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With a Few Exceptions, It's Politics as Usual

Most of the debate among candidates targets traditional issues such as taxes. Those who hoped for big changes are disappointed.

September 26, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Cheryl Bly-Chester wakes up with a bright idea. She jots it down, goes back to sleep, and gets up in the morning with a new plank in her political platform.

Weather insurance! Energy-backed securities! Tax-deductible contributions to your favorite state program!

The less she sleeps, the more ideas she pumps into her campaign for governor.

Her form of insomnia, however, is not contagious.

While the California recall race has seen some fresh ideas bubble up from gubernatorial candidates like Bly-Chester, whose chances of election might charitably be described as remote, most of the debate among the more prominent candidates to replace Gov. Gray Davis has focused on the tried-and-true:

Cut taxes. No, raise taxes. Cut services. No, don't cut services. Education is good; kids are the future. (Nobody has yet taken an opposing position.)

"There's no rocket science to this," Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante said Wednesday in the most recent debate among the five major candidates.

Bustamante has a point, some political analysts say: At root, this election is about basic ideas of governance.

"This isn't a recall about policy," said Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign. "It's a recall about leadership and fundamental fiscal responsibility.... It doesn't require creativity; it requires discipline and independence."

When it began, though, there were those who hoped for more. State Librarian Kevin Starr summed up the hopes kindled by the recall in August when he wrote in The Times that it was "a breakthrough opportunity to rethink, reform, revitalize -- indeed, refound -- state government."

Asked Thursday whether his hopes had been realized, Starr sputtered in frustration.

"No," he said. "We have not debated the re-foundation of California, which is the central issue before us. We've talked about Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hummer. We've talked about how much income tax Arianna Huffington has paid. We've talked about how much money Cruz Bustamante has taken from the Indians."

But the central issues facing California? "We haven't talked about that," he said.

"This could have, should have, been an opportunity for great innovation," said Mark Petracca, a professor of political science at UC Irvine. "And we've squandered it."

That's not to say there have been no new ideas.

Schwarzenegger, who has taken hits for driving a gas-swilling Hummer, had proposed creating a public-private partnership to build hydrogen filling stations on California's highways. He said that would encourage the development and sale of cars powered by fuel cells.

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo has proposed an "instant runoff" system in elections that would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference -- an idea that has been used elsewhere, but would be new to California.

State Sen. Tom McClintock has said he would "personally de-fund every state agency that duplicates local or federal jurisdictions" -- again, not a novel concept, but one that is outside the usual political thinking in California.

McClintock borrowed some of his ideas from the Libertarian Reason Foundation, which was naturally delighted to see them in such wide circulation. "I think it's exciting to see a broader array of ideas get a hearing," said George Passantino, public affairs director for the Los Angeles-based think tank. "I think any time you have a discussion about the future of California at the level we have now, I think that's very healthy."

Still, most of the dialogue among the most prominent candidates has been standard-issue stuff. The really novel talk has been below the surface of mainstream politics, where the 130 or so other candidates have been swimming in their own heady broth.

To surf the dozens of Web sites established by the lesser-known candidates is to enter a brave new world of California politics, one in which new ideas sprout like weeds -- and, in general, get treated with as much respect.

Perhaps the most frequently cited new ideas of the campaign are porn star Mary Carey's proposals to tax breast implants and to put a Web cam in the governor's mansion. Both have been cited repeatedly by the national media; neither has been embraced with enthusiasm by the state's political elite.

Nor, it seems safe to say, is the Legislature quite ready for Bryan Quinn's idea that California should declare bankruptcy, or Jack Hickey's proposal to sell all public schools for "revenues potentially exceeding $100 billion."

Douglas Anderson would deploy the National Guard on the California-Mexico border. David Sams would sell naming rights to the state's freeways; Jerry Kunzman would go a step further and sell the rights to buildings, parks and schools.

The California political establishment is probably too stodgy for the In-N-Out Freeway or Earl Scheib University.

There have been other ideas floated that, while outside of the box, are not in another political universe.

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