Henry Stern

Photo courtesy Henry Stern

Henry Stern was first elected in 2016 to represent California's State Senate District 27, which straddles the Los Angeles/Ventura border.  His platform emphasized his environmentalism; Stern taught environmental law at UCLA while still a policy advisor for his predecessor, Fran Pavley.  His District includes Porter Ranch, the site of the devastating 2015 Aliso Canyon gas leak, and last month he introduced a bill to close the gas storage facility permanently.  His bill -- SB1486 -- would also require several local and state agencies to develop a natural gas demand reduction plan by June of 2023.

In 2018, Stern lost an ADU he was renting to the Woolsey Fire.  But for him, the real impact was on his family.  Stern grew up in Malibu.  "The real thing was evacuating my grandfather.  He ended up stuck on PCH for eight hours, and then he went into the ICU, and then we lost him a few months after that."  The experience informed his subsequent legislation to harden wildfire resilience and limit development in fire-prone areas.

The fire also taught Stern a political lesson that he said motivated his decision to get into the race for CD3.  "So the fire is raging, and I called Sheila [Kuehl, the current Supervisor of CD3] and said, 'we've got to have a Town Hall.  Because people don't know if they've lost their homes, they can't get back there to find out.  And people were infuriated…and they'd also sent a bunch of the firefighters up north to Paradise, to go fight that fire, and then we needed them back here and so we got caught flat-footed.  And she was sort of saying, 'you're micromanaging.  This is the fire department, they're in charge of this, it doesn't make sense to do that Town Hall right now, because people are just going to be angry, and let them talk to the authorities.'  And I'm like, I don't want the Fire Department doing that part.  Like, I don't want to just be the guy who gets to go cut the ribbon.  Somebody's who's an elected official has to be the one to do the hard meetings…

"And that ended up being a three hour meeting where we worked through problems and it was very emotional.  We did it at Taft [High School] and there was a bank of news cameras and I found myself trying to manage the event.  Normally, you'd give it to a staffer, but people didn't want to hear that.   They didn't want the orderly, 'did you fill out your comment card?' kind of thing.  But it wasn't scattered energy by the end.  Because by the end of the meeting what we ended up doing was building recovery systems there, in the room."

The Aliso Canyon gas leak prompted a similar Town Hall, at a mega church, with close to 2000 in attendance.  "Nosebleeds.  Pets dead.  And I just had to be there, be where things are broken.  If the departments know you have their back, if you're willing to get in there and do that part…they'll do better when  they know they're protected.  They'll take more chances.  If they have to face the music, and you throw them under the bus, then they're going to be cautious."

Despite his willingness to face the occasional wrath of his constituents, Stern said that actually running for office wasn't what he had in mind after he'd finished his undergraduate education at Harvard and gotten his law degree at UC Berkeley, and that politicking doesn't come naturally to him.  "I wanted to write the bills.  I loved policy.  But then all my mentors started retiring, and I'm looking around trying to find someone else I could work for."  In addition to working for Senator Pavley, Stern was also junior staff counsel to U.S. Representative Henry Waxman.  Representing SD27 is Stern's first elected position. He will turn 40 on April 12 and lives in Calabasas with his wife and daughter. 

The Third Supervisorial District covers the Westside as well as parts of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Malibu, Westlake Village and Hidden Hills. Spanning more than 400 square miles, the district’s population is close to two million -- a number greater than the population of 13 U.S. states.  The role of the Board of Supervisors is very broad and includes the adoption of an annual budget outlining the expenditures of all branches of the County on a fiscal-year basis.  With the recent election of Supervisor Holly Mitchell, every current member of the Board is a woman.

In mid-December of last year, a 14 member Citizen's Commission finalized a new map of Los Angeles County's Districts -- more San Fernando Valley, less Hollywood -- which upended the ongoing race for CD3 Supervisor.  Of the three candidates who had filed to run by the end of last year, just one -- former West Hollywood Mayor Lindsay Horvath -- has stayed in the race.  Stern's other opponents for CD3 are Robert Hertzberg, the State Senate Majority Leader, and Craig Brill, an independent businessman.  Stern filed to enter the race for CD3 in December of last year, just after the new map was finalized. 

Recently, Stern has turned his attention toward homelessness, specifically the impacts of mental illness. In 2018, he initiated an audit of the funds being expended from Proposition 63, the so-called "Millionaire's Tax" passed in 2004 which was supposed to have provided funding for mental health services.  The audit revealed close to $2 billion in unspent funds.  Since then, voters passed Proposition 2, the "No Place Like Home" initiative, which earmarks some of those unspent funds toward permanent supportive housing.  Stern acknowledged the need for permanent housing, but said he'd still like to see a less doctrinaire, more services-oriented approach when it's warranted.

" There's a housing first strategy.  But I'm saying, we can't wait, and just be like, we're not moving that money until [there's housing].    But that's not [Sheila Kuehl's] approach…All this litigation has been about ' if you don't have that bed, you can't move somebody'.  But my point is, let's get over this impasse over whether you can move that person or not.  Are you relentlessly servicing people [on the streets]?  [Is a service worker] seeing the same person 20 times over a three week period, and taking care of their SSI or making sure if their skin infection is dealt with?  Keep coming back, and then [that person] will want to go into care, into drug treatment, into housing.  But it's such a bureaucratic interaction right now on the street."

In February, Stern introduced SB1446, which reads, "Any person that lacks supportive housing and behavioral health care and is otherwise not living safely in the community has a right to mental health care services, housing that heals, and access to a full-service partnership model, including access to treatment beds and a recovery facilitator that shall navigate access to appropriate resources for the person."  Like the Care Courts proposed by Governor Newsom in early March, Stern's deceptively simple bill would move the State one step further in mandating treatment for the severely mentally ill.  Stern has also authored bills which would change conservatorship rules for those with severe mental illness and in 2019 secured funding for a review of the state's Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which provides guidelines to handle involuntary civil commitment for individuals living with mental illness in California.

When  it comes to mental health, Stern is particularly frustrated by the lack of resources currently available, pointing out that the Department of Mental Health currently has just 30 outreach workers available to respond to crises, a number he feels should be closer to 300.  Making matters worse, a new federal law mandates that, as of July 16, 2022, every U.S. state must have in place a call system -- 988 --to respond to mental health or substance use crises.  "To switch it on, you have to have sufficient resources to do it.  And we've been so top heavy on the capital side, and not on operations and services, that I don't think we're going to get to benefit from that, until we get it together.  Like I said, 30 people.  We're just trying to train an army of field psychiatrists and mental health nurses and people who want to do the work.  The whole behavioral health workforce is the future."  He went on to say that he is currently attempting to write a bill which would take care of student loan debt for mental health workers.  "And it's not just for homelessness.  We're talking all mental health crises."

The Los Angeles Homeless Services authority is a "Joint Powers Authority" between the city and county of Los Angeles, meaning the organization is governed by both the city and county.  It was formed after extensive litigation in the late 1980s and early '90s, wherein the city and county argued disagreed which was primarily responsible for dealing with homelessness. As the lead agency in L.A.'s continuum of care, with an $800 million budget that covers everything from the Annual Homeless Count to maintaining the Coordinated Entry System to extensive outreach, it has become a lightning rod for controversy.  Calls for its restructuring or even abolition have become a frequent feature of the current election cycle.  At least one candidate for Mayor has said it should be abolished entirely.

Stern takes a more nuanced view of LAHSA. "I would like to dramatically change the way that organization works or start a new one. And I've been trying to think of a reasonable compromise. It's easy for me to say, 'We're going to blow it all up and start over. Right?  But I'm going to have to replace it with something. And what is that?"

In his opinion, LAHSA should function as the "front door" for services, an organization to which city council members could come in order to secure funding and resources, rather than being "the outreach army" themselves.  "So help us pull down the Medicare dollars or help us coordinate across Department of Public Health, Department of Mental Health and housing. But [LAHSA doesn't] have to be the face of it.  For LAHSA to be the front facing door, and the back end is too much. That's my thought."

Stern acknowledges the need for more affordable housing, but doesn't agree with some progressives that single family homes are inherently undesirable, or even racist.  Neither did he vote in favor of SB9, which allows for duplexes on lots currently zoned R-1 and effectively abolishes single-family zoning in California.  "I think the false line we've been fed is that just opening up the free market, just letting it trickle down is somehow going to solve this affordability crisis.  When SB9 went through, I had a very lonely vote on that bill.   And there was a precursor to that bill -- SB1120 -- and the vote on that was 39 to me, in the Senate.  And I lost a lot of bills that year, too.  I've been on the outs on that issue.  I'd say that we're the most pro-affordable housing candidacy in the race. 

"What Santa Monica and the affordable housing corporations here try to do, that's the kind of work that's actually going to get people into rent controlled apartments or senior housing or just rent an apartment for under $2,000 a month. " Stern said he believes the government will have to mandate affordability in order to achieve it.  "I'm not a free market guy when it comes to housing.  I think we have to be interventionist about it.  And I think it's going to take a lot of subsidies.  I think we've got to just admit that.  I'm not saying we socialize all housing and the government owns it all…I'm not saying that. I think actually, private developers can do a really good job with affordability. But you've got to have some standards…I like adaptive reuse a lot. I'm really, really interested in that. Yeah. And I think we haven't put enough energy into it."

"If SB9 had been more squarely about affordability, I think I would have [voted for it], potentially.  But the LA Times says it's not going to do anything, and I think it's going to densify very high-value hillsides. The real question is, do real people have the money to split their lots, or are they going to have to sell to a private equity firm?  And who's going to have the upfront capital to do that?"

As far as representing as large as County District 3, and perhaps expanding the number of Supervisors in Los Angeles County, Stern says, "we had a couple bills to expand it.  But if the idea is getting more throughput, adding more layers on top, I'm not sure if it would actually solve [the problem]. How do you unify services and jurisdictions between county and city?

"It's definitely unwieldy, and you're sort of dooming yourself inherently to never feel good enough…But you've got to build an architecture that's going to be present in all of those communities and have teams out there that are really doing the work.  And help your city council people.  Just go do the work."