In all things moderation

Let’s ignore the partisan sound bites and talk about which of Schwarzenegger’s reforms make sense and which don’t

I’m a fiscally conservative Democrat who’s pro-choice and pro-environment and thinks the deficit-loving California Democratic Party is a joke. You may find me weird. I’m not. Polls, and votes on state ballot measures, show that most California voters are mixed-bag moderates who vote issue-by-issue.

Yet few such non-ideologue voices can be heard in the “news at 11” tussle over reforms proposed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Either he’s caving to Democrats on spending, or he’s sold out to Republicans on political gerrymandering and is out to hurt nurses and schools. In any case, he’s up to no good.

Creating 401(k)-style pensions for future state workers won’t affect a single one of the 325,000 current state workers, yet they bellyache about it each night on TV around the state. You wouldn’t know, from the almost hysterical media coverage of people who will “lose” their pensions, that it won’t affect a single soul hired previous to July 2007.

Arnold’s plan to stop the “safe seats” scam—in which entrenched politicians are guaranteed re-election by gerrymandering California’s voting districts, threatens both Democratic and Republican “safe seats.” The liberal group Common Cause supports Schwarzenegger’s effort to restore basic democracy to the elections. The sound-bite crowd wants us to think evil judges will rule the day.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Treasurer Phil Angelides and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell are all over TV accusing Schwarzenegger of trying to decimate schools. Yes, I’m sure that’s the governor’s hope in tackling a system for hiring and promoting teachers that keeps California at the bottom in national achievement—right above Mississippi. California, once bottom of the barrel in classroom funding, has soared—we’re now comfortably in the middle nationally. Yet, to watch television, schools are desperately poor.

If we had some light and a lot less heat, we could talk about which of Schwarzenegger’s reforms make sense and which don’t. I, for one, don’t support his plan for ending deficits. Like me, California voters are fully capable of choosing, on a case-by-case basis, from such issues.

Yet, all we get from the Capitol is heat and then more heat. Unlike voters, few non-ideologues exist among pols on either side. By my count, fewer than 10 moderates exist among our 120 elected legislators and six top statewide elected posts.

Schwarzenegger is one of those moderates. Woo-hoo. With fewer than 10 non-ideologues at the top of California’s political heap, we can’t even have this conversation. Besides Schwarzenegger, the only non-ideologue statewide elected official seems to be Democratic Controller Steve Westly, though he is under pressure to act like a silly partisan.

In the Legislature, I count only a handful of moderates seeking solutions rather than just genuflecting to backroom orders from party leadership.

Brave folks, they include Democratic Assemblymen Joe Canciamilla and Joe Nation, Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman and Republican state Senator Abel Maldonado. In largely moderate California, only a few other legislators remotely qualify.

California is not unique in this. It reflects a national trend among increasingly ideological pols. But the utter lack of a moderate elite in Sacramento means that the media have very little to report on, aside from partisan warring and press conferences built on fakery.

As a moderate taking aim at untouchable Sacramento institutions, Schwarzenegger is far more subversive than a governor who sucks up to the left, like Gray Davis, or to the right, like Pete Wilson. Schwarzenegger’s own side is demanding that he make no further concessions to Democrats, while the opposing party smells blood and hopes to bring him down.

Yet, despite the partisan war he helped launch, Schwarzenegger continues to govern from the center. Since his inauguration in late 2003, I’ve followed the announcements issued by Schwarzenegger’s Office of Communications, detailing hundreds of appointments Schwarzenegger makes to fill powerful jobs in the bureaucracy and in judgeships.

By my very rough count, although hardly scientific, the governor fills about one-third of the posts with Democrats, including many very powerful posts. Scores and scores of Democrats. And even as the TV sound-bite war rages around him, he continues to appoint Democrats.

The last governor to engage in such bipartisan openness was—get this—former Republican Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan was copying a Democratic governor, Pat Brown.

As governors, Reagan and Brown believed in bipartisanship. Like Schwarzenegger, they picked people they thought were best for the job—as seen in studies of the broadly bipartisan judicial appointments made by Reagan and Brown.

Tim Hodson, executive director of the Center for California Studies (and a moderate Democrat), says Reagan and Brown shared a general attitude of the day, “that you get the best person for the job, and sometimes that was a Democrat or sometimes a Republican.”

Then came ugly partisanship, heavily influenced by jerks in Washington like Republican Newt Gingrich, followed by Democrat Barbara Boxer and others. Republican governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson grew partisan in appointing judges. Democrat Gray Davis heavily used partisan yes men to run the state.

Davis became the worst partisan. Mired in the personal weakness that doomed him, he let party operatives push him far left. I suspect that, had Davis surrounded himself with solid administrators rather than operatives, he might be governor still. Instead, Davis left the wreckage you might expect when you care more about party affiliation than fixing California.

In 2002, the Davis administration lost $280 million in taxpayer money paying out fake unemployment claims to cheaters. The loss in the Employment Development Department (EDD) was four times higher than the losses from fraudulent claims under Wilson, adding to the growing deficit.

It’s interesting to note that the EDD was run by longtime Davis crony Michael Bernick. According to The Sacramento Bee, quoting leaked internal memos, while Bernick was in charge, criminals stole personnel records of real California workers, submitting $280 million worth of fake claims. Bernick, running this critical department, was no public administrator. He was a lawyer and Davis loyalist, rewarded with a huge state job.

Then, in 2002 and 2003 respectively, the Davis administration lost $114 million and $64 million in taxpayer money related to its disastrous food-stamp program. These fat fines were levied by the feds when California failed to follow rules for notifying various parties that it was changing its eligibility rules. The feds said California had the worst-run food-stamp system in the nation.

Davis had put in charge another insider and partisan, Rita Saenz. Saenz was charged with running a welfare division of 4,600 workers. Shortly before that, she’d been running a small business that gave seminars.

By contrast, even as Schwarzenegger wars with powerful public unions and a nurses union, he shares power and picks top people. Despite the partisan war unfolding on TV news and in commercials, he is quietly holding to his centrist, bipartisan values, naming respected Democrats almost every time he announces a new batch of appointees.

“What the governor is doing is unusual,” said Hodson, noting that Schwarzenegger “doesn’t have 20 or 30 years of partisan history, so he comes at it with a fresh view. It’s indicative of his attitude that one of his highest appointments is David DeLuz, a Democrat and former staff director of the Sacramento NAACP. He’s a deputy appointments secretary—probably one of the few times in the last 15 years that you see an appointments secretary from the opposing party.”

Sniping conservatives say it’s unwise for Schwarzenegger to surround himself with a mixed crowd, which then engages in debates and flat-out feuds over policy.

I think it’s great. As one of the lone moderates in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger is trying to shake up a two-party system that cares only about servicing the two parties—not the people of California.

This ossified system won’t challenge the educators doing such a great job in our incredibly good California public schools. Why alter something that terrific? And this system doesn’t want to reform pensions of future state workers who can retire at age 55 subsidized by taxpayers. And this system doesn’t see anything wrong with “safe seats” that guaranteed not one spot in the Legislature changed party hands in 2004.

As the first governor to pursue big reform in a long time, Schwarzenegger faces two key hurdles this spring and summer.

First, the war he launched against public unions on government pensions, teacher tenure and pay, a spending control mechanism and “safe seats” could easily grow too ugly for rational debate.

If that happens—and clearly, the California media are hellbent to make the nightly news as emotional and sound-bitey as possible—Schwarzenegger will lose at the ballot box.

Second is the threat to Schwarzenegger himself. Like the two moderates before him—Davis and Wilson—Schwarzenegger could be transformed by the fiery partisan cauldron that chews up moderate governors, spitting out leaders unrecognizable from those we elected.

It’s a serious test of Schwarzenegger’s character to see if he can pull back from the rim of the partisan cauldron he’s perched upon.

Meanwhile, I wonder who’s left to honestly debate Schwarzenegger’s ideas—to honestly question the wisdom of leaving public schools, gerrymandering and other systems as they are. I can think of almost no moderate, pragmatic institutions powerful enough to further this debate.

Oh, that’s right. There is still one: the California voter.