Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Archive for March 2010

Death Penalty Still a Killer Issue?

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Goodwin Liu

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports that 42 of California’s 58 county district attorneys are opposing President Obama’s nomination of Goodwin Liu to the federal appeals court in San Francisco.

Why? Because they don’t like the UC-Berkeley’s past criticisms of capital punishment.

According to the Chron:

“Liu’s 2005 critique of the death penalty opinions that [Supreme Court Justice Samuel] Alito authored as a federal appeals court judge in Philadelphia included a case in which a prosecutor had removed all three black prospective jurors from a panel that proceeded to condemn a black defendant to death. The prosecution had also removed all African Americans from juries in three other trials in the county that year.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 30, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Birthday Girl

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As if Democrats didn’t have enough to celebrate this week, tomorrow is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s birthday.

The highest-ranking woman in government will be 70.

Madame Speaker shares her “big day” with, among other notables, actress Keira Knightley (like Pelosi, a leading lady in swashbuckling epics), author Erica Jong (“Fear of Flying” not being a problem for Madame Speaker, who famously got into a flap with the Pentagon over her use of military aircraft) and playwright Tennessee Williams (like Blanche DuBois, what pol doesn’t rely on “the kindness of strangers”?). 

And, it turns out, she was also born on the very same day as actor James Caan.

Yes, Sunny Corleone — who made the mistake of thinking not with his head but his heart, and took a wrong turn off the causeway.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 25, 2010 at 7:35 pm

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O Say Can UC Prison Healthcare?

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The University of California’s Board of Regents is meeting in San Francisco this week. Today’s topic: whether the UC system will take control of health care in California state prisons.

If agreed, the UC would take over right way at 11 Northern California prisons before being expanded to all 33 facilities up and down the state. And it wouldn’t be just health care: the UC would also handle prison dental and psychiatric care. 

It’s not an unprecedented move. Texas did the same starting back in the 1990s (that being the inspiration for the Schwarzenegger Administration now trying to do the same).  Georgia and New Jersey are doing it now.

And California state official could talk up potential savings — up to $12 billion over the course of a decade, the Schwarzenegger Administration contends. Not to mention some appealing short-term benefits, such as shrinking the 11% part of the state general fund  now occupied by prisons costs.

So why would the Regents take on this headache at a time when California’s higher-ed system already is financially strapped and emotionally strained?

Well, there’s the sentimental argument: the idea being that the University of California is all about teaching, research and public service. And that latter concept — public service — would certainly apply in this instance.

A more cynical view would be that the UC, by doing the state a big favor by taking over prison health care,  will ask for something big in return. Such as: a healthy cut of that projected $12 billion in savings to the state.

Stay tuned to see if UC buys into the concept.  Or, if it chooses not to play ball with the Schwarzenegger Administration, whether that factors into this year’s round of budget-balancing — and how bad of a hit the UC takes.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 25, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Lerach Is Back

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From our California politics’ “Greatest Hits of the 90s” collection: securities plaintiffs attorney Bill Lerach is out of jail, and scheduled to speak at a University of San Diego Law panel on April 12. Event’s topic: “Where is Corporate and Securities Litigation Headed Post Crisis”?

If you’re new to the California scene, you might be asking: Bill Who?

Fair enuf.

Well, 15 years Mr. Lerach was arguably the scariest man in California politics.

The San Diego attorney was the driving force behind 1996’s Proposition 211, which had it passed would have sparked a flurry of class-action lawsuits against California-based high-tech and biotech firms by disgruntled shareholders.

At the peak of his powers, in the mid-90s, Lerach and his firm commanded about one-fourth of all securities class-action lawsuits in the nation.

Depending on one’s political slant, Lerach was either the people’s champion — or the pit bull attorney from hell. Here’s The Wall Street Journal’s assessment: “John Grisham would have struggled to have invented a character as brilliant and unethical as Bill Lerach.”

While the so-called Lerach initiative failed, it did have consequences, one of which was mobilizing Silicon Valley, for the first time, as a political force to be reckoned with.

From the 211 fight emerged the TechNet political/policy group, which became a player both in Sacramento and Washington as an embodiment of deep-pocketed, New Economy tech executives.

And from that grew the political networking of such California heavyweights as venture capitalist John Doerr, whose firm in turn brought in Al Gore as a partner.

And you can argue that Gore’s relationship with Silicon Valley — the fascination with green technology, his ties to Apple, and his blending in with the corporate-casual MBAs on fabled Sand Hill Road– didn’t hurt his chances for either the Oscar or that Nobel Peace Prize.

But whereas the last 15 years have generally been good to the former vice president (with the exception of that Florida recount), that hasn’t been the case for Mr. Lerach.

In February 2008 he received a two-year sentence and was ordered to give up $7.75 million for concealing illegal payments to a plaintiff in class-action lawsuits. That was four months after Lerach pled guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice.  

His return to the spotlight certain won’t evoke fond memories from Corporate California — back in the day, when executives were sued by the man, they’d say they were “Lerached”.

And reporters certainly have missed his colorful comments, including this gem of an observation about lawyers: “We’re like snakes . . . cut us in half and we’ll still wiggle.”

Written by Bill Whalen

March 24, 2010 at 11:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Whitman and a Wealth of Wealth Coverage

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California’s political media are abuzz today with accounts of Meg Whitman’s mega-spending — specifically, that the fabulously wealthy former eBay chair has spent $27 million over the past 11 weeks in her quest to be the next governor of the Golden State.

Over at his Capitol Notes blog, KQED’s Sacramento bureau chief John Myers does  nifty job deconstructing the dollars and sense of it all:  for every dollar Jerry Brown’s spent this year (in an uncontested primary), Whitman has spent $186 (the ratio is more like $129 to $1, if you count from the time Brown formally entered the race).

Meg Whitman

Here’s another way to look at it. Considering that this is spending reported only for the first 76 days of 2010 (Jan. 1-March 17), Team Whitman has burned through a little shy of $360,000 a day.


Reporters, of course, will have a field day with this. As will Whitman’s opponents, who are determined to make her wealth and self-financing a political negative.

And that raises two questions:

(1) is it possible for Whitman to run a campaign in which her spending is not part of the conversation?

(2) will the media ever get past her wealth, or is it already part of her public brand?

Keep in mind: it’s not as if the media have to make money the focus.

Just look at the last big election.

Two years ago, Barack Obama swept into the presidency, aided in no small part by a fawning media smitten by the whole concept of hope-and-change. Yet, at the same time, the Obama campaign was collecting and spending money at a dizzying clip — even for a high-stakes, 50-state effort.

How much, you ask?

Team Obama raised about $745 million (including $104 million in the five weeks coming down the home stretch).

Team Obama spent about $715 million. That’s far more than the dollars dropped by George W. Bush and John Kerry combined in 2004 ($653 million).

In the final month of the 2008 election, Obama outspent John McCain by roughly a 4-1 ratio — allowing Obama to play and win in normally (for presidential elections) Democratic-unfriendly states like Indiana, Nevada and North Carolina.

Before you say: wait a minute, Obama wasn’t a billionaire. His story was  all about small donors leading an Internet uprising . . .

Only one-fourth of Obama’s money came from folks giving $200 or less. Nearly half came from people giving $1,000 or more.

I mention this neither to defend Meg Whitman or to disparage Barack Obama’s tactics. If both are guilty of any offense, it’s doing what it takes (from their perspective, at least) to win an election.

But it is worth noting that there was scant discussion of Obama “buying” his way to victory in 2008. And that’s because reporters chose to look past the spending aspect of his campaign and focus instead on other variables, such as cult of personality (just as, in California, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s persona has long generated more media attention that her personal wealth). 

Think there’s any chance of Meg Whitman getting the same break as Obama — or are wealthy candidates held to a different standard?

Written by Bill Whalen

March 23, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

California’s Economy: Last . . . Not Lease

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Back in the early 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson had the perfect metaphor for the sagging California economy: folks were in such a hurry to get out of the Golden State that U-Haul couldn’t keep up with the demand for trailers.

Here’s a 21st century metaphor for the California economy: auto leases.

According to, a website that helps motorists find people to take over their car leases, the no. 1 reason for trading leases in Los Angeles and San Diego in the fourth quarter of 2009 was Californians leaving the state.

That wasn’t the case a year ago, when the top reason was foreclosures and underwater mortgages.

In a good economy, you might expect a lease to be traded as part of trading up to a better car. Or maybe the new toy in the driveway and the accompanying mid-life crisis was the final straw in a shaky marriage.

But not so in present-day California. In a bad economy, divorce is at the opposite end of the pecking order.

The transfer of car leases breaks down as follows:

Relocation 8.8%

Job loss 7.3%

Mortgage issues 7.1%

Buyer’s remorse 6.8%

Divorce 6.6%

Btw, California’s population grew by 353,000 to 38.4 million from July 2008 to July 2009. The only years with lower growth rates since 1900 were 1994-96, according to the state’s Department of Finance.

Over the past five years, California has experienced a net-exodus of 500,000 residents, with the Golden State’s population buoyed by an influx of overseas immigration.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 22, 2010 at 9:40 pm

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LA City Council: We’re No Angels

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Here’s one of those stories that makes you want to inquire as to the color of the sky in some politicians’ worlds.

As LA City Hall reports, 7 of 15 Los Angeles City Council members refuse to take a 10% pay cut in this time of belt-tightening.

This, despite the fact that 4,000 city halls are looking at layoffs, in a city whose unemployment rate has soared by more than 26% over the past year (12.4% unemployment in January 2010 vs. 9.8% in January 2009).

This, despite the fact that the council members earn nearly $178,789 a year — making them the highest-paid city councilmen in America.

Oh, they also get free use of a car — and their health care gratis.

It’s worth nothing that three of the eight council members who did take a salary cut are looking at higher office (Janice Hahn is running for lieutenant governor; Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry reportedly have their eyes on the mayor’s office).

As for the seven holdouts, try this wonderful piece of logic from Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who says he’s for a 10% salary reduction . . . as long as he doesn’t go it alone: ““I’ll take the cut if the rest do. I’m not going to take it first. Why should I do that?”

So much for profiles in courage.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 22, 2010 at 5:45 pm

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About Arnold’s Poll Numbers . . .

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The Governor takes it on the chin in the latest Field Poll

We’ll see if the world really does come to an end now that the House has voted on Obamacare (I’m being sarcastic; Republicans need to cool it with the “Armageddon” talk — they were outmuscled in a party-line vote, plain and simple; they’ll have their revenge in November).

Meanwhile, back here in California, there’s the matter of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shrinking popularity.

The latest Field Poll has the Governator’s approval rating at a new low — 23%. That puts him in a statistical dead heat with the man he replaced in the 2003 recall election, Gray Davis, who hit 22% before he was jettisoned.

The easy conclusion is Arnold has failed — abysmally. His numbers have nearly reversed over the past 5-1/2 years — from a 65% approve, 22% disapprove in September 2004 to the current 23% approve, 78% disapprove.

And it’s across-the-board condemnation, be it by race (only 27% approval among white voters), gender (20% approval among women), age (both 18-39 and 40-64 voters give him a 72% disapprove), or geography (a mere 18% approval in his backyard Los Angeles County).

But let’s look at the bigger picture . . .

 . . . And perhaps cut Arnold some slack.

This is a governor of a state which four-fifths of the electorate believes is on the wrong track.

This is the governor of a state whose Legislature has a record-bad 13% approval rating (forget about the education “race to the top” — in California the real competition is the race to the bottom between the Legislature and Congress).

This is a governor mired in a terrible economy that, at best, shows modest signs of life.

So, given the hand dealt to him, is it realistic to expect Schwarzenegger’s numbers to be going anywhere but down?

I’m biased because I spent five years in Sacramento with a governor who was never overwhelmingly loved or reviled, according to Field’s finding (Pete Wilson’s best approval rating was 52%; his worst disapproval was 33%). And all he did was weather the worst economic mess since the Great Depression. So I don’t necessarily link approval ratings with the job the man is doing.

My advice to the Governor’s Office: look past the polls and focus on the time left in office.

Sure, Arnold’s made mistakes during his time in office. Candidates from both parties will remind us of that this fall. So will pointy-headed pundits like myself.

But Arnold also has suffered from bad timing: namely, the nature of these times.

Politicians are held in low contempt (just check the latest California numbers for the guy who promised hope and change).

But it’s just not politicians who are on the down slope. They’re just one very public facet of a greater age of disappointment and uncertainty in America’s institutions (government, business, religion, the nuclear family).

Once upon a time, Arnold Schwarzenegger rode high above the political establishment. Then, he made a choice to become part of the system in Sacramento — more politician, less celebrity. Ever since, his popularity has suffered.

Arnold can’t undo the past. He doesn’t have enough time to plan for the future.

But he can fathom the present — and try not to let the downward numbers get him down.

Written by Bill Whalen

March 21, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

What $32,500 Gets You in Los Angeles . . .

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Boxer's fundraiser: natural extinction meets political extinction?

Word out of the Southland is the presidential fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer will be held on April 19 at LA’s Natural History Museum.

So, yes, in a year in which she faces extinction, the possibly out-of-vogue Boxer will be on display — somewhere amidst the “terrifying T. rex” and the “terrific Triceratops” — in a museum that prides itself in “living, breathing dinosaur encounters”.

I’m told the asking price is $32,500 per couple (pretty much the going rate wherever the President travels).

But, hey, that 32-large gets you dinner . . . and a chance to stand in the presidential photo line.

So let’s assume President Obama and Sen. Boxer spend the night talking about the one-fourth of Californians lacking health coverage, or all those hard-working families struggling with (and angrily protesting) planned tuition hikes at UC and CSU schools.

$32,500 gets you a plateful of beef medallions and memories of a presidential grip-and-grin.

Or, $32,500 could get you . . .

Tuition for three students at UC Berkeley (at $10,302 a pop) starting this fall, with nearly $1,600 left over for books and supplies . . .

A year of health coverage for three California families (that cost varying from $10,000-$12,000 per family).

Food for thought . . .

Written by Bill Whalen

March 19, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Book on Meg

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Back in the days of Dr. J and Moses Malone, the late Philadelphia 76ers announcer Dave Zinkoff had a most entertaining way of telling fans that someone had failed to turn off their car’s headlights.

After a couple of conventional pleas, Zinkoff would tell the Spectrum crowd: “Your lights are still on . . . but they’re growing dimmmmmm……errrrrr”.

And that’s the Meg Whitman-Steve Poizner contest in a nutshell. Whitman has widened her lead to 49 points in the latest Field Poll (now 63%-14%, compared to 45%-17% in January).

Is it still a race? The primary isn’t for another 75 days or so and Poizner has yet to unleash a full-throttle media blitz. That said, we’re getting late in the game. And the lights . . . for Poizner, they’re growing dimmer.

Which might explain why Team Whitman pivoted yesterday and, with an eye on November and an opponent other than Poizner, released a policy agenda.

48 pages in length, it will help dispel the perception that the former eBay’s chair is long on style and short on substance.

It’s also very glossy, so brace for lots of snarky media comments about a Whitman’s Sampler that was far more expensive to produce than a box of chocolates.

As you’ll see from reading it, the policy tome plays straight down the middle of the California political fairway. Nothing controversial — and nothing that makes it predictably easy for Jerry Brown and the Democratic IE hit squads to portray her as an ideological kook, or a dangerous neophyte.

Among her ideas:

Written by Bill Whalen

March 17, 2010 at 6:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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