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Epicenter in Society's Center

The recall 'earthquake' rumbled out of the state's middle class.

October 08, 2003|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky, former Times city editor, lectures at USC and is a senior consultant for the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

If the earthquake is the best metaphor for political life in California, we've just survived the Big One. And now it's time to count the politically dead, clean up the damage and comfort the survivors of the recall election -- us.

These quakes occur periodically, whenever stresses build up along the social and economic fault lines of the laid-back Golden State, and they can explode in traumatic elections, as in 1978 with Proposition 13, or even riots, as in 1965 and 1992.

This particular earthquake was powered by fury and frustration over an economic bust, a huge deficit and the broken promises of self-absorbed politicians whose main career goal was to collect money for their next election. It was rooted in public disgust with a long history of Sacramento drift, beginning with a failure to limit property tax increases, which prompted Proposition 13. Since then, it's been downhill, with one voter initiative after another reshaping government (and the Constitution) and allocating funds in a futile attempt to prevent government from breaking down.

Added together, these initiatives amounted to a revolution, one ironically powered by the seemingly least revolutionary kind of voters -- middle-class property owners, citizens who define the center. The most radical of the initiatives, Proposition 13, originated in the San Fernando Valley, where regular folks were confronted with property taxes on steroids.

The recall campaign too reflected the power of the center, even though the electioneering was marked by circus-atmosphere extremes and celebrity madness.

Take the major candidates' rhetoric on social issues. Despite Schwarzenegger's flamboyant movie career and the furor over his treatment of women, he occupies the middle of the road when it comes to social issues. So do Gov. Gray Davis and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, whatever you might believe about MEChA membership. The candidate of the right, state Sen. Tom McClintock, the most radical of the major candidates, opposes the law giving equal rights to same-sex domestic partners and is against abortion. But as the campaign unfolded, even he sold himself as an earnest, conservative, budget-cutting policy wonk, not a social revolutionary ready to tear down abortion clinics. In other words, he's more comfortable with a briefcase than a battle-ax.

The Los Angeles Times Poll showed that one issue encapsulated middle-class outrage: the budget deficit. At a preelection panel discussion I moderated at the University of Southern California, one of the students personified the unhappiness. In a clear, strong and somewhat angry voice he asked the panel of academics and journalists about the shortfall. He said Gov. Davis had hid it until after last November's election. He said he felt tricked.

A couple of the panelists replied that if he'd paid close attention, he'd have known about the problems. But I agreed with the student. I follow the news, and yet I had been surprised by the size of the deficit. I too felt tricked.

Just as angry was a man who looks at politics through the ethical prism of his religion, Rabbi Sholom D. Weil, principal of Netan Eli High School, whom I met while interviewing voters in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Seated among his students, he said: "After the election, he [Davis] pulls something on us, this big, big deficit. He hid it during the election campaign. It was not a criminal act, but ... it was immoral."

Neither of these citizens had a manifesto to wave or an apparent affection for Trotskyite or even Gingrichian radical politics, but never mind, they represent the forces that triggered the recall earthquake. Chances are that its aftershocks will set off the next California revolution.

That was the way it happened in the early 20th century. The Progressives weren't radicals. They are famous for adding the recall to the state's laws, along with the initiative and the referendum. But most of their ideas emerged from the gentlemen's clubs where their leaders liked to congregate.

They used the crisis of the day -- the economic monopoly of the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. -- to win power and enact women's suffrage, workers' compensation, the eight-hour day for women, an Industrial Safety Commission and the pure milk law.

And Republican Gov. Earl Warren, in the 1940s and 1950s, was the quintessential California middle-classer. But he advocated a far-reaching government health insurance program -- defeated by the medical lobby -- and began the transformation of state government into a mighty engine that created the schools, roads and health facilities so important to the state's post-World War II growth.

This year's election has given the state its marching orders, just as the voters did when they elected Hiram Johnson in 1910 and overwhelmingly reelected Warren in the postwar period.

California is ripe for change, a new Constitution swept clean of the quick fixes and oddball ideas that the last revolution, the initiative revolution, pushed into the current document. After an earthquake, you can either fix up a building or tear it down and start over. This is the time for a teardown and a new start.

One thing is certain. If there is a teardown, it will be orderly -- and acceptable in middle-class neighborhoods. We got our building permit according to the rules, on Tuesday. Now we can start.

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