Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What the Valley Senate Race tells us about California

Although it should survive until the elections in November of 2014, the Democrats’ supermajority in California looks to be an increasingly fragile thing, jeopardised by the strong showing by the Republican candidate in a state senate race that remains too close to call.

In California, where Prop 13—a ticking time bomb planted by political saboteurs in the ‘70s with the aim of shrinking public institutions for the majority while inflating profits for the minority—makes a supermajority the new majority, the state is ungovernable absent either a supermajority, some reasonable accord about responsible government, or serious political reform.  And while the Democrats’ use of their supermajority has been singularly impressive, with their leadership signing up to the same fiscal fundamentalism characteristic of the state GOP which ran the state into the ground from the sidelines until last November, a resurgent Republican Party would be a bad thing for the state.

The race for the valley senate seat might as well be a case study for many of the ills which afflict California. 

The incumbent Senator, a Democrat, quit the Senate to go and spend more time with his family.  It turned out that when he said “family”, he meant “Chevron”, and his departure followed a history of some smelly real estate deals and favour-taking in the senate.  

Expenditure in the race to replace Michael Rubio looks to top $4 million dollars.  There is clearly something wrong with our politics when even in a state senate election, candidates’ engagement with voters is filtered through such a maelstrom of money, with all the half-truths, outright lies, misrepresentations, and misinformation that inevitably comes along with it. 

According to the Sacramento Bee, the California Realtors Association has put $1 million into the Senate race, most of it directed towards the Republican candidate.  Typically, the ads they pay for do not explain to the voters that they are a lobby looking for tax breaks and loopholes, but instead attacked the Democratic candidate’s record as a public defender. 

Between 2004 and 2008, during which time the CRA spent over $12 million in the state, the real estate body gave more money to Republicans than Democrats.  As shows, in the wake of the financial and social crisis, which proved the danger of the GOP’s brand of fundamentalism nationwide and illustrated its growing irrelevance in California, the CRA switched its support, giving far more money to Democrats.  I would suggest that this switch represents both an effort to introduce greater stability in the state’s governance, while simultaneously corrupting the much more influential Democratic Party.  Their donations also overwhelmingly favoured incumbents, with most of the remainder going to open seats, and a paltry .8% to challengers.  They also backed winners 80% of the time. 

This time, CRA is working to corrupt both candidates, because in spite of Democrats’ outraged noises about its attack flyers, CRA has also given money to a front organisation that has spent money on the Democratic candidate’s campaign.  Most of the large interests increasingly go this route, working hard to corrupt both parties so that their interests will eclipse those of the general public irrespective of the election outcome.

CRA does not simply give money to candidates.  It has backed the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the organisation responsible for the supermajority requirements and caps on property taxes.  They have also multiple anti-tax ballot measures over the years to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars,

In a statement, the CRA president wrote, “We are not convinced that ‘one-party control’ of the Legislature can or will produce effective policy development for California.  This kind of complete control by definition does not need to take into consideration the other party’s perspective, and that is not healthy for California”.

Fair enough, but given the centrality of the power of the purse to governance, and the destructive programme of the Republican Party, California has been experiencing precisely such one-party rule since 1978, thanks to supermajority rules which allow a party which holds a mere 34% of seats in one house of the legislature to control the state’s finances.

What would be far better at reflecting political opinion in the state would be proportional representation across multi-member districts, a political framework in which winning a majority meant something, and a sufficiently broad spectrum of opinion represented in institutional for in the legislature such that there would be incentive for inter-party negotiations. 

But for the Republican Party and its corporate supporters to blame the same system that gave them a three and a half decade-long stranglehold on California for now giving the Democrats majoritarian power after crossing a ridiculously high threshold of seats (67%, just shy of twice the threshold the Republicans had to hit for them to run the state) speaks to a combination of delusion, amnesia, and manipulation.  Perhaps they should instead blame their own fundamentalist policies which mistook the means (taxation, a tool) for the ends (a humane, socially-responsible community, members of which recognise an obligation to one another). 

Their fundamentalism, after all, is responsible for the declining quality of K-12 education, the slow corrosion of public higher education, the evisceration of early childhood education, the shuttering of libraries and other public spaces, and the roll-back of social welfare for the working- and middle-classes while expanding financial welfare for the rich.

Their fundamentalism has forced California to depend too heavily on highly-volatile income taxes which subject the business community they purport to represent to a great degree of uncertainty, while simultaneously allowing the wealthier representatives of the corporate class to slither off the hook by dodging property and oil severance taxes. 

But as the valley senate race proves, Democrats indulge in their own special kind of hypocrisy.  It was their candidate’s willingness—whilst running to represent a supposedly progressive party—to take money from Chevron which infuriated many district residents and gave an assist to the Republican candidate.

In 2010, the California Fair Political Practices Commission issued a report titled “Big Money Talks”, which documented, among other things, how between 2000 and 2009, the top 15 interest groups in terms of expenditure threw more than a billion dollars at California’s political process.  The groups in question are: California Teachers Association; California State Council of Service Employees; Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; Morongo Band of Mission Indians; Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians; Pacific Gas & Electric Company; Chevron Corporation; AT&T Inc; Philip Morris USA; Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians; Southern California Edison; California Hospital Association; California Chamber of Commerce; Western States Petroleum Association; and Aera Energy LLC.  The California Association of Realtors was 16th on the list, spending over $33 million during the decade, two thirds of that on ballot measures, candidates, political parties and other campaign committees, the remaining third devoted to lobbying California’s officials. 

The race for the valley senate seat, accompanied by the massive influx of cash into our election process, demonstrates the real need for serious, comprehensive structural reform in California.  That reform would have to detach the democratic process from the influence of money and those with the ability to throw it around.  It would have to ensure that the well-being of the state and its governability did not depend upon one party or another securing a supermajority—a ridiculous hurdle for the governance of any polity which considers itself a democracy.  It would have to introduce a more democratic voting process which could break the hammerlock that the two parties have on California. 

A more vibrant democracy, possessed of more parties, stricter regulations on campaign spending, and institutions that are built to function rather than fail, would make it more difficult for special interests to capture California, allowing the public to participate more freely and with greater impact than has been the case for a very long time. 

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