Five Things to Watch in California in 2010
2009 is coming to a close – mercifully, it would seem, for California’s ruling class.
That begins at the top of the governing pyramid. The past year was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s annus horribilis. All five of his budget-related measures were rejected in the May special election – not a single one even cracking the 40% barrier. The summer produced a marathon budget stalemate, made worse by the Governator’s inability to coax his fellow Republicans into cutting a spending deal. On a personal level, Schwarzenegger lost his mother-in-law, Eunice Shriver, obviously a huge guiding force in his life (not to mention a big champion of his running in the recall, while others close to Arnold were less certain). And there were those photos of him and Maria in various auto hijinks.
But Schwarzenegger wasn’t the only one who struggled. California’s State Legislature recorded historically low approval ratings. How unpopular is the Legislature? The only ballot measure to survive the May special election was Prop 1F, which prohibits pay raises for lawmakers during deficit years.
Meanwhile, two of the state’s most ambitious mayors saw their upward climbs turn into rapid descents. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, beset by personal scandal and an unsteady support in his home town, passed on a run for governor. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom gave it a shot, but soon dropped out of the race after failing to electrify his party’s donors and the Netroots base. That left one Democrat standing in futuristic, youth-worshipping California: the septuagenarian Attorney General Jerry Brown.
As for California Republicans, the year ended with ominous signs of the party reverting to its familiar routine of circular firing squads, with both the GOP gubernatorial and senatorial primaries holding the potential for bitter personal and ideological insult-fests. Whoever emerges in June will have to figure how to get 90% of the GOP vote, 20% of the Democratic vote and 60% of the independent vote — without seeming too partisan, too ideological or too moderately wishy-washy.
Well, at least California didn’t get the Gitmo detainees.
What lies in store in 2010? Here are five plot lines to follow in the new year.
California’s Economy. According to a report just issued by California Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting, voters should get used to the recession and the misery of double-digit unemployment. “We expect California’s economy to continue to contract, slowly, through the first three quarters of 2010,” the report says. “Job growth will lag economic activity. We don’t expect to see California gain jobs until the second half of 2011. Consequently, unemployment will probably remain in double digits through 2011.” Remarkably, the authors of this report also characterized it as their “most optimistic forecast” in recent times. No bucks, to steal a line from the movie “The Right Stuff”, means no Buck Rogers in Sacramento – no fanciful new spending, just lots of fiscal triage. That, in turn, should mean month after month of negative media, just as we saw during 2009 . . . and plenty of pressure on the 2010 candidates to offer specifics, not platitudes, when it comes to where the spend, where to cut, and where to tax-and-fee.
Stay-at-Home Arnold? He’s not on the ballot in 2010, but that won’t stop the governor from being all over the airwaves in the coming year – promoting the open primary initiative, and then the $11.14 billion water bond. Because it’s his last year in office, keep an eye on how Schwarzenegger balances managing state affairs versus cementing his political legacy. We saw an early preview of this in December. Ordinarily, California governors spend the weeks before Christmas poring over budget options and prepping for the State of the State Address. Arnold, instead, jetted off the Copenhagen to flash his eco-credentials at the global-warming summit. Can Schwarzenegger stay put in Sacramento during what could be another contentious year with the Legislature, or will he give in to the temptation to add to his “me wall” by ditching the capital and pursue political credit where those are willing to give it?
Whitman’s Green Sampler. Assuming Meg Whitman is the Republican nominee for governor, let’s see how she navigates her way around the issue of the environment. Already, the former eBay chair has irked the Governor’s Office over her criticism of AB 32, the state’s landmark global-warming bill (Arnold also cares not for Whitman’s call to reduce the state payroll – something he’d do in an instant if it were feasible). Whitman may be on to something – sensing a public backlash against too much government, too much regulation, and too little job-creation in areas such as the Central Valley and Inland Empire. Or, in risking a war with Schwarzenegger, she makes a powerful enemy of a man whose candidacy in 2003 is little different from her rationale in seeking the same job: I’m an outsider, trust me to clean house. Arnold and Meg: GOP friends or frenemies? Over at the New America Foundation, Arnoldologist Joe Matthews is betting on the big man to endorse Jerry Brown.
Tea Time? Tempting though it may be to compare 2010 to 1994 (the last time angry voters punished a Democratic president/Congress), here’s the question: come the revolution, does California come along for the ride? Yes, 16 years ago the Golden State was swept up amidst the national GOP movement – Pete Wilson sailed to re-election; Dianne Feinstein came within an inch of losing her Senate seat if not for a scandal involving her opponent’s hiring of an undocumented nanny. Then again, 1994 was a strange year — strange even by Golden State standards — with all sorts of rare occurrences that played into the hands of Republican candidates in California: Three Strikes, Proposition 187, the Northridge quake, O.J.’s arrest. Will 2010 also be a quirky year, by local standards? And will the California Tea Party movement, so vocal and visible in 2009, translate into a real force at the polls?
Taking Initiative. At last count, per the California Secretary of State’s office, 45 ballot measures are circulating, with another 38 pending at the Attorney General’s office. Voters, in 2010, won’t have to worry about making sense of more than 80 initiatives — some will get shelved for later cycles, some will disappear into cyberspace, and still others are simply more about bluff and bluster. But a handful of propositions could make for political mischief. That would include another battle over same-sex marriage, legalizing marijuana, calling for a state constitutional convention, reducing the Legislature to part-time status, ending the two-thirds requirement for legislative tax increases, and redefining fertilized human eggs as “persons” under state law.
Speaking of things “only in California”: there’s an initiative to ban divorce in California. And, in the holiday spirit of things, there’s an initiative requiring public schools to allow students to listen to or perform Christmas music during the holiday season. We kid you not.
So much for peace on Earth, goodwill toward men . . .