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Tom Campbell defies the political norm

April 09, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Tom Campbell is a rarity. He's a politician who carefully thinks through contentious issues and takes positions based on his notion of good government.

Good politics seem to be a low priority, if one at all.

Not that all politicians are finger-to-the-wind opportunists. Each varies by degree between being a policy wonk and political survivalist. But Democrats tend to genuflect to labor, particularly public employee unions. Republicans tend to cower before the anti-tax crowd, to name one.

Campbell is practically all wonk.

And he must have missed the memo to rookie politicians about going along to get along.

Combine that with a courtly manner often seen as aloofness -- his strongest words tend to be "dang" and "gosh" -- and it helps to explain why Campbell, 56, never has achieved quite the political success his experience and intellect would seem to warrant. He has served two stints in the U.S. House and one in the state Senate, representing Silicon Valley, but has lost two races for the U.S. Senate.

He also was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget director for a year. He holds a Harvard law degree and a doctorate in economics. He's on leave as the head of UC Berkeley's business school.

Campbell currently is teaching at Chapman University in Orange, trying to become better known in Southern California as he runs for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nomination.

His odds of winning are low. He's a moderate in a party where conservatives are the dominant activists. Moreover, he's not rich.

Campbell's up against two megabucks opponents who can easily finance their own campaigns: State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and political novice Meg Whitman, a former EBay executive. Both are playing to the party's hard-right by emphasizing their no-tax stands and attacking the budget-fix ballot measures negotiated by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

The linchpin and main target is Proposition 1A, which would create a spending cap and rainy-day fund. The idea is to prevent Sacramento from blowing all the windfall revenue in boom times, and require it to horde a pile for use when the economy goes bust.

But the measure's Achilles' heel is a bill demanded by Republican negotiators: If voters reject the spending cap, taxes enacted in February will expire after two years, rather than four as planned. The GOP lawmakers didn't realize that Prop. 1A would then be interpreted by the media and public as a measure to "extend" the taxes by two years. That jeopardizes voter support for the GOP's long-sought spending controls.

Enter Campbell, the unconventional. The political loner.

Ignoring any thought of choosing one side or the other -- of getting cozy with a political coalition -- he's supporting some ballot measures and opposing others.

Although he might have benefited in a Republican primary from denouncing Prop. 1A, Campbell strongly supports it.

"If you took down the intensity of the discussion a notch -- this may be impossible to do, right? -- and asked, 'Is this substantial, systemic reform?' The answer is yes," Campbell says. "It's substantial and it's systemic. It's good. . . .

"I don't like tax increases. But this is short-term pain for a permanent fix. That's a trade-off being lost by critics.

"It's the best chance we have to fix the system on a permanent basis. We've got an opportunity we probably won't have again. And the reason is the public employee unions would put their substantial weight against any other systemic reform."

Schwarzenegger and Democrats cut a deal with the California Teachers Assn.: They gave the union Prop. 1B, which ultimately would tap into the new rainy-day fund to restore $9.3 billion in school cuts. Prop. 1A must pass in order for 1B to take effect.

But Campbell adamantly opposes Prop. 1B, thus crossing the powerful CTA.

"When you're in a crisis and have to cut spending, everything should be on the table," he says, including K-12 schools. "All components of state government are in need: welfare recipients, folks on Medi-Cal."

Campbell thinks Prop. 1C, the lottery measure, is "terrible." It would expand the lottery and allow the state to borrow $5 billion against future revenue.

"You don't fix a systemic problem with a one-time sell of an asset," he says. "It's really bad economics and bad budgeting."

Moreover, he continues, expanding the lottery "troubles me. Folks who buy lottery tickets tend to be low-income people. So how do you get $5 billion? You put more ads up in low-income neighborhoods saying, 'All your dreams will come true if only you buy a lottery ticket.' "

Campbell, however, does support Propositions 1D and 1E, which would transfer some money from early childhood education and mental health services, respectively, to the general fund.

All the ballot measures are in trouble. If Props. 1C, 1D and 1E are rejected, the state's projected deficit for this fiscal year and next will increase from $8 billion to $14 billion.

How would Campbell plug the hole? He's a fiscal conservative, but also a pragmatist. Would he raise taxes? "I don't know yet," he says. "I try not to be doctrinaire. I hope people realize that's the best way to govern."

First, Campbell says, he would negotiate "substantial givebacks" -- at least 15% -- from public employee unions, threatening unpaid furloughs if they didn't agree. And he'd ask the Legislature to cut government programs across the board, probably by 10%.

Amazingly, he's a politician running for governor and taking positions without having polled to measure and then mimic voter views. A true rarity.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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