Thursday, June 04, 2009

At Least We Aren’t California, Part Two

By Marc Korman.

In Part 1, we briefly looked at California’s current budget problems and some of the institutional barriers to any real change. In Part 2, we will look at California’s missed opportunity for reform. Then in Part 3 we will draw some parallels with Montgomery County.

In 2002, as Democrats went down in defeat all across the country, California’s unpopular Democratic Governor, Gray Davis, was reelected (Full disclosure, I spent approximately a year interning in Governor Davis’ office and volunteering on his campaign). At the time, California was going through severe budget problems exacerbated by the Internet bubble burst. Even before he was inaugurated for a second term, Davis’ opponents were circulating petitions to recall him. They would succeed in forcing a special election to decide the recall less than a year after Davis was reelected, largely thanks to the funding by wealthy GOP Congressman Darrell Issa.

The 2003 recall ballot was bifurcated. Question 1 asked California’s voters whether they wanted to recall Governor Davis. Regardless of their answer, voters could pick a replacement candidate in Question 2. 135 names would appear in the list of replacements.

The initial Democratic strategy was to encourage voters to vote no on Question 1 and leave Question 2 blank. For at least a week, party officials and Gray Davis tried to convince potential Democratic candidates to stay out of the race, most notably Dianne Feinstein. But the strategy collapsed when Insurance Commissioner John Garimendi, an elected office in California, filed for the ballot. A new strategy was quickly initiated, “No on Recall, Yes on Bustamante,” with the then Lieutenant Governor bumping the Insurance Commissioner out of the race and serving as the consensus Democratic candidate in case the recall succeeded.

Of course, the real notables in the field were not on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped into the race, bumping aside 2002 Republican nominee Bill Simon, Congressman Issa, and former LA Mayor Richard Riordan. On Election Day, Davis was recalled and Schwarzenegger became governor.

Having beaten an establishment Democrat and a conservative Republican (Tom McClintock), Governor Schwarzenegger was positioned with his large personality to bring the state together. His first proposals were basically a rehash of Davis’ solutions to the immediate budget deficit, massive government bonds. But unlike Davis, the new Governor could sell the proposals to the public. He also began courting legislators of both parties, famously setting up a cigar smoking tent outside of the state house to woo them. Of course, it was not a golden age. Schwarzennager also reversed a car fee being used to help balance the budget, a decision he would later regret due to the cost, and spent a lot of time blaming his predecessor and the Democratic legislature for the state’s problems.

But instead of boldly pursuing bipartisan efforts with the Democrat dominated legislature and seeking fundamental reform to the way California does business, the Governor backed a package of four ballot initiatives in a special election in 2005 that managed to anger the Democratic legislators he needed and cause the voters to turn against him. The package included a proposition setting overall spending limits and altering California’s required education funding, an initiative to require independent redistricting of legislative and Congressional districts, an initiative to make it easier to fire teachers who have worked for between two and five years, and a proposal to limit political spending by public employee unions. All went down in defeat.

Some of these reforms might have been necessary, but they also favored the right wing and outraged the dominant left leaning interest groups in California. Had the Governor combined these efforts with some left leaning or moderate reforms, he might have gotten at least some passed. Instead, he spent the next year fighting for reelection and has been treading water since then. Governor Schwarzenneger is very popular at press conferences and Sunday morning talk shows, but the Democratic legislature ignores him and the California Republican Party does not even invite him to their statewide conventions.

The question for California is whether any of the prospective gubernatorial candidates for 2010, when Schwarzennger is term limited, can do any better. The question for Montgomery County is what can we learn from California’s turmoil? We will take a look in Part 3.