Friday, February 14, 2014

Send in the Clowns, or, California’s Search for a Governor

Forget the 2016 Presidential race.  In 2014, voters in the most populous state in the union will set out to elect a chief executive.  The Governor of California operates with considerable constraints imposed by decades of accumulated checks on their power imposed by California’s voters, but the position remains the most important in the state. 



Californians will be in an unenviable position, faced with a veritable rogue’s gallery of candidates who range from outright loons who feel more threatened by a same-sex couple than by the spectre of economic inequality, to those interested in further enriching the 1%, to those who evince a total disinterest in actually living up to their responsibilities to govern the state.  The field of candidates remains in flux, but thanks to California’s expensive media markets and large voting population, will likely settle into place shortly.

Most unsettled is the Republican Party primary.

First there was Abel Maldonado.  A protégé of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had appointed the sometime state-level representative to the Lieutenant Governorship, Maldonado had lost that office to Gavin Newsom and had fared little better in his bid to reclaim his role as a representative.  He launched his campaign in a parking lot, attacking the Governor’s prison realignment program by citing a decade-old case as though it were the result of a year-old law.  Maldonado, whose bid was always going to be based on an epic series of flip-flops, was also dogged by various episodes of corruption, and so starting out the race with a big fat lie was perhaps in character

Nonetheless, he stuck it out for a good several months in the race, under some pressure, no doubt, because his leading contender for the nomination was an out and out nut.

The obligatory fanatic in the GOP race was Tim Donnelly, who crawled out of his Government-proof bunker in southern California to take his particular brand of insanity statewide.  An Assemblyman best known for carrying a loaded weapon into an airport and for being obnoxious to his colleagues in Sacramento, Donnelly espouses the garden-variety slash-and-burn approach to California’s public sphere which characterises his party.

Donnelly’s website claims that he is a “patriot, not politician”, an absurd claim on the face of it.  His not very novel argument is that the “government” is “wasteful”, and that therefore instead of investing in the common good, we should free up the corporate world in order that it can exploit us more and thereby funnel our money to that Oh-So-Efficient private sector that crashed the economy and plunged the country into recession.  Which, I suppose, if you’ve drunk enough of the kool-aid, makes much more sense than investing in people’s education, health, and economic security in times of hardship. 

One of Donnelly’s big concerns is “Freedom”.  Lest you be confused, when he talks about “Freedom”, he means the freedom to be exploited and cheated by insurance industries, and the freedom to fail through no fault of your own.  A proud signatory of the Anti-Tax pledge whereby representatives hire out their brains to corporate interests and give up the use of their little grey cells, Donnelly espouses the simpleton’s economic policy: “Cut, cut, cut.  It’s that simple”, he promises on his webpage.  “In the Assembly”, he boasts, “I have voted NO on EVERY tax increase and will veto any tax increase as your governor”.  In other words, no matter what the future holds, Donnelly’s Crystal Ball reassures him that we will NEVER need any more money to invest in our public sector.

Maldonado stepped out of the race and asked the GOP to pin its hopes on Charles Munger, a multi-millionaire best known for sponsoring anti-union initiatives and trying to defeat Prop 30, the measure which provided temporary if inadequate relief for schools and universities.  While Munger would have been a good advocate for the class of plutocrats which aspires to govern the nation, even he realised the improbability of a representative of the 1% winning an election that will be fought in part around issues of inequality.  Besides...why run for office and expose your suspect motives to scrutiny when you can pay for other people to do so?  I’m sure that the eventual GOP nominee with benefit from Munger’s largesse. 

Thereafter, at some point, I’m assuming that the GOP bigwigs sat down and had a think about the likelihood of a Minuteman (who recently violated the terms of his firearms-related probation) committed to turning California into a libertarian wasteland being elected in one of the country’s more progressive states. 

What they needed was someone who didn’t start foaming at the mouth at the sight of an immigrant, who can talk about taking punitive measures against the middle class in a nice, comforting voice, and who isn’t out to appeal to “single-issue voter[s] on the gun issue”.  

So they turned, in that charmingly tone-deaf way the GOP has, to a man who spent his life serving the financial interests responsible for the recession, and who was chosen to be the person to oversee the bailout of Wall Street.  Neel Kashkari’s “public service” career, as a friend put it, literally consisted of carrying cash from the public to Wall Street.  Unsurprisingly, Kashkari, who worked for Goldman Sachs and PIMCO, has had better luck than Donnelly in tapping into the resources of the financial elite.  (See Kashkari getting it in the neck for running a welfare program for wealthy Wall Street types.)

Kashkari is the kind of dishonest right-winger who has no problem shedding crocodile tears over the condition of our schools and universities while pretending we can afford to cut taxes and continue to starve them of revenue.

His “policies”?  “Transform[ing] our state’s public schools by ensuring that the money that taxpayers send to Sacramento actually gets into the classroom—not wasted in layers of bureaucracy” (without bothering to provide any evidence that “waste” is actually the problem); and “promot[ing a higher education] system that focuses on student outcomes and embraces new learning technologies that will transform traditional methods of delivering education, while making higher education more affordable”; and “embrac[ing] the advantages of our state’s natural resources through safe and environmentally conscious energy development while also unlocking the potential of all of our industries to grow and create good jobs”.

You know you’re in trouble when your policy page makes Tim Donnelly look like a wonkish intellectual.  Anyone can write a fuzzy wish list.  I’m assuming, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and given his unabashed enthusiasm for that hoax called the “Free Market” (which actually involves regulating the market to the benefit of corporate interests), that Kashkari’s program will involve further cuts to the public service, cuts to school funding (from the fundamentalist perspective, teachers are “waste”), and outsourcing the duties of our universities to for-profit online educational profiteers who think you can conduct an intelligent seminar conversation through the ether and work in a science lab online.


Eager not to be outdone in terms of lunacy by Donnelly, Kashkari proceeded to blame our drought on Jerry Brown.  There are plenty of things for which our prevaricating Governor deserves some blame.  But for standard bearers of the party which has opposed investment in California’s infrastructure to blame the drought on the Governor is pure buffoonery (and also ignores the fact that the reason why the state has not been building more dams is that there are no longer any viable locations, leaving groundwater management as the best option). 

As though all of this wasn’t bad enough, neither Donnelly nor Kashkari has bothered to vote in roughly half of the elections of the past 10-20 years.  California is nothing if not complicated as a polity, and that level of disengagement as a citizen or representative (a lack of civic engagement shared by 2010 GOP candidate Meg Whitman) does not suggest that either of these people have given much thought to our state, its cultures, and the people living in it.  Serving the public should not be a lark, something undertaken for the heck of it, or because you’re bored with making your millions. 

The one thing you could not accuse their opponent of is being removed from the political process.  Our current Governor, unchallenged Democratic candidate for 2014, and likely next Governor, is the indestructible Jerry Brown, who has been in public life in California in one capacity or another for most of the years since 1969. 

Brown’s philosophy of government involves snuffling after poll numbers and revolves around the notion that “he who governs best governs least”, giving me the impression that he would be more at home in the Republican Party than in a supposedly progressive party.  Brown is driven not by the fundamentalism of the GOP, but rather by a kind of sad laziness and fatalism.  He prefers to see political problems as incurable conditions, a worldview which conveniently absolves him of any responsibility to take action.

Inexplicably, Brown has developed a good rapport with Californians over the decades.  But instead of using that goodwill to work for the public good, he chose to implement a harsh austerity regime, and follow up with a feel-good initiative (Prop 30) which did nothing to address California’s deeper, structural problems.  Brown is like a mugger who steals $50 from his victim, and later returns $10, expecting gratitude.  Brown has his own take on Kashkari’s former line of work, equating public funding for public universities to a “bailout”, and threatening students with massive tuition increases.  Joe Biden might have called Brown the “smartest guy in American politics”, but Joe Biden hasn’t had to suffer through years of misrule by the Governor who refuses to govern.

So this is what passes for “choice” in California, a state of extraordinary diversity and talent.  None of these individuals has the guts to say anything about political reform measures which could free California from the structural straitjacket in which it now operates, allowing us to make better choices in a more democratic fashion about our future.  One of the candidates wants to take us back to the nineteenth century, and neither of the others can offer anything better than platitudes by way of transitioning into the twenty-first century. 

The election will offer entertainment of a sort, but at the end of the day, the joke is on California’s public for constructing a political system which empowers fringe nuts, forbids the entry of dissenting voices into prohibitively expensive political contests, and offers such a paucity of imagination in a state with an embarrassment of talent.  

If these clowns are the best we can muster up, we clearly need to re-write the job description.

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