Monday, October 29, 2012

Jim Nielsen: Dead-Weight on the North State

The Redding Record Searchlight’s endorsement of Jim Nielsen, the Republican vying for the vacant 4th Senate District seat, reads a little weirdly, but that’s perhaps to be expected when an editorial board goes through the contortions of getting behind a candidate so irrationally rigid and ideologically inflexible that I suspect he eats his dinner and watches television standing up, supervised by Grover Norquist.

“He is also a great choice [for the District]”.

“He’s too slick by half as a political operator”.

“A skilled and experienced legislator in an age when term limits have made such a thing all too rare ... His knowledge of the budget, which the state will continue struggling to balance, is vital”.

“The Republicans take grief—often deserved—as the party of ‘No’, but Nielsen’s one of those at the table working to solve problems.  (That said, if the question’s taxes, the answer’s still ‘No’.)”

I’m getting whiplash, but let’s start with that last premise (for the record, most of the Searchlight’s GOP endorsements read this way—“He’s nuts, but vote ‘im in!”).  First let’s accept, as most people do, that the manifestation of California’s democratic disease is a troubling gap between our ambitions and our willingness to pay for those ambitions, which in turn manifests itself in the form of a gap between revenue and spending.  You therefore need to either be prepared to obliterate our public sphere—together with the schools, universities, libraries, parks, welfare support, etc which comprises that sphere, or else raise some revenue, somehow.  So what good is it if someone like Nielsen is sitting around the table, like some annoying child, shrieking “No” anytime the adults broach a balanced, serious approach to our state’s problem?  How are you working towards a solution if you’re advocating the former approach but blaming the other party for it in a way calculated to bring the whole political process to a standstill?

That any politician would sign a pledge that they will never, ever, come what may, vote for a tax increase, is irresponsible.  No Democrat, to my knowledge, has signed a pledge that they will never cut taxes.  This, if right-wingers were correct in their assessment of the motivation behind progressive politics (that progressives “like” taxes), would be the default position.  But it’s not.  Nielsen, like his GOP colleagues, signs these pledges and oaths which show far greater reverence for his GOP handlers than for his constituents.  And he’s proud of it, trumpeting his fealty to Norquist and Co at every opportunity.

The Searchlight trumpets Nielsen’s “knowledge of the budget”, but the Assemblyman has come up with some truly bizarre statements about the source of our state’s problems.  The editorial board cites Nielsen’s “passion” and “dedication”, but neither of those attributes is any good if you approach problems with a closed mind, an inflexible thought process, and asking all the wrong questions. 

Don’t believe me?  Look at Nielsen on the issues (the quotes are from his website).

Jobs.  “I believe that the only way to restore our economy and create jobs in the North State is to get Sacramento out of the way”.  I look around the North State, and I don’t see state or federal government making significant investments, and that’s a problem rather than a bonus.  Sure, there are regulations, but you can’t blame environmental laws for our historically downtrodden condition.  If I don’t see state government making investments, neither do I see the ascendant Republican Party with any serious plan for bringing investment to the area.  The absence of taxes and regulation will not lead to economic growth in our region.  It will require investment, and at least some measure of the social infrastructure which supports investment.

Taxes.  “I oppose new taxes, period!”  Even, Mr Nielsen, if those taxes are on the wealthy and go to keeping K-12 education free and high-quality, or to subsidising public higher education, access to which is increasingly a requirement for social mobility, or to social programs for the out of work, the elderly, the poor, or the sick?  Why would you oppose new taxes in good times, when investment in education and technology could drive our economy, and why would you oppose new taxes on those who are doing just fine in these economically difficult times when investment could provide uplift for the majority who are struggling? 

Law and Order.  “I absolutely oppose any early release programs that dump un-rehabilitated, unsupervised criminals in our rural communities”.  What Nielsen doesn’t say is that our expanding prison population, about which he is so enthusiastic, requires spending.  Rehabilitation programs require spending.  Three strikes require spending.  The approach to justice which is keen on locking up criminals but not so enthusiastic about keeping people from engaging in criminal activity requires massive expenditure.  Prevention, focussing on social inequalities and societal ills, would be the best long-term savings for this growing sector of our budget (one which cuts away at funding for our schools and universities), but Nielsen is dead-set against comparatively minor short-term spending for seriously large long-term gains.

The “regulatory nightmare”.  Nielsen favours an unconstructively adversarial relationship with state agencies, attacking them as the “enemy” of citizens instead of finding common cause.  His refusal to see the rational impetus behind regulations he finds offensive precludes him making any headway so long as his party remains marginalised by its fundamentalist economics and hostility towards diversity in the state.  He might know a lot about water and agriculture, but his approach to the problem assures his irrelevance.  We don’t need an irrelevant representative. 

In a move typifying his party’s hypocrisy, Nielsen favours a “real, permanent border fence [to stop] drug traffickers, terrorists and others hell-bent on violating our laws”.  So freedom of movement, the freedom to work, the freedom of the market don’t extend to California’s economy.  Nielsen’s conflation of individuals coming to find work in California with “terrorists” and “drug traffickers” is insulting, disingenuous, and characteristic of his party’s treacherous tryst with more openly xenophobic and racist elements in our society, and he should be ashamed. 

It’s hard to reach any conclusion, after reading through Nielsen’s positions on issues of great importance to our state, and examining his party’s record in state government, that he’s anything other than another blowhard, driven by a basically grim view of society and by the oaths and pledges he’s signed to the Republican Party’s corporate paymasters.  His radical views will keep him on the sidelines and assure that the North State remains voiceless in Sacramento.  But his fundamentalism, and his party’s cynical manipulation of undemocratic supermajority requirements (which allows them to entrap the state in a destructive downward cycle) mean that we will continue to pay the price for Nielsen’s petty politics, his conflation of homeowner protection with corporate welfare in his embrace of an unaltered Prop 13, his commitment to dismembering our public sphere, and his marginalisation of our region.

Nielsen’s opponents will have an uphill battle against his formidable funding machine and the demographics which have traditionally favoured right-wing Republicans.  One candidate running for the seat, Jann Reed is, on the basis of her campaign website, taking sensible positions on a range of issues.  Her independent bid would also allow the North State a voice on the most critical question facing our state, one on which Jim Nielsen is devastatingly silent: political reform.  California’s governing structure is broken, but few politicians from either party are willing to condone the kind of democratic restructuring which would erode their power and patronage networks. 

An independent candidate, who also happens to believe in the value of education, the importance of investment for job growth, and the need for a rational budget discussion, could make a contribution to the debate in a way that Nielsen cannot and will not.  I would be interested to see what Reed has to say on the question, and wish her well in her campaign to provide rational representation to the North State, which would be a welcome change from what Nielsen and his colleagues have given us.

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