There are a lot of questions to be answered for voters as Long Beach election season heads into its final month, especially for those who live in districts that have multiple candidates running, some with vastly different platforms than their opponents.
While the race for mayor has just two candidates, incumbent Mayor Robert Garcia needs no introduction. He’s been either a council member or mayor for the better part of the last decade. But the question remains, who is James Henry “Henk” Conn?
Conn, a former social worker who currently works as a teacher, is the man challenging Garcia for the office of mayor. He’s a new father, a registered Democrat, he previously ran for city council in 2006 and is running a simple campaign on a centered mostly on a complex and divisive issue: rent control.
“I cannot think of a better platform,” Conn said. “I cannot think of one thing that would have such success. We could do things the same differently but we could do something different for the first time.”
By different he means a deviation from the city’s current pace of development that has seen nearly all new developments of new housing come with steep monthly rents. Conn believes that if his grassroots campaign—which is currently composed of a growing number of volunteers— can educate the city’s electorate on the merits of rent control he can convince them that he’s the best choice for mayor.
Rent control has many iterations but the most basic model places selected rental properties under rent control, instilling annual caps for how large annual rent increases can be, with those caps staying in place for the duration of a lease. Once the lease is broken landlords can raise to market rates but must stick to the established rent increases.
The model is pointed to by tenants and housing advocates as a way to ensure that people can stay in the communities they’ve called home by suppressing steep annual rent increases while people occupy the same unit. Opponents of rent control say it drives down incentives to invest in rent controlled properties leading to blight.
They also claim that it raises rents, as landlords are forced to raise rates on non-rent controlled units to subsidize money lost by those units that are subject to it.
Garcia has made multiple public comments against rent control, and prior to the filing deadline for this year’s election, he released a public statement fortifying that stance after discussions that saw potential mayoral candidate, and rent control opponent, Robert Fox bow out of the race.
Whether or not Conn wins the mayoral race, rent control could still be a political reality for the city as a petition is currently in circulation to put the issue to voters in November.
That a Democrat would challenge an incumbent in their own party is not odd to Conn, who noted that a variety of political platforms can be found within the Democratic party. He believes his views are to the left of Garcia and he hopes to capitalize on that by taking up progressive issues like rent control.
He did clarify though that while his campaign website does focus primarily on rent control, it’s not because he’s a one-issue candidate. While the mayor has an ever-growing campaign fund reaching the hundreds of thousands, Conn’s is in the hundreds of dollars. The money is simply there to expand on, and successfully flesh out a fuller platform, Conn said.
He feels like the land use element should have, and could have been planned smarter. He’s passionate about education and his prior stints as a social worker have made him an advocate of programs and institutions that provide help for those suffering with mental health issues. He also would like to make the city’s animal shelters “no kill” and thinks that public buses should run for free on weekends to encourage usage and reduce traffic.
But Conn says that saving residents money on rent can unlock opportunities not currently available to them. Additional money in their pockets can go toward education and rent stability can increase overall quality of life.
Conn was careful not to disparage Garcia because he doesn’t want to run a campaign based on attacks. But mostly because he agrees that when Garcia says that good things are happening in the city, they really are. He just doesn’t attribute them all to Garcia, or former mayors Bob Foster and Beverly O’Neill.
The true heroes, he said, are the workers in the city. “Those that never rose up”, the city’s workers, Conn said helped change the city from where it was in the 80s to where it is now.
He yearns for change, and he also desires a date to debate Garcia. He’s yet to be invited to debate him, and doubts that invitation will come, but Conn said he wants nothing more than to defend his ideas in real time against his opponent. To date, that invite has not come.
Despite the obstacles he faces, he doesn’t lack confidence. He’s already decided what he’ll say when the race is called and he’s declared the winner.
“When I become mayor I’m going to stand at the lectern and I’m going to say to the cameras and microphones that ‘tonight, nobody will sleep on the streets of Long Beach,’’” Conn said. “I commit to that.”