Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Meet the New Boss

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Getting ready to watch Jerry Brown take the oath of office — a third time, and a second first term — as California’s 39th governor (he was the Golden State’s 34th governor from 1975-83).

Also trying to find it on television.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the broadcasting gods deemed the changing of the guard in Sacramento no more important than “Family Feud” (local Fox), “The Young and the Restless” (local CBS), “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (local ABC) and some gawdawful tripe called “The Gossip Queens” (local NBC). Welcome to gubernatorial life post-Arnold, Mr. Brown, where getting on the air will be, shall we say problematic.

Whoops, here’s the ceremony — on C-SPAN2. Think the rest of the nation cares more about California than California itself?

OK, on with the show — and some observations as Brown makes history as a two-time governor.

1) First up: California’s new First Lady, Anne Gust Brown. Very gracious, very low-key. The anti-Maria to Jerry’s anti-Arnold. As quick as she’s on the stage, she’s off it — after introducing her hubby. Will be interesting to see what, if any, high-profile role she plays in this administration?

2) Jerry takes the oath — as Jerry, not Edmund G, Jr. He jokes about taking the office without mental reservation. Nice touch — he’s gonna need that sense of humor in the weeks ahead. Big swig of water and it’s big-speech time . . .

3) California is “the great exception”. Talks about government lacking the trust of the people, cynicism filling the void.

4) Three minutes into it and we’ve landed on the budget. Precious little about California rising to challenges, state of optimists, etc. Says we have to work together as Californians first, partisans second.

5) Lays out his campaign message: speak the truth, no new taxes unless publicly voted for, return as much as possible closer to the people. Reminds me of Arnold’s first inaugural and the promises of job creation, getting fiscal house in order, restoring public’s faith in government.

6) This is sounding an awful lot like a State of the State, not an inaugural . . .

7) “At this stage in my life, I didn’t come here to embrace delay and denial”. Good line. now, how to keep say it without antagonizing the Legislature?

8) Recounting how his family came to California, the difficult journey west, singles out 99-year-old aunt after reading from her ancestor’s diary.

9) “The people of California have not lost their pioneering spirit or the capacity to meet new challenges.” Cites Silicon Valley, farmers, Hollywood, teachers, nurses, firefighter, public servants (cha-ching!) . . .

10) Need to find devotion to California — loyalty beyond our narrow perspectives.

11) “California here I come, right back from where I started from.” And that’s it. Not even 15 minutes.

My takeaways:

1) Jerry Brown is a paradox. So is the state he now re-governs. We’ve never been as rich or as poor, at the same as intellectually inventive yet, at times, socially and politically regressive. We’ve never been so crowded, yet so divided along cultural and economic lines. Wish Jerry had explained where he fits into all of this, the changed California he now inherits.

2) His is a life of public service — four decades and counting. Brown should have basked in it — remaining humble, yet addressing the great honor of leading this state, why his family chose to get into this line of work. He did mention past governors . . . wish he’d talked more about what he’s learned along the way.

3) You wanted the anti-Arnold, you got it. Clearly, there was no expensive speechwriter crafting the words. The address didn’t flow, seemed to purposely avoid hitting high notes. He rehashed campaign lingo (“At this point in my life”). And I’m guessing Jerry didn’t spend much time rehearsing it. He ad-libbed the introduction of his aunt, lost his place in his speech. The presentation wasn’t as staged as a Schwarzenegger production — it also wasn’t as . . . well, dignified. A little too manic for my taste, given the pomp of the occasion.

4) What will Brown say in his State of the State that he didn’t today? The way I see it, he has three big speeches this year: 1) inaugural address; 2) State of the State; 3) tv speech (if he so chooses) laying out rationale for special election and public-approved tax increases. Seems to me that #1 stepped on #2.

 5) In the end, all that counts is whether the new governor connected with the people — more so than grade scores from wordsmiths, pundits and propeller heads. I’m guessing the public will find Jerry Brown’s quirks (the jokes, getting rhetorically derailed, the odd energy shifts mid-delivery) charming . . . for now, in that Day One of the new administration is about change and anticipation, not results.

Now that we say goodbye to our second actor-governor, it’s gonna be fun to see how far — and for how long — this new act will play in California.


Written by Bill Whalen

January 3, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Brown, the Budget and Instant Karma

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On Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon was struck down in his prime. California’s governor at the time: Jerry Brown.

Gov.-elect Brown, in summit mode

Thirty years later, Brown is California’s governor-elect. On the morning of the anniversary of Lennon’s death, he held a budget summit in Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium. That’s also where Jerry’s former chief of staff, Gray Davis, held his second gubernatorial inaugural in January 2003 — for what would turn out to be a brief second term. And, nine months later, it’s where Arnold Schwarzenegger gave an earnest 15-minute speech outlining his 10-point, 100-day plan to alter California’s government landscape and budget process (the latter, an idea that didn’t pan out), en route to his thumping of Davis in the historic recall race.

Let’s hope instant karma doesn’t get governor-elect — not the way it gobbled up the last two guys who visited the auditorium.

The purpose of Brown’s summit (his planners called it a “briefing”) was to discuss California’s bleak financial outlook. That, and a chance to allow Sacramento insiders to do some early venting in what’s likely to be a winter, spring and summer of discontent.

On those fronts: mission accomplished.

State budget experts outlined the list of horribles (the pension obligation is brutal; personal income revenue has flatlined; the state’s even further in the red after this week’s tax deal in Washington; there’s an ongoing problem of California spending $20 billion more than it “earns”). With a Democratic flavor: downplaying the size of the state workforce vs. overall state population; highlighting the deterioration of California’s vaunted K-12 system in matters like pupil-to-teacher ratio.

As for the venting, Democrats want to complaining about painful spending cuts; Republicans want to know why there isn’t further discussion about business incentives. And for those out-of-town visitors: a chance to gripe about what ails their corner of the Golden State. 

In all, nothing much of a surprise. So why, then, did the governor-elect decide to do this? Because:

1) He makes good on a campaign promise to engage on the budget sooner rather than later. Coupled with a meeting earlier this week with legislative Republicans, this “open” meeting with state lawmakers and local government officials adds to the impression that Brown is neither a bully nor a hyperpartisan.

2) He starts what will be an uphill climb convincing the public as to the severity of the problem (state analysts say it will be eight years until California employment returns to its pre-recession level). After nearly a decade of Sacramento talking “budget crisis”, only to delay serious reform by resorting to budgetary gimmicks (borrowing, smoke-and-mirror accounting, fuzzy math), Brown must sell folks on the idea that a budgetary apocalypse is nigh — if he doesn’t, there’s no way he can build the pressure it will take to get both Democrats and Republicans to make serious and lasting budgetary concessions.

Arnold might have been able to pull this off during his first year in office — before he gave up on being the next Hiram Johnson. For Jerry, it’s tougher — like convincing someone with a chronic headache that the migraine they think they have is, in fact, a malignant growth that requires immediate, drastic surgery.

3) He lays the groundwork for the inevitable — asking voters for a tax increase, say, as early as next spring. At least twice, during the two-hour auditorium session, Brown referred to California as a “rich state” and the world’s “8th-richest political jurisdiction” (in deference to the state’s world-class economy). That sounds like a guy who soon will be asking rich Californians to dig a little deeper.

Something else I took away from the summit: becoming accustomed to the next governor’s style. After seven years of a governor prone to imagery, for whom English is a second language, Brown is less colorful and obviously less into stagecraft — yet, in his own way, rich in rhetoric.  He characterized California’s stagnant job market as “the bottom of the ascendancy”. At the meeting’s end, he declared that “a zone of potential common agreement” exists for cleaning up this mess.

The good news: Brown intends to do more such summits in the weeks ahead. He’ll need to — especially, beyond the bounds of Sacramento. Like I said, it’s a tough sell — both to lawmakers and the people affected by their choices.

Written by Bill Whalen

December 9, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lagger, Not a Leader

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I’m heading over to Sacramento later today, to take part in a panel discussion on the election and what’s in store for Gov.-Elect Brown, the State Legislature and this curious experiment in democracy we call California.

One topic I’m guessing we’ll delve into is whether the Golden State is indeed a national bellwether, or a nation-state that’s under-the-weather in terms of things economic, political and matters otherwise common-sense.

Here’s a piece I posted on this very topic earlier today over on National Review Online’s “Corner”. I’m taking the glass-half-empty side.

The way I see it, California isn’t cutting-edge at present — not politically, at least. If anything, we’re a political no-man’s land. The Republican leadership is at low ebb — certainly compared to other states. The Democratic leadership is . . . well, old and innovation-light, neither a neo-thi nor a paleo-that. Both parties will bypass us in the 2012 election, slugging it out elsewhere in states that actually determine presidential outcomes.

As for voters’ signaling, it’s classic California gas-and-brake. Liberal Democrats captured each and every statewide constitutional race last time. Student-body left. At the same time, on the initiative side, voters opted for fiscal restraint and political cynicism. Student-body right.

Kinda makes it tempting to follow Stanford to the Orange Bowl . . . and stay in Florida.

Written by Bill Whalen

December 6, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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, 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

Posted in Uncategorized

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