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Fractured California may not be governable

October 22, 2007|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — Political guru Stu Spencer warned of times like these -- warned of California being "ungovernable."

The state Capitol is imploding. Negotiations over healthcare "reform" and upgrading water facilities have pretty much blown up. These were the top priorities for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic legislative leaders this year.

"Stakeholder" coalitions are splintering. Labor again is attacking the governor, this time over healthcare. Democratic mayors in the San Joaquin Valley are assailing Democratic legislative leaders over water.

Whatever Schwarzenegger meant in January when he heralded a new era of "post-partisanship"-- and the term did seem nonsensical -- this much we know: The governor was fantasizing.

This is a system geared for partisan gridlock, especially when there isn't strong leadership.

Spencer had it pegged 18 years ago. The story is political folklore:

Then-Sen. Pete Wilson was agonizing over whether to run for governor. Old pal Spencer -- a political advisor to presidents and governors, most notably Ronald Reagan -- invited Wilson to his isolated Oregon ranch for some frank talk among the pines and manzanita, in front of a crackling fire.

"You've got the best job in the world right now -- senator from California," Spencer told Wilson, as the sage recalls it. "I don't know why'n hell you'd run for governor. California is ungovernable."

Spencer had in mind the state's wide diversity of viewpoints, geography and problems, plus scarce resources, constant population growth and lack of political discipline.

Wilson ran anyway and won, beating Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who later bagged his Senate seat.

Last week, I called Spencer -- now 80 and semiretired -- at his Palm Springs home and asked whether he still believes the state is ungovernable.

It might be even worse, he answered.

"The public is more polarized," he said, "because we're more diverse. We've got a bigger mass of bodies and we're more diverse economically. People are divided about what they want. Like with water."

This leads to political "rigidness," he added. "There's not much unanimity or desire to compromise to reach a goal. Any time you get something done in politics, everybody has to give a little."

The public polarization is exacerbated these days, Spencer continued, by combative talk radio, cable TV shouting and instant Internet communication.

"Nothing is thoughtful. . . . People get despondent because they believe something should be done and they can't get it done."

Add to that the public's current dark view of the direction the state and nation are heading.

Says political consultant Darry Sragow, an AARP strategist for healthcare reform: "The mood of the electorate is increasingly sour. It may be that the window has closed to get healthcare done. Voters may not be interested in paying for any new initiative."

Other factors also tend to make California ungovernable:

The two-thirds vote requirement for practically any legislation involving money. Gov. Pat Brown's historic water plan didn't require a two-thirds vote and never got one. Today, it would need to.

Legislative term limits that result in inexperienced, shortsighted legislators rising to power.

Egregious gerrymandering of legislative districts -- by legislators themselves -- that virtually eliminates two-party competition and results in the election of rigid ideologues. Lawmakers keep promising to surrender their redistricting power, but somehow never get around to it.

A ballot initiative system that has run amok. What started as a citizens' reform nearly a century ago has become a tool of special interests attempting to bypass elected representatives. One bad result has been ballot-box budgeting that has removed the governor and legislators from decision-making.

Political money has become truly obnoxious. Politicians spend much of their time -- the public's time -- hitting up special interests for campaign funds. Then it's only human to feel beholden.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) even has been using political money -- special-interest money -- to pay for luxurious foreign travel and expensive gifts. And he thinks that's defensible.

"He shouldn't even be over there because that's not helping to solve state problems," Spencer says. Legislators "don't have to go to Europe to figure out what they ought to be doing in California."

Then there's Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), long under a cloud of FBI investigation into suspected misuse of political money.

And we've got a governor who is stubborn, overreaches and has to be loved. That's an ineffectual mix.

Sure, these leaders managed to pass a huge package of public works bonds last year and sell it to the voters. But they did it on the credit card, by borrowing for 30 years.

That's easier than facing up to a growing budget deficit. Schwarzenegger keeps living in denial, governing on the come, betting on a revenue jackpot. At some point, he'll need to cut deeply into spending and/or raise taxes.

As Wilson did.

I called the former Republican governor and asked whether he thought California was ungovernable.

"I don't buy it," he said. "I didn't when Stu Spencer urged me not to run. The office of governor has great inherent power."

He listed some: A bully pulpit. The ability to reward and punish, by signing or vetoing bills -- also by shining the public spotlight on legislators, favorably or unfavorably.

And he can help or hurt them politically. Wilson once orchestrated the ouster of an Assembly GOP leader who refused to vote for the governor's tax increase.

"I had some fun," Wilson recalled.

He governed California in more trying times than these -- a recession, deeper deficit, drought, floods, earthquake, riot.

The Capitol today lacks strong, effective leadership in every position of power. That, along with a sorry system, makes the state look ungovernable.


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