In a 90-minute interview with CalMatters, Michael Shellenberger talks about why he left the Democratic Party, why he changed his mind on nuclear power and drug policy and how that would influence his plans as California governor
Michael Shellenberger was once a self-professed young radical, studying abroad in Nicaragua for a semester in high school in solidarity with the Sandinistas and advocating early in his career for drug decriminalization and needle exchange programs.
But the Berkeley author and activist finally left the Democratic Party last year, disgusted with its embrace of what he calls the “victim ideology” of “wokeism.” In his second long-shot bid for governor — he received less than 1% of the vote in the 2018 primary — Shellenberger is running as an independent, hoping to appeal to Californians frustrated with the failures of its political hegemony.
A poll published Friday by the Los Angeles Times and the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that he is running a distant third, the choice of 5% of voters, with Gov. Gavin Newsom well ahead of all his challengers in Tuesday’s top-two primary.
“I’m a liberal in my compassion for the vulnerable. I’m libertarian in my passion for freedom. I’m conservative in my belief that civilization is required for both,” Shellenberger said during a 90-minute interview last week at the CalMatters office in Sacramento.
Shellenberger said a major turning point for his ideological shift was the sharp rise in overdose deaths nationwide in recent decades and a response by progressives that he considers too accepting of addiction. He said that on issues ranging from poverty to the racial achievement gap in schools, Democrats in California have embraced a “pity narrative,” sending a message to people that they are inherently victims and shouldn’t take steps to improve their lives.
“It seemed to me that what was being said was, we shouldn’t promote the idea that people can overcome adversity,” Shellenberger said. “It’s unhealthy psychologically.”
Here are five policies that he would pursue if he is elected governor.
‘Consequence for them to get into rehab’
Shellenberger’s central campaign plank is to completely overhaul the state’s approach to the homelessness crisis, which he blames mostly on a permissive attitude toward drug use rather than a housing shortage.
As governor, Shellenberger said he would immediately declare a state of emergency and tap into disaster response funds to build vast amounts of new shelter space across California. Then he would send in law enforcement to dismantle encampments, which he refers to as open-air drug scenes, offering residents the choice between moving to a shelter or getting arrested.
“I’m going to be very firm that we’ve got to be enforcing these laws, because if you don’t enforce the laws, people don’t follow them, you don’t have a civilization,” he said.
Under Shellenberger’s plan, homeless people would only be offered permanent housing if they first received treatment for any drug or mental health problems. He also wants the state to take over local homelessness services, under a new agency called Cal-Psych focused on psychiatric and addiction care that could coordinate placements throughout the state rather than in a single county.
Shellenberger said the goal of his controversial approach is not to put homeless people in prison, but to force them to accept treatment.
“It’s all about carrots and sticks. Consequence for them to get into rehab,” he said. “Arresting somebody is not the same thing as incarcerating them. Could be. … You might be arrested. You might be brought to jail. You might be brought in front of a social worker. You might be brought in front of a psychiatrist. You might be given a ticket. It’s going to depend.”
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‘Defend nuclear power plants from closing’
Before running for governor, Shellenberger rose to prominence as an advocate for nuclear power. Though he concedes he has no formal training in nuclear engineering, he said he came to his fierce conviction that nuclear is the best source of power for a clean energy future by interviewing experts around the world. He is currently writing a book on the subject, which he said he plans to finish this year if he doesn’t make it past Tuesday’s primary.
“The most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life is defend nuclear power plants from closing,” an unpopular position among the environmental movement and the public, Shellenberger said. He’s even on the fringe among pro-nuclear activists, who generally favor transitioning to new plants with more advanced reactor designs, because he believes the existing cooling technologies are sufficient: “I’m a heretic among heretics.”
If elected, Shellenberger would push to increase California’s reliance on nuclear power, which he said provides far more reliability than renewables in the transition to a decarbonized energy system. In addition to a reprieve for Diablo Canyon, California’s only operating nuclear power plant which is slated to close in 2025, he wants to add new reactors there and reopen the shuttered San Onofre nuclear plant.
But Shellenberger also favors increasing oil and gas production in the state in the meantime to cut down on imports and bring down energy prices.
“We need a vision of energy abundance,” he said.
‘Build a societal consensus’
How can California better reflect the will of its residents as the state tries to solve its most pressing problems? Perhaps with “citizen juries,” randomly selected samples of the electorate who would participate in town hall meetings across the state to debate solutions and develop recommendations for the Legislature.
Shellenberger wants to create three sets of panels to “build a societal consensus” around how to address housing, education and energy and water issues in California. If the Legislature didn’t pass those proposals, Shellenberger said he would take them to the ballot and campaign to elect new lawmakers.
“My calculation is that the opposition will be reduced and support will increase if people see that it’s a California-wide proposal,” he said. “If 2024 comes around and we need legislators that are going to implement the will of the people as has been shaped by those citizen juries, then I’ll be able to go out there on the road and help to get the legislators elected who are going to be more aligned with the will of the voters.”
‘Raise the esteem of the police’
As Californians debate the role of law enforcement, Shellenberger is all in on expanding police forces — a move that he argues would not only make the public safer, but also address many of the problems that critics highlight with current policing practices.
Shellenberger believes that hiring more officers would reduce incarceration by preventing crime and decrease police violence, because departments would have more time for training and a greater ability to fire those who break the rules. As governor, he would propose directing state funding to local law enforcement agencies and lean on cities to bulk up their police departments.
“We need more police. We need to work very hard to expand policing,” Shellenberger said. “I want to raise the esteem of the police. I want to do whatever we need to do to get more police.”
‘Get students studying more’
Shellenberger blames California’s “atrocious” math and reading proficiency rates on lowered standards that have undermined expectations for students to achieve. To raise these “civilization-destroying numbers,” he wants to extend the school day, lengthen the academic year and shift school schedules so they better align with parents’ work hours.
“Get students studying more,” he said. “We know that there is a direct relationship between the amount of time students do math or reading and their performance. This seems obvious, but sometimes, it feels like the obvious thing is the thing that nobody wants to talk about.”
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