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The Southern Californizing of Our Politics

July 06, 1986|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, author of "Americans and the California Dream" and "Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era," is currently finishing a study of California during the Depression for Oxford University Press.

SAN FRANCISCO — Conventional wisdom has it that Northern California is finished as a statewide force. At first glance, the current race between two Southern Californians for the governorship only reinforces this perception.

Close analysis of the emerging political culture of California, however, reveals not a north/south dichotomy but a dialectic between the California Consensus and the California Alternative. This dialectic, moreover, is not exclusively defined by geography; nor is it exclusively determined by party preference. Both the Consensus and the Alternative, however, receive their fundamental strength and authentication in Southern California. In this sense, the politics of California have been Southern Californized.

The old argument--that Northern California was politically finished--had much in its favor. Take, for instance, the matter of the governorship. American California has had 35 governors, including the incumbent--20 Republicans, 14 Democrats and one Know Nothing. Of these 35, 10 were San Franciscans, but only one of them, Edmund G. Brown Sr., was elected in the 20th Century. Fourteen of the 35 were from Southern California--five in the 19th Century, nine in the 20th. If the other Northern California governors are counted--four from Sacramento and one each from Stockton, Yreka, Alameda, Berkeley, Eureka, Oakland and Marysville--there is a total of 21 Northern California governors, but all except four were elected in the 19th Century. Of 20th-Century governors, two-thirds have been from Southern California.

To judge from the governorship alone, Northern California would seem to have become increasingly suppressed as a statewide political force. A trend, however, is not an inevitability. Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, a Democrat from San Francisco, manages to maintain himself in the midst of a Southern Californian Republican Administration. The Speaker of the Assembly, Willie Brown, is likewise a San Francisco Democrat. And a Northern Californian, Rep. Ed Zschau (R-Los Altos), beat out a formidable list of Southern California opponents for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate.

Communities such as San Jose, the 3-million strong suburban East Bay, Sacramento--today a million-plus suburban conglomerate--and Fresno, with a metropolitan area population of more than half a million, are dramatically reflective in sociology and values of Southern California. The mainstream citizens of this region--despite their propinquity to such bastions of Alternative thinking as Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz--all basically share the same values and life-style of Californians south of the Tehachapis.

Sacramento, for example, has more in common with San Diego in broadest social and cultural terms than it has with Berkeley, just 75 miles southwest. Fresno has more in common with Riverside. Centered around such communities as Concord, Walnut Creek, Livermore and Pleasanton, the inland Contra Costa and Alameda County neighborhoods are the Orange County of the north in terms of suburban style, affluence and growth. Concord, for example, now has its own jet service to Southern California.

Put into this perspective, Northern California should not be judged, socially or politically, through the prism and metaphor of Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. These are fundamentally Alternative communities at war with the mainstream sensibility of California.

Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, for instance, wisely elected not to try for statewide office this year because she realized that being mayor of the Alternative capital of Northern California put her at political disadvantage, not just south of the Tehachapis, but in large pockets of the Bay Area as well.

Long service in Sacramento as Speaker of the Assembly has de-San Franciscoed Lt. Gov. McCarthy. Perceived as a Sacramentan, McCarthy has become acceptable to the entire state. The lieutenant governor remains discreet as to his political origins and residence in San Francisco. The current Speaker, Brown, has his personal political base in Alternative San Francisco, but has masterfully forged a statewide parliamentary coalition. It is a parliamentary coalition, however, not dependent upon direct popular election. For all his brilliance, Brown--a quintessential San Franciscan--would have a tough time winning direct election to statewide office.

Conversely, pockets of Southern California--especially among embattled inner-city leaderships, alternative life-stylers and the liberal intelligentsia--inhabit the same Alternative political culture that can be found in pockets of the Bay Area. Areas of Santa Monica, West Los Angeles, West Hollywood and sections of the ethnic Eastside of Los Angeles are, in political terms, closer to Berkeley, San Francisco and Santa Cruz than they are to Orange County, San Diego or even Riverside.

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