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Remember public service?

California's `golden days' have been buried by political polarization.

September 26, 2006|Bill Stall | BILL STALL is a contributing editor to Opinion.

WHEN GOV. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others extol the "golden days" of California -- with its new freeways, excellent public schools, great parks and more -- they invariably invoke the name of Democrat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, who was governor from 1959 to 1967. Brown certainly deserves a good share of the credit for the superior institutions of that era, as do his Republican predecessors, Earl Warren and Goodwin Knight. But they didn't do it alone.

That was a distinctly different time politically, one in which progress and good public policy flourished within a moderate political climate. There were conflicts and disputes, certainly. Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh, a Democrat, often clashed with both Brown and Ronald Reagan. But major problems, issues and opportunities were tackled on a bipartisan plane by a majority of legislators -- mostly moderates -- who put the benefit of all Californians ahead of political ideology or personal gain. They stayed in office or staff jobs long enough to develop expertise in their subject areas and to fashion trustful working relations with others, regardless of party.

Political polarization got a jump-start in the late 1970s with the beginning of the tax revolt in Proposition 13. It took a great leap forward with the imposition of term limits in the 1990s and then again with grossly gerrymandered legislative districts. Today, Sacramento is a dysfunctional wreck more often than not, where a GOP governor can't count on members of his own party to support him much of the time.

An unusual juxtaposition of deaths, a retirement and a landmark birthday in recent days of those who toiled in that era remind us how dramatic and, to a great degree, harmful the change has been:

* Edwin W. Beach died Aug. 24 at the age of 87. Beach retired in 1979 as chief deputy director of the budget. He and his colleague, Roy Bell, worked side by side for decades quietly fashioning state budgets for Republican and Democratic governors. They enjoyed the trust of virtually everyone they worked with, from the Capitol press corps to members of both parties in the Legislature. "He took great pride in being a public servant," said Beach's son, Tod. How often do you hear that now?

* Richard H. Rodda, retired political editor of the Sacramento Bee and respected dean of the Capitol press corps, died Aug. 30 at the age of 95. "He was a soft-spoken, genial fellow who covered Capitol politics and people with a strict code of ethics and fairness that won the respect of colleagues, lawmakers and seven governors," said his obituary in the Bee -- accurately. This was in the days before "gotcha" politics played out in the media.

* Bruce Samuel died Sept. 1 at the age of 72. Samuel spent nearly 25 years in the Capitol, working on the Assembly Transportation Committee and then as the top aide to then-Senate President Pro Tem James Mills of San Diego. If you wanted to know anything about transportation in California, you talked to Samuel. Committee consultants provided an institutional history in the Capitol even as the massive turnover in legislators began in the early 1990s. Few remain today.

* Retiring at the end of the 2006 session is Martin Helmke, chief consultant to the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee for the last 22 years. He was the go-to guy in the Legislature on budget and taxes.

* Dr. Edgar Wayburn, a physician and former president of the Sierra Club who turned 100 on Sept. 17, has been a major force in the preservation of 100 million acres of wilderness, from California's North Coast redwoods to the wilds of Alaska. Amy Meyer, a colleague on one project, said: "The most amazing quality about Ed is that he doesn't put his ego in front of a project. What counts is the park." He is a revered public servant, although he held no government post.

Of course, there still are talented and visionary people in public life today. But changes in the system have led to political polarization, constant turnover and a frenzied pursuit of campaign money and the next office. The institutional history is gone, and the special-interest lobbyists now often write the bills. Too often, the first question is, "What's in it for me?"

Two rare moderates who tried to generate bipartisan solutions to problems, such as the state budget mess, are Assemblymen Keith Richman (R-Northridge) and Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg). Both are leaving after serving their allotted six years. Their efforts -- and often they themselves -- were shunned and ridiculed by members of their own parties. Richman laments that partisanship and politics "too often obstruct our public responsibility and common duty."

Those words -- responsibility and public duty -- are seldom heard in Sacramento anymore.

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