative Republican from rural California. He’s got one of the biggest districts, and I represent one of the smallest,” Obernolte said.
Still, the pair worked together on legislation that would have allowed cyclists in bike lanes to yield rather than come to a full halt at stop signs, a common practice.
“The fact that we are able to have constructive discussions about the issues is a testament to the power of a bipartisan approach,” Obernolte said.
The bill proved unpopular — opponents said it was dangerous —and in the end the authors pulled it.
That was not a defeat, Ting said, but the start of a conversation.