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The Day of the Long Knives

July 06, 2003|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC and political analyst for KCAL-TV.

Sacramento politics have gone from hardball to bean ball. The aim is no longer to make the best deal you can, it's to aim for your opponent's head.

Intimidation and threats have always been a part of politics. In July 1963, after the GOP caucus announced that no Republicans would vote for the budget until they saw details of the Democrats' school finance bill, Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh locked up recalcitrant lawmakers overnight in the Assembly chamber in an attempt to force them to vote on the budget bill. And long before state Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) vowed to personally campaign against any GOP legislator who voted for a tax hike, internecine warfare roiled the Legislature. When Assembly Majority Leader Howard L. Berman challenged Speaker Leo McCarthy for the Assembly's top post in 1979-80, each targeted the other's supporters in the legislative primaries.

Coercion has enabled politicians to get what they want from the policy process, but until recently it has generally been used as a last resort. These days, it appears to be standard operating procedure. Civility and compromise aren't even contemplated as means to achieve policy goals. Never have the politics of coercion been used with such intensity and vindictiveness -- merely to intimidate, with no intention of moving toward the inevitable compromise necessary to produce legislation.

Domination of government by the politics of coercion goes beyond the common explanations that term limits, closed primaries and reapportionment have sent ideological extremes to Sacramento. It goes beyond Brulte's threats. Or the bullying tirades of lobbyist Richie Ross against two legislative staffers of Democratic bosses who wouldn't fall in line behind a bill important to the United Farm Workers, a Ross client.

This poisoned political atmosphere is exacerbated by a lack of strong leadership, particularly from the governor's office. Veteran political reporter Dave Bryan notes, "In the absence of a leader of vision, you're left with pettiness, bitterness and backbiting." And that leads to a "knives-out" approach to governing. The camaraderie of earlier legislatures has disappeared; there is little socializing among legislators. Gov. Gray Davis simply doesn't have the kind of relationship with legislative leaders of either party that could help him broker a budget deal as his predecessors did.

"Leadership today," one longtime Sacramento player observed, "doesn't even resemble the speakership of Unruh's days. [And] interest groups have filled the leadership vacuum." Trial lawyers and major public employee unions give big bucks to, and have powerful leverage over, Democratic politicians. Republican legislators know that crossing anti-tax activists or the gun lobby will bring revenge in GOP primaries. Indian gaming interests and the prison guards union can make or break politicians on both sides of the aisle.

California's Indian gaming industry, one of the largest campaign contributors in the state, is a textbook example. While Assembly speaker, Antonio Villaraigosa incurred the wrath of gambling tribes when he backed attempts by organized labor to unionize casino workers. In 2001, several tribes donated $350,000 to an independent expenditure campaign to defeat Villaraigosa in his race against Jim Hahn for mayor of Los Angeles. And this year, one of the tribes, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, sank $75,000 into mailers attacking Villaraigosa in his successful bid to oust City Councilman Nick Pacheco. Now there is speculation that the tribes, which have contributed more than $1.3 million to Davis, are using the campaign to recall him as leverage in negotiations with the governor over the state's compacts with the tribes.

It is not only money that is fueling the recall; zeal and revenge are at work too. Recall supporters, whether they admit it or not, are aiming to topple a government because they don't like Davis. There's a risk in getting what they want. Whoever comes out of a recall election as governor will have won the dubious honor of trying to dig the state out of the same horrendous mess it's in now. If it's not Davis, state and national Republicans will have lost their favorite West Coast whipping boy.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the moderate GOP savior du jour, resonates with the California electorate better than do party conservatives, but should he run and prevail, he could find himself hogtied by a Democratic Legislature, bloodied ideologically and facing retribution from an angry electorate in 2006.

The dearth of Democrats lining up to run in a Davis recall election is related both to pressure from labor to stay out and to the perception that the current fiscal mess is a political quagmire. Better, perhaps, for Democratic wannabes to sit out this grudge match, and let a hapless Republican -- or anybody else -- stagger into the 2006 election season.

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