Absent watchdog

Photo caption

Photo caption

Photo By Noel Neuburger

We may never know just how close we came. Oh, I’m not talking about the near collapse of California’s electric power grid. At least, not yet. No, I’m talking about the near return of Willie Brown as Democratic political boss of California.

Our brand-new faux campaign finance reform initiative, Proposition 34, makes the political parties even more important than before as laundries for unlimited campaign cash. It’s a shell game that Willie, the San Francisco mayor who served a record-setting 14 years as Assembly speaker, knows very well. In fact, he pioneered it, setting up a political action committee as speaker through which he raised millions of dollars in each election cycle to pass out to candidates around the state. In the process, he became a poster boy for political excess and spurred the adoption of term limits, which sent him packing from Sacramento. But a wily pol adjusts. As the past grand master of special interest fund-raising, Willie decided he was just the man to take advantage of the fake reforms to return as California’s Democratic boss.Problem was that the Dems already have a new grand master of special interest fund-raising, a certain governor by the name of Gray Davis who had no interest in sharing the spotlight with the self-proclaimed former “Ayatollah of California politics.” In a sense, it’s too bad that Willie won’t be returning to us in this new capacity, for it would have been, as Tom Hayden likes to say, “a clarifying event.”

State politics, and state capital politics in particular, is awash in special-interest money and short-term thinking. Having Willie Brown around would have provided a dramatic focus to the way in which this process works. Yes, clarifying events are needed. And so are sophisticated watchdogs. Both are, ironically, in very short supply just as they are needed more than ever as California struggles to come to grips with the disastrous effects of energy deregulation, a bipartisan debacle that few in politics or the media foresaw or even considered.

One of the few who did was Tom Hayden, who predicted, as the deal was going down in 1996, that deregulation of California’s electric power market would mostly benefit big power companies and create chaos for consumers. And so it has. The legendary anti-Vietnam War leader and Chicago Seven defendant was the Legislature’s leading watchdog for most of his 18 years here, but recently retired from the Senate due to the term limits initiative inspired by Willie Brown, his longtime bete noire.

As of now, no one in the Legislature is ready to replace him in that role, a fact cited repeatedly by Hayden’s colleagues in the extraordinary two-hour outpouring of affection accorded him in his retirement ceremony in the Senate chamber as last year’s session ended. In his farewell address, Hayden cited something I had written about him—that he had always been out of place in the Capitol. He wondered if he had in fact wasted his time there. He is the first to admit that he learned “the value of compromise and dialogue,” during his years in Sacramento. But we will most likely miss him more in his role of maverick watchdog.

I’ve known Hayden longer than our college-age readers have been around, so his absence from the Capitol for the first time in 18 years marks the end of a personal as well as a political era. Indeed, I was sitting rather morosely in one of the plush red leather chairs at the back of Senate chamber on the final night of last year’s session when Hayden, pacing the floor, spotted me for the first time that evening. After we nodded at each other, I put my head down to continue contemplating the past and found myself contemplating a fastball Hayden had just fired at my crotch! Hayden had just thrown a baseball I hadn’t noticed he was carrying. To wake me up, naturally. He’s a somewhat confrontational kind of guy. After catching the ball a few inches short of disaster, I waved it at him. He grinned and continued his pacing. As the evening wore on, we carried on a running dialogue.

“It’s the anonymity of the money politics that makes it especially insidious now. The media focuses on personalities, and when there’s no personality attached … huge things become very ho-hum and the focus is lost.”

Looking back over such fights as the struggles to make public bureaucracies accountable, promote worker health and safety protections, and preserve endangered species and prevent the unraveling of coastal protections, Hayden predicted that the issues would become bigger rather than smaller.

Speaking of the massive and complex crisis of public education, he asked: “Is education reform really going to work, or are we just shoveling scholarship money at already successful students to drive overall test scores up and feel good about ourselves?”

He predicted that the mess of electric power deregulation would be the opening round of the re-emergence of energy and environmental issues. “Tonight we’re debating Band-Aids,” he noted, speaking of efforts to provide temporary rate relief to San Diego consumers and help for utilities. The problem is much bigger, he noted, and will require not only a hard reassessment of the trendy deregulationism of the ‘90s, but the development of a sophisticated energy strategy to provide power to a growing, computer-hungry population in the cleanest, least wasteful way possible.

“And you know this is all linked to global warming,” he reminded. “California is one of the biggest contributors to the problem. It’s not just an oddity on the Weather Channel and a problem for our grandkids. It’s going to affect our water supply and air conditioning.” These observations were just borne out by a recent U.S. Geological Survey report. “It’s going to be a very interesting time. Challenging. Exciting.”

So where will the progressives’ absent watchdog be? Back in Los Angeles, thanks to term limits. After 18 years of commuting and with a young child in his and actress wife Barbara Williams’ household, this makes more than a little sense. But he’s not exactly out of politics. Hayden is the front-runner for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in this year’s election. “You know I can do a lot of good work in L.A. and link into state and national issues. You’ll be hearing from me.”

That much seems certain.

Bill Bradley, an SN&R contributing editor, has been a senior adviser to the Shadow Conventions and to Democratic presidential and gubernatorial campaigns.