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California politics are taking on a surreal tint

THE WEEK

As campaign spots touch upon the bizarre, average people's real concerns fade into the background.

February 07, 2010|By Cathleen Decker

Last week brought confirmation of a parallel universe. Or two.

In one, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that to deal with this year's $212-million deficit, he was ordering the elimination of 1,000 Los Angeles city jobs, although some workers may be shifted into vacancies not financed by the hemorrhaging general fund.

That universe of hurt was not the one inhabited by some of those seeking the state's highest elected offices this year. Theirs appeared to be centered far, far away, where the hot topic of the week wasn't jobs. It was sheep.

Granted, this may have been one of the weirder weeks in which to compare real life and politics. Each of the big-ticket races was convulsed by battles that left normal Californians gaping in disbelief.

In the governor's race, Republican candidate Meg Whitman launched the first television ad of the contest, a gauzy concoction meant to get across the notion that she understands the state's "crisis of confidence." Clearly she understands, as well, how poorly Republicans have fared in most recent elections here -- she did not even mention her party affiliation.

The ad was a replay of Whitman's themes so far in the lengthy run-up to the primary; she vows to focus on jobs, government spending and education. Unfortunately for Whitman, much of the mom-and-apple-pie talk was eclipsed by controversy over the only specific in the ad: her statement that "the state is in the worst shape that I've seen in the 30 years that I have lived in California."

Trouble was, she hasn't actually lived in California for 30 years. Her decampments here have been punctuated by moves elsewhere, including one to Massachusetts, which she proclaimed a better place to raise her sons than California. (She returned in the late 1990s to head EBay).

After media accounts of the inaccuracy, Whitman’s team recut the ad to refer to "the many years" she had lived here. It did not change its closing line: "Let's say what we mean, mean what we say and let's get it done."

Whitman's opponent in the GOP primary, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, chortled mightily at Whitman's verbal miscue, but may have been most thrilled that it deflected attention from his attempt earlier in the week to criminalize the Whitman campaign's effort to push him out of the race.

Poizner’s effort came at a news conference at which he announced he was forwarding to authorities e-mails from the Whitman camp. The messages, he said, were unethical attempts to clear the field for Whitman by vowing to squash him with her campaign money. His statement split observers into two camps. There were those who thought he raised questions about Whitman's behavior at the risk of sounding like a whiner, and those who simply thought he sounded like a whiner.

But both of them were trampled, whirlwind-wise, by the "demon sheep" video put out by Carly Fiorina's campaign for Senate.

Really, it had to be seen to be believed.

The video featured, in rough order: threatening, "Twilight Zone"-style narration; a herd of sheep cavorting in a field; a cutout of a single sheep falling off a high pedestal after a lightning strike; pictures of Fiorina's rival, Tom Campbell; and, as the drama peaked, a human dressed in sheep's clothing, crawling in the field in search of real sheep. And glowering at them with blood-red electronic eyes. Instantly the video went viral and the fake was christened the "demon sheep."

Apart from the ad's blunt contention that Campbell, a former congressman and state finance director, was a wolf in sheep's clothing when it comes to taxes, the subplots were hard to divine. Was it the other candidates who formed the sheep herd? Or was it voters? How did the sheep get onto that pedestal anyway? And how much did they have to pay someone to dress up in sheep-drag and crawl in a field?

More than that: What do sheep, demon or not, have to do with voters in a state riven by economic fears, joblessness and a decidedly un-Californian pessimism that anything or anyone can alter the downward trajectory?

Which gets us back to the loss of jobs at City Hall. The mayor’s proposed cuts in city jobs seemed striking because, compared with the private sector anyway, cuts are so rare. According to the state Employment Development Department's most recent report, government employment has dropped 1.8% in the last year, far less than all other sectors except education and healthcare, both of which are heavily financed by government. Construction jobs, by contrast, were down 16.1%, business services down 4.1%, manufacturing down 7.7%.

The recession that struck the private sector two years ago has now hit fiercely at the state's trailing indicator, government jobs. The lag comes in part because government contracts have precluded wholesale firing like that seen at private companies. But more than that, governments are just not used to contraction. They are like General Motors, rumbling along, too inflexible to pivot when circumstances change.

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