Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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LiteGuv Plot Twist

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If you sit through enough political speeches, sooner or later you’ll hear the tired adage that the Chinese word for “crisis” is made up of two characters — one meaning “danger”, the other “opportunity”.   

Turns out it’s not exactly so. But, like a lot of sayings that Mark Twain may or may not have uttered, it persists.   

Abel Maldonado (l) at a San Bruno press briefing

That said, there is some truth to the idea that a crisis can lead to unexpected twists. And, for proof, we have California’s lieutenant governor’s race, which pits Republican Abel Maldonado, the appointed LG, versus San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.   

At present, Maldonado’s not only California’s lieutenant governor (aka, “lite guv”), he’s also the state’s acting governor since Arnold Schwarzenegger is on a trade mission to China.   

Here’s where events have shifted in Abel’s favor.   

1) Because Arnold left the state during Sacramento’s bill-signing period, Maldonado is free (theoretically, at least, with Arnold’s approval) to sign legislation sitting on the guv’s desk. Indeed, Maldonado reportedly has his eye on AB 900, which would refund property taxes by the scandal-plagued city of Bell. At last word, Maldonado plans to sign the measure, in front of Bell City Hall.   

Subtle, it aint. A clever use of official duties for political again — ironically, at the same time Newsom is keeping a lower profile as SF mayor so as not to let that city’s politics work against his statewide effort.   

2) Maldonado’s second moment to shine, sadly, is the gas-line explosion in San Bruno. Talk about a strange turn of events. If the explosion had occurred a few miles to the north, then it would have happened in Newsom’s fiefdom. Both candidates for lieutenant governor would be in front of the cameras. Instead, it’s Maldonado, as acting governor, who’s on the air, declaring a state of emergency, and getting to be the substitute voice of the Schwarzenegger Administration.   

Does any of this matter, given that the election is still seven-plus weeks away? The answer: yes.   

With the four candidates for governor and U.S. Senate buying up media ad time, and both races competitive with intriguing plot lines, the down-ticket candidates can’t find much oxygen in the room. Both Newsom and Maldonado have struggled to get any real traction. Then along comes the San Bruno disaster and the dynamics change.   

This isn’t the first time that a surprise emergency/crisis/disaster has factored into a California election. One could argue that the state’s electricity crisis in 2000 and 2001 began a downward spiral downward spiral for former Gov. Gray Davis, leading to a lackluster re-election and then his ouster in recall effort. By contrast, the Northridge Earthquake in January 1994 was former Gov. Pete Wilson’s chance to shine by getting Southern California freeways opened in record time.   

One other note, and it’s about the “danger” side of the coin . . .   

In 1965, when the Watts Riots broke out, then-Gov. Pat Brown was on a Mediterranean vacation.

That left the Golden State in the hands of the lieutenant governor, Glenn Anderson.  

Having served as LG since 1959, Anderson had racked up about a year’s worth of experience as acting governor. So he wasn’t a stranger to executive decision-making. And he understood the world of crisis management.  

However, Anderson made two choices that would come back to haunt him.   

The lieutenant governor traveled to Los Angeles to see the situation firsthand. Told by law enforcement that the situation was under control, he went north to Berkeley. Anderson was convinced that the UC campus, with protests scheduled for the same week, was a powder keg about to erupt when in fact it was LA on the verge of trouble.   

That was his first mistake.   

Sure enough, soon after the LG left LA, rioting erupted yet again in Watts. This led to Anderson’s second mistake.   

Asked by the LAPD to send in the California National Guard, the acting governor hesitated. He wanted more information; he didn’t trust the LAPD.  This prompted William Parker, chief of the LAPD, to hold a televised press conference during which he dumped on politicians, said the city was in mortal danger, and implied that he was this close to asking President Johnson to send in the Army.   

Ironically, Anderson’s political career was far from over. He’d go on to serve 12 terms in Congress, retiring in 1993. The bigger loser, it turned out, was Governor Brown. He had the misfortune of: (1) being out of the state at the time of the riots (international communications and travel then not being what they are today) and (2) his replacement not adeptly handling the crisis.   

But Brown shared some of the blame. He didn’t see racial unrest brewing in Los Angeles, just as he seemed incapable of stemming the unrest in Berkeley. Deep into his second term, it hastened his slide with the electorate. And, in November 1966, Brown was swept aside in favor of conservative newcomer Ronald Reagan . . .   

. . . His departure preceded by that of Chief Parker, who suffered a fatal heart attack in July of the same year.


Written by Bill Whalen

September 10, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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