Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Archive for November 2010

Giving Thanks

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I’e been celebrating this week’s holiday on the high seas. Thanksgiving dinner will be enjoyed in the Britannia Restaurant of the Queen Mary 2, while the great ship makes its way north from Grand Turk to Pier 12 in Brooklyn.

So while we’re on the subject of giving thanks . . .

Let’s start with the obvious and give thanks for the great state of California. Love it or hate it, how many other corners of America give you the options of deep-fried turkey on the beach or apres ski pumpkin pie?

As much time as is spent on this blog and others pointing out all that troubles us concerning California, nature provides us with a bountiful harvest.

I’m thankful for Leland Stanford, for having the foresight to buy land in Palo Alto —  and Herbert Hoover, for choosing not to set up a think tank in . . . well, I was gonna say Fresno, but that got someone else in trouble.

I’m thankful for Pete Wilson, for taking a chance and bringing me to California way back when. I lost count this year of the number of folks who told me he was the last governor who seemingly had a handle on the state’s affairs. Amen to that.

I’m thankful for Arnold Schwarzenegger, for giving me a lot to write and talk about these past seven-plus years. He’ll be missed.

I’m thankful for Jerry Brown, for . . . let’s wait a year on that one.

I’m thankful for the Internet. Those of you who grew up in the age of typewriters, white-out, dictionaries, library stacks and snail-mail know what I mean.

My old man . . . and the sea

I’m thankful for my big sis — super supporter, super mother to two wonderful girls who blossomed into joyous women, and the super-glue that holds our little family together.

I’m thankful for having had a loving mother — I lost her during my second year in college, but that’s 20 years more than some sons ever get.

I’m thankful for “PG”, for taking me to Forbes Field and Three Rivers Stadium as a kid. There’s no greater love than a grandmother suffering through a Reds-Pirates doubleheader. 

Finally, I’m thankful for my father, who happens to be my cabinmate on this voyage.

My old man’s a self-made man who served his country dutifully and watches over his family and friends loyally. I’ve never met an individual more knowledgable of so many subjects. Or someone with as generous a nature to those he loves.

My father’s had some health issues of late, so time with him is eer more precious.

I hope he has many good years and gentle seas still to come.

And I hope he deems me worthy of sharing his name.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving. See you next week.

Written by Bill Whalen

November 23, 2010 at 8:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

SF and the Lite Stuff

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Soon-to-be-former Mayor Newsom

If you have $5,000 burning a hole in your pocket, or a few thousand friends in or around the 94111 ZIP code and willing to sign their name on your behalf, then you might have what it takes to be the next mayor of San Francisco.

“Babylon by the Bay” has an opening in City Hall what with the incumbent mayor, Gavin Newsom, set to become California’s next lieutenant governor. As one might expect of San Francisco, what comes next for the city is anyone’s guess.

Scenario One: SF’s Board of Supervisors finds a successor from within its ranks (the next mayor needing 6 of the supes’ 11 votes). Incredible as it may seem, the city actually moves further to the left (Newsom being something of a centrist by SF standards);

Scenario Two: Unable to do a clean hand-off, the Supes become a hung jury and the job automatically goes to Board president David Chiu.

Scenario Three: The white knight. A popular figure like Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who ran for the job against Willie Brown, comes back and steps in on an acting basis. Speaking of things that sounds incredible, Ammiano says he’d rather be in Sacramento than San Francisco;

Scenario Four: Newsom postpones his Sacramento swearing-in for a week so that next year’s incoming Board (presumably, one a little more centered and centrist) chooses a more tame successor.

Scenario Five: San Francisco’s next mayoral election, in November 2011, becomes a free-for-all. State Sen. Leland Yee already has filed papers setting up an exploratory committee. Let’s see if it turns into the tradition battle between a die-hard liberal and an alternative who doesn’t gie the business community a heart attack.

As for that Sacramento job, Newsom says his focus will be solving the not-unrelated problems of homelessness and poverty. This makes sense in that the former allows ample opportunity for the lieutenant to stay at home in San Francisco. The latter allows him to burnish his reputation among his party’s black and Latino voters.

Unfortunately, the office isn’t on Jerry Brown’s hit list. But in a better world, with a streamlined California government, it would be a goner.  Let the attorney general replace the governor, if need. Turn the office space in a child-care center, or a yoga classroom, or a psychiatric clinic. Something far more productive for mind and soul.

In reality, what Newsom will be doing it what every “lite guv” does — monitoring the governor’s health, keeping an eye on future statewide offices, and figuring how to make news.

Come to think of it, homelessness and poverty suit the lite guv’s portfolio — it’s a drifting existence, and one that relies the kindness of others.

Written by Bill Whalen

November 18, 2010 at 8:11 am

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California GOP’s Woes: Stars or Selves?

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It’s been two weeks since the election, votes are still being counted in California’s attorney general’s race, but otherwise here’s the face of Republican misery in the Golden State:

– Double-digit losses in both the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races;

– Not a single Republican elected to a statewide constitutional office (that may change, depending on the outcome of the Cooley-Harris contest for attorney general, but otherwise it’s a repeat of the California GOP’s top-to-bottom meltdown in 2002);

– No obvious next-in-line candidate to take a stab at the 2012 Senate race of a 2014 rematch with Jerry Brown (yes, I know the governor-elect is telling friends he’s gone after one term; still, the only way I can see Jerry leaving office before he finishes two terms is if they carry him out of the Horseshoe on a shield).

– The ignominy of a poor showing (you know it’s rough when Fox calls your top races 30 seconds after the polls close) while the rest of the nation was experiencing its second Republican “revolution” in the last 16 years.

– The Republican Governors Association meet in San Diego this week, then adjourn to the governors’ and governors’-elect 29 or 30 home states, depending on the outcome in Minnesota. For out-of-state Republicans, the definition of “nice place to visit, but . . .”

All of which begs this question for California Republicans, and it’s something of a Shakespearean question: to quote Cassius speaking to Brutus, does the fault lie in the stars or in ourselves?

The argument for the stars not aligned: there are approximately 2.3 million more registered Democrats than registered Republicans; the Golden State is more friendly to Obama and Obamacare; cap-ad-trade is not a wedge issue; and Arnold Schwarzenegger seems more interested in dressing down his party than building it up.

The argument that it’s the GOP’s own fault: start with second-guessing Meg Whitman’s and Carly Fiorina’s choices, toss in the party’s penchant for intramural squabbling that leaves primary “winners” bloodied and bruised heading into the general election, you have a sure-fire formula for repeat failure.

This debate won’t end anytime soon –at least, not until a statewide Republican candidate finds a way to crack the code.

But here’s one way to look at the 2010 election and the supposedly impregnable progressive, Democratic fortress that is California.

1) Proposition 19, legalizing recreational marijuana use. Should be a done deal in a left-of-center state. It lost.

2) Proposition 21, creating an $18 fee to fund state parks. Progressive touchy-feely, hug-a-tree politics. It lost.

3) Proposition 24, ending tax breaks for businesses. Should’ve passed because Blue California hates Corporate California. It lost.

4) Proposition 25, lowering state budget passage to simple majority votes. It passed. Big break for Democrats . . . but only possible because the “yes” campaign made it a referendum on “punishing” the Legislature.

5) Proposition 26, elevating new fees from a majority to two-thirds votes. Big conservative idea. It passed (and could end up leaing environmentalists a little green around the gills).

6) Proposition 27, killing both Prop 21 and 2008’s redistricting reform. Big wish for Nancy Pelosi, et.al. It tanked.

What this suggests is, to the extent that Republicans have any success in California, they have far more success with ideas than individuals. Something for the state GOP to think about as it looks up at the stars . . . and wonders who out there has political star power.

Written by Bill Whalen

November 17, 2010 at 8:05 am

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Auto-Pilot Government Reform?

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As a former Sacramento Bee columnist and LA/NY Times reporter Dan Weintraub knows a thing or two about how California ticks. So it comes as no surprise that he’s come up with a great idea for Governor-elect Brown: fix California’s DMV.

Dan’s reasoning:

“Nearly everyone in the state age 16 or older has had to deal with the Department of Motor Vehicles at one time or another. And nearly every one of them comes away from the experience shaking their head, or in a rage. And then they start to think that all of state government must be as inefficient and bureaucratic as the one office they know the best.”

He adds:

“If Brown dragged the DMV into the 21st Century of customer service, a rather simple undertaking when you think about it, he could credibly ask Californians to support his efforts to reform the schools or protect the environment. Some of them might even be willing to cough up higher taxes if they believed the money wouldn’t be wasted.

And once Brown overhauled the Department of Motor Vehicles, he could move on to other parts of state government. He could blow up the boxes that Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to explode but never did. The Terminator couldn’t get past the public employee unions. But Brown, a lifelong Democrat in good standing, could.

He could fix the DMV. Then keep going.”

At this point, I’m going to commit a cardinal sin of bloggers: risk boring you with a personal anecdote. But it does affirm Weintraub’s theory about too many Californians having a DMV horror story to tell.

Here’s mine:

In mid-August, I bought a new car. Two days after said purchase, I decided that I wanted to upgrade the license plates. Not a vanity plate, mind you, but one of those nice memorial “special interest” plates. A $50 fee, but life is short . . .

 . . . And DMV lines are long, so I ordered the replacement plates on-line.

My credit card was accepted, the transaction occurred, and the DMV responded with a e-mail receipt informing me to expect the plates in 4-6 weeks.

The system was working.

Or so I assumed.

Fast-forward four weeks to late September. No plates. Week five: nothing. Week six: nada, zip.

The same for weeks seven and weeks eight and nine.

By week ten, with the election about to appear in the rear-view mirror and Thanksgiving looming on the horizon, I realized waiting was no longer an option. And so I called the “916” number that came with the print-out of my receipt. A recorded voice told me all DMV operators were busy, please hold the line.

Which I did . . . for 30 minutes.

I did get a human being on the line — a human being clearly lacking in humanity. She questioned if I had the right number (it’s what the form says, ma’am), whether I had indeed ordered special-interest plates (yes ma’am), and whether in fact I’d paid for the plates (I have both this printed form and a credit-card receipt, ma’am).

I wasn’t long for no-ma’am’s land. She directed me to another DMV number, this one dealing with vanity plates. That resulted in another 30 minutes of Muzak before an agent comes on the line . . . only to inform me that I had the wrong number; I needed to talk to a specialist in special-interest plates, not vanity plates.

Did I mention that I believe in gun control . . . for moments like this.

As it turns out, three times was the charm. My third DMV agent found my record, which had mysteriously disappeared (making me wonder my $50 had gone instead for a Furlough Friday happy hour at some T.G.I. Friday’s). Bonus added: the agent was actually apologetic and even called the next day to inform me that the plates were on the way. Indeed, they did arrive, two days after the round of phone-calls to Sacramento. But if I hadn’t called, I’d still be checking the mail every day like a clueless yutz.

I chose to share this anecdote because I think it gets to the heart of what ails government. Civil servants — people paid with my and others’ tax dollars — treated me condescendingly. The system didn’t work, not left on its own. It’s what earns bureaucracy a bad reputation, and prompts voters to distrust government.

Getting back to Dan Weintraub’s column, I think he’s on to something. Raising the vehicle-license fee (“car tax”) was the trigger for the 2003 recall election. During my years in Sacramento with the Wilson Administration, the angriest rally I witness was a group of citizens outraged by changes in the state’s smog-check law.

What does this say about California? Simple: mess with folks’ cars and expect to pay the price. But improve their motoring experience — beginning with a better DMV — and it might put the state on a road to bigger reforms.

Written by Bill Whalen

November 16, 2010 at 8:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Jerry Meandering

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Jerry Brown: once and future governor

The calendar may say that California is between gubernatorial administrations, but that doesn’t mean the media can’t engage in speculation about what kind of governor Jerry Brown will be — which they’ve been doing since . . . well, since before he earned back his old job.

Making sense of Jerry Brown and predicting his next move is fun. And it’s complicated.

Methinks it’s also a waste of your precious time.

Few modern California politicians have been as quizzical. Few have shown the same willingness to shed their past political skins for a new persona — futuristic governor, anti-establishment presidential wannabe, tough-love mayor, wiser-but-older governor-elect.

What to know who Jerry Brown really is? Pop in an Isaac Hayes cd and listen to what he said about another 70’s icon: John Shaft.

“He’s a complicated man, but no one understands him but his woman.”

Maybe you expecting an earlier stanza?

“Who’s the cat who won’t cop out, when there’s danger all about?”

So now we enter wait-and-see mode with the past and future Gov. Brown. And, boy, are there a lot of questions waiting to be answered.

1) How’s he going to confront what’s left of the $25 billion deficit that’s the subject of a legislative special session?

2) Where is he prepared to draw the line when the usual suspect from the Democratic power base — public employees, teachers, environmentalists and civil-rights activists — all come looking for a favor (in the case of public-employees union, payback)? The ability to be “Dr. No” is crucial to Brown’s ability to bring real change Sacramento — and afford the same pitfalls that contributed to  Gray Davis’ political demise.

3) What’s the plan for economic growth, other than taking a swig from the green kool-aid jug and touting the virtues of clean tech and combating global warming?

4) If he plans to put a tax increase on the ballot, what’s Plan B when (not if, but when) voters reject that strategy (“government” and “money” being poisonous words on the November initiative slate)?

Just say (Dr.) No . . .

So many unknowns, and only six weeks before the fun begins.

And, for me, it begins with one threshold question: is Jerry really going to throw himself into this challenge? If so, how long will the job keep his interest?

Figure it this way: for most politicians, becoming governor of California is the culmination of a long climb up a pyramid. Do the job well and there’s a chance at one more promotion: national office (the U.S. Senate is a lateral move, at best).

Yes, this is a culmination for Brown in that, at age 72 it’s likely his last elected office. And that’s my concern.  In a lifetime of politics built upon the notion that, in the back of his mind, there’s always another move, this version of Jerry Brown — the one about to become California’s 39th governor — is also a man at the end of the political line (not that the governor’s office is to be mistake for Death Row).

At some point — maybe sooner that you think . . . like, in a year, after he tires of dealing with a stubborn Legislature and an impatient media — what’s Jerry’s thought process? Will he still see himself as a fixer and reformer on a four-year (or eight-year) mission. Or does he start the countdown to 2015 and getting back to Oakland full-time? If next year’s presidential primaries bring with them a liberal challenge to Barack Obama, is an older, more mature Jerry Brown capable of withstanding the allure of national politics (not running, mind you, but sticking in his nose where it doesn’t belong)?

There are two schools of thought, here. One is that Brown, always the contrarian, will turn out to be a pleasant surprise. The other: the man with the wandering eye can’t help himself, and will struggle staying focused on the day job.

In “Shaft”-speak, a “bad mother” . . . or a bad governor.

Written by Bill Whalen

November 15, 2010 at 8:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Election Thoughts

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I’ve been under the weather the past couple of days, so I apologize for going light on the posts.

That said, here are some thoughts amidst my pharma-induced haze . . . and I’ll pick up the pace once I get past this cold.

1) California’s Republican Quandary. Meg Whitman spent at least $162 million in her failed gubernatorial effort, purposely avoided controversial stands so as not to be portrayed as a wing-nut, supposedly mounted an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort, yet drew 130,000 fewer votes than Dan Lungren in 1998 — Lungren, with his 19-point loss, being a benchmark for futility. The past dozen years have seen 31 statewide races in the Golden State (I’m not including Superintendent of Public Instruction — supposedly, a nonpartisan office). Republicans have won only five of those contests. Subtract Arnold Schwarzenegger’s two wins in ’03 and ’06, plus two wins in 1998, and only Steve Poizner (Insurance Commissioner, 2006) avoided a concession speech. That’s 1-for-27, folks — not a hit in any league.

2) At Least Pelosi Had a Bad Night, Too. Not a bad night. A really bad night considering: (1) she becomes yet another short-serving Speaker; (2) her fellow California House Democrats have to contend with the after-effects of Proposition 20 (so much for SoCal gerrymandering). Pelosi’s troubles are also Jerry Brown’s troubles. I don’t see the governor-elect having much luck rattling a tin cup outside the office of Speaker Boehner and his penny-pinching, red-state pals who now control the House of Representatives’ purse-strings.

3) The GOP’s New Friend? Initiatives. Republicans espousing Republican ideals got smoked on Election Night in California — up and down the ticket. But the initiative slate, for the most part, said otherwise. Californians said no to legalizing pot for the sake of more government revenue (Proposition 19). They made it tougher for majority Democrats to raise fees (Proposition 26), and backed that up by saying no to a new license-plate fee for the sake of state parks (Proposition 21). Voters, for a second time, said yes to independent redistricting when they deep-sixed Proposition 27). You’re probably thinking: isn’t Proposition 25’s success an exception? Well, yes — except, the campaign cynically made life easier for legislative Democrats . . . by running against the Legislature. Of bigger concern for California Republicans: how to interpret Proposition 23’s meltdown — too hard to overcome the Texas oil image, or are Californians really that crazy about green tech?

4) The Big Empty. California’s polls closed at 8 p.m., local time. 30 seconds later, Fox News called the races for Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer. Fox News! Et tu, Roger Ailes! California Republicans weren’t allowed even an hour of faint hope. Only, they were, thanks to the utter ineptness of California Secretary of State Debra Bowman, whose election-results Web page crashed in that half-minute between the polls closing and Fox calling it over. Candidates had to wait to declare victory. It gave losing candidates an added excuse for not throwing in the towel. If being a techno-klutz is sufficient grounds for recall, I’ll gladly sign a petition to get the Golden State an elections chief who can actually run a computer system.

5) Jeff Gorell, Role Model. Three days before he won a first term as a Republican Assemblyman, Gorell, a Naval Reservist, revealed that he had been recalled to active duty, would be deploying to Afghanistan this spring, and would miss at last half of his two-year stint in Sacramento. With the budget rules now changed and Democrats controlling every nook and cranny of state government, save for a few staff offices in the State Legislature, Gorell could bring along the rest of the GOP caucus . . . and it wouldn’t much affect Sacramento.

Written by Bill Whalen

November 3, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Three’s Better Than None

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Another National Review “Corner” quickie: how many seats California will contribute to the Republicans’ House landslide?

Figure it this way: the Golden State’s 53-member delegation accounts for nearly one-eighth of the entire House. If the GOP gain tomorrow night is a “mere” 40, then California should chip in 5 to the total.

Push the landslide higher — 55 or 60 seats — and California’s share should amount to 7 or 8.

My guess: three — and that’s being optimistic.

The take might be as little as one or two seats.

I can also see California Democrats coming away damage-free.

You can thank redistricting for this.

Well, that, and California’s counter-current voting mindset (not as amped up about cap-and-trade, Obama and Obamacare as the rest of the nation).

Still, three’s better than none. No?

Written by Bill Whalen

November 1, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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