Demos graphically split

It used to be the Republicans’ forte, but now the Democrats throughout the state are divided: Sacramento vs. locals

Illustration By B.Z.

When the nasty fight between Sacramento politicians and the politicos who run California’s cities and counties erupted this month, it was a dramatic sign of a widening rift in the California Democratic Party—a party once rising in power even as the state’s Republican Party decayed into civil war.

You probably didn’t read about the party’s rift, because most political journalists, who don’t think the public really needs the inside story, prefer to cast the battle merely in terms of Sacramento government vs. locals. In fact, in most of California, the posts of mayor, city-council members and county supervisors are controlled by Democrats. And despite the election of Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Legislature’s ruling party long has been the Democrats.

That makes the battle between locals and Sacramento an internecine war. In fact, it’s a war for the soul of the Democratic Party in California.

On one side, you have what I call the pragmatic Democrats—like me. We joined back when the party stood for something decent and intelligent. The goal was to direct taxpayer money to places where it could be shown to improve most people’s quality of life.

On the other side, you have the ideological Democrats—like Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and their ideological mouthpieces, such as Senator Sheila Kuehl of Los Angeles and Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco. They mostly joined the party when it stood for something decent and intelligent. But along the way, they became shills for hard-core special-interest groups who pour money into their campaigns.

Ideological Democrats don’t give a damn about using taxpayer money in ways that do society the most good. Instead, they’ll announce a huge new spending program aimed at a special-interest group; they’ll cobble together the money to fund its first year or so; and then, in subsequent years, they’ll raise taxes to paper over their gross fiscal irresponsibility.

That was the Gray Davis era. They vastly expanded state employee pensions without having the long-term funds to pay for them. They created the nation’s Cadillac of welfare programs. Was poverty reduced by throwing vast new sums of money at Medi-Cal in order to provide costly medical perks like acupuncture treatment while millions went without health insurance? Nope. Were more-educated and more-qualified state workers attracted to the state bureaucracy after employee benefits were bumped far beyond what average Californians can hope to get? Nope.

In fact, I believe ideological Democrats have had no measurable effect on the quality of life for Californians, aside from making it more expensive.

One assemblywoman, in demanding last year that the Legislature approve a new rule to let food-stamp recipients own luxury cars (the measure passed on a party line vote, and Gray Davis signed it), argued that Democrats and Republicans who dared to question the new food-stamp law didn’t care if people “have enough to eat.”

These ideological Democrats view such things as the creation of jobs, which Schwarzenegger rightly says is the single best way to help everyone, with deep suspicion and distaste because creating jobs is “pro-business.”

Now let’s look at the pragmatic Democrats who run cities and counties, who need to keep libraries open during hours the public wants to use libraries, and who need to get the homeless into drug-dependency programs and off the street. Real services, in other words.

Pragmatic Democrats are not protected by the massive insulation that entombs Sacramento legislators. When people are elected to the Legislature and head to Sacramento, they find to their delight that the local media from back home usually lose interest in them, thereby allowing Sacramento ideologues to get away with fiscal murder.

But local newspapers do continue to watch their city council and county board of supervisors, whether Democrat or Republican. On local editorial pages, on local front pages and even on local TV news, local government politicos are held to answer if government costs go crazy and little gets accomplished.

Local officials must pave the roads more than once every 108 years, which is how often a road could expect to be paved when the Democratic pragmatists of the Los Angeles City Council and former Republican Mayor Richard Riordan famously instituted road-paving reforms in the 1990s.

Mayors must clean up street crime and bring business to blighted areas, which is what Democratic pragmatist and Mayor Jerry Brown is doing in Oakland. County boards of supervisors must cut abuse within their massive workers’-comp programs so they can afford to keep providing services to abused children and others. That’s what Los Angeles County Supervisor and Democratic pragmatist Zev Yaroslavsky fights for.

When voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, they only wanted to protect longtime homeowners from insanely spiraling home and property-tax prices. As Schwarzenegger noted, he saw elderly residents on Los Angeles’ pricey Westside who “cried because they were about to lose their homes” after property taxes reeled out of control while politicians just kept spending.

Former Governor Ronald Reagan saw a property-tax disaster coming. In the early 1970s, Reagan tried to persuade voters to approve limits on property taxes along with controls on government spending. Hysterical special-interest groups stopped Reagan’s reforms at the polls. But it turned out he was prescient.

A few years later, when then-Governor Jerry Brown and Sacramento lawmakers realized that taxpayers were finally paying attention to all their overspending, the Legislature hurriedly backed wan property-tax reforms. It was seen by voters as sneaky and untrustworthy window dressing. Big surprise there. That’s when livid voters, led by activists Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, approved the Proposition 13 sweeping tax reform.

Yet, without meaning to, voters handed more power to the fools in Sacramento, removing power from pragmatic Democrats who ran cities and counties. Now, pragmatic Democrats must go with hat in hand to beg to get their own property-tax money back from the ideological Democrats. They are treated like beggars seeking “bailouts,” as Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn said.

Even worse, when legislators spend money the state treasury doesn’t have, legislators fix the problem they have created by raiding the local governments for money normally used for tangible local services. Davis and the ruling Democrats raided local government, and so did Republican Governor Pete Wilson and the Democrat-controlled Legislature of the 1990s.

So, a war is erupting in the Democratic Party. One Southern California Democrat, high up in local government, won’t go on the record to talk about the Sacramento ideologues he has come to despise, because those legislators can punish his community by diverting tax money to one of the permanent special-interest groups based in Sacramento.

And don’t think they won’t.

As this local Democratic higher-up, a self-described liberal, said, when Davis and the Democrats had a $12 billion surplus, “we got the cold shoulder from them, even though we serve those most in need.” He said he and other pragmatists now despise “John Burton far more than I do a fiscal conservative with whom I totally disagree, like Tom McClintock. McClintock is consistent and principled and above board about his viewpoints. But Burton poses as this great progressive, and the hypocrisy is sickening to me.”

Jon Coupal, leader of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he often wonders what California would be like if voters had insisted that property taxes be appropriated using a formula set by county boards of supervisors instead of Sacramento. Not that he thinks the local pragmatic Democrats are blame-free. He watches cities and counties, for example, wildly overspending on public employee pensions and certain other non-essentials.

But Coupal rightly points out that locals are connected to regular Californians while ideologues are utterly disconnected.

“When a citizen wants to complain to their city councilman, it’s not a long-distance call,” said Coupal. “Local government is simply more vulnerable to public anger. I love to see this firefight between John Burton and Jerry Brown, because, while I don’t like Jerry Brown’s tax policies, you have to respect what the mayor is trying to do—going to great effort to provide essential services to Oakland. The ideologues don’t care. So, you are seeing a rift in the Democratic Party.”

Ironically, the Republican Party suffered a similar internal war that ruined it in California. Throughout the 1990s, a core of hard-right, highly organized social conservatives acted as the tail wagging the GOP’s dog, even though most of California’s Republican voters are much more moderate. Now, social conservatives have backed off under the moderate Schwarzenegger. Republican Party unity is roaring back.

As Coupal said, “The social conservatives will give the governor wide latitude on social issues as long as he cleans up the fiscal mess—but the sooner the better on that.”

Democrats should take note. California Democratic Party voter registration has softened, even as Republican Party registration has jumped. Today, the spread in California between the number of registered Democrats and registered Republicans is smaller than it has been since the 1930s.

Blame it on the cocooned Democratic ideologues in Sacramento. They not only sacrificed the governorship, but now they are turning off moderate Californians. As long as they spend precious time absurdly debating whether Schwarzenegger’s use of “girlie men” was anti-women and homophobic, while they continue to fail to deal with real problems faced by all Californians, Republicans will do better and better.