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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON POLITICS

I Know Chuck Quackenbush, and He's No Bill Clinton

He is "guilty," all right. But only of not paying attention to what others in his department were doing.

May 25, 2000|BILL WHALEN | Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution fellow

So it's come down to this: Democrats in Sacramento are now giddily dropping the "I" word, hinting that if Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush doesn't resign from his post, he may very well become the first California statewide officer in 143 years to face impeachment proceedings.

Never mind that there is no hard evidence, to date, of Quackenbush having committed a high crime or a misdemeanor. Nor is there an independent counsel's report detailing a pattern of cover-ups, dodges or delays--all staples of the Clinton impeachment saga. Come to think of it, there's no stained dress, no special edition of "Leaves of Grass" and no late-night phone call from Bosnia.

What we have, at first blush, is an insurance commissioner who wasn't paying attention and erred in entrusting deputies who, it seems, played fast and loose with department rules and overstepped their bounds. Once under attack, Quackenbush didn't help matters; one can argue, in fact, that he greased the skids by sending out a hyperbolic e-mail a couple of weeks ago to supporters claiming he had been "tried, sentenced and crucified" by critics and reporters alike. Pretty, it isn't. But impeachable, it ain't. Quackenbush is guilty, all right. He's guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It remains to be seen what the fallout will be from Tuesday's hearing in Sacramento, when Quackenbush stalked out after revealing the existence of a March 23, 1999, e-mail message between Democratic legislative staffers indicating that Democrats were gunning for him. "We have to set him up first . . . if we do not completely ambush him, he will slide out of it," the e-mail stated.

The Quackenbush predicament is just more indication of the degree to which Democrats control the capital's four bully pulpits: the governor's office, the attorney general's office and the two head jobs in the Legislature--the speaker of the Assembly and the president pro tem of the Senate. Therein lies the ability not only to make news but to raise or lower the volume as they choose. Bob Dole once asked: "Where's the outrage?" Democrats in Sacramento have the answer: "Where we decide."

Consider that while Democrats call for Quackenbush's head on a stick for allegedly being too cozy with the industry he polices, there has been nary a peep over a report that the Davis administration's top health official prevented the public from seeing ads, funded by a state health grant, criticizing Rite-Aid for selling cigarettes in its pharmacy stores. By the way, did I mention that Rite-Aid gave $130,000 to Gov. Gray Davis' campaign fund? To date, there's been no press conference by the always-outraged Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and no subpoenas or document requests from Democratic lawmakers who see a conspiracy and a cover-up around every corner.

Of course, Republicans could be playing the same game--public displays of outrage both real and feigned--and one wonders why they don't, especially when the Democrats give them such inviting targets. It could be that, in Quackenbush's case, they don't particularly care for the insurance commissioner. Within GOP circles, Quackenbush's self-assured style has long-prompted such comments as "cocky" and "arrogant." Or it may be that they don't see the office as worth fighting for, not if it's destined to go from an elected to an appointed office, as has been suggested. Regardless, Quackenbush's fellow Republicans have yet to rush to his defense, and for that they should be embarrassed and ashamed. It is the stuff of defeatists and a tell-tale sign of a Republican Party that all too easily accepts its minority status.

The truth is that I hope the Legislature does move forward with impeachment and that such proceedings shed some light on the up-is-down, down-is-up world that thrives under the Capitol dome.

So, please, by all means, go ahead and impeach the insurance commissioner, and send the message that inattentiveness to office and an inability to communicate are sufficient grounds for public dismissal. If that's the case, then before long, we can look forward to a lot of empty seats in the state Legislature.

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