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THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION / GEBE MARTINEZ

Is the Golden State Now the Gloomy State?

August 25, 1995|GEBE MARTINEZ

To read the latest assessment of California, we're in a bad mood.

Or at least, that's what a couple of East Coast political authors say in their latest edition of the "Almanac of American Politics," the heavily researched bible of political junkies everywhere that analyzes politics state by state, congressional district by district.

According to this 1,550-page book, Californians got grumpy after the catastrophic earthquakes, rioting, fires and the Brentwood murder of O.J. Simpson's former wife; and our unease about immigration and crime has led to a tattered culture.

They even suggest that we overreacted to the state's economic recession, concluding that the state's financial health "has been stronger all along than political and big business establishment proclaimed."

Oh really?

"Try telling that to the 45-year-old machinist who lost his job" because of the post-Cold War defense cutbacks, notes Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at UC Riverside.

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Actually, authors Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa say we have a lot going for us. The state's economy--supported by a strong small business market--is growing, and California's creativity keeps the state on the cutting edge in the highly industrious Pacific Rim region.

Casting an outsider's view of the economic, political and social psyches of all 50 states, Barone and Ujifusa describe the nation's largest state as almost making come true the jealous wishes of the East Coast elite that the Golden State be tarnished forever.

While California's economy is regaining strength and its politics are increasingly conservative, it "remains in a sour mood," according to the political pundits. "There is still little here of the rosy optimism and cheery chipperness of the state's most influential politician, Ronald Reagan."

What a change from the 1988 edition of the book, which described us as the bold and the beautiful; the homeland of Reagan, who was preparing to retire after eight years in the White House. Back then, the authors gushed over California: a "trendsetter" state, filled with "success and confidence" and possessing a "confident acceptance of the state's cultural diversity."

A lot has changed, the authors acknowledge. As if the natural and social disasters weren't enough, the state lost 500,000 jobs, largely from defense industry cutbacks. The freeways remained clogged, they say, and residents of once quiet neighborhoods became preoccupied with crime and the influx of immigrants.

As a major destination point for new immigrants, Los Angeles County is now what New York City was to America in 1910, according to this review, which adds: "It is also inevitably, as was New York, messy and disorganized, crime-ridden and anxiety-prone."

Did they say, "as was New York?" The authors should try telling that to the Big Apple's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who has just sent the city to the psychiatric couch by ordering up a $40,000 study on its mental health.

In fact, author Barone applies a little psychoanalysis of his own to California. He says the state has moved "from therapy toward discipline"--more in favor of sticking to the rules. Prisoners should serve the full term of their sentences, illegal immigrants shouldn't receive government funding, is the conclusion from recent vote results.

"California has long been marvelously tolerant--pro-choice and pro-gay rights, ready to tolerate marijuana use and alternative lifestyles, racially tolerant and inclusive--but in the 1990s, it seemed to be yearning for strong principles, for reasonable rules to be obeyed," according to the analysis.

And in this he sees a message for President Clinton in 1996. He says the President's "I feel your pain" message of the 1992 campaign may not work again. Californians' push for rules against crime, illegal immigration and racial quotas doesn't bode well for Clinton, who is described as "all therapy and no discipline," they say.

Gov. Pete Wilson's presidential bid is barely mentioned, although the authors credit his disciplinary style. With no "personally loyal core constituency," Wilson is "more respected than loved by most voters."

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All the talk about therapy versus discipline brings a chuckle to Prof. Sinclair, who thinks the authors are "stretching a bit" in their sweeping analysis of California's unique psyche that touches on everything from the O.J. Simpson trial to Ronald Reagan's optimism.

To her, "all the polls everywhere show that people are pretty unhappy with the way things are going. There's the sense the world and life are out of control, and not going in the right way. And that's very clear here in California, but I don't think that sets us apart," she says. "I don't think we're that much different from the rest of the country."

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