The power brokers

You don’t have to live in Sacramento long to have witnessed firsthand the power, influence and lure of the so-called Big Five.

Every year around the time the state budget needs approving, a handful of the state’s heaviest political power brokers (the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, the Senate president pro tempore and the minority leaders of both houses) gather behind closed doors in the governor’s office to settle matters, usually a budget impasse that often (though not this year) has state workers wondering whether they’ll get paychecks.

In a government town, this stuff is huge.

So, the Big Five get the headlines. They get the photo ops. And they usually get the gratitude from a population of people who had just started to wonder if political problems could be solved, if government could actually ever work again.

But maybe the gratitude is misdirected.

Sure, the Big Five solve short-term troubles. Indeed, some pundits suggest that the group meet more often on many matters so as to break government gridlock.

But if you look behind the flash of the institution, you see that mostly these meetings are a sign that something is seriously broken with the operations of state government. Yes, the Big Five are needed most when things are working least—when all the legislators and staffers and committees and subcommittees have failed to make things move forward the way they’re supposed to.

SN&R’s Jeffrey M. Barker explores this flashy yet dubious California phenomenon in his story “Big5.” His interviews with former members of the exclusive club are especially revealing.

But a question remains: How do you get government to work for the people, amid the competing parties, polarized positions and well-financed interest groups?

One thing seems certain. Politics is the art of compromise—except when it’s about standing your ground. So, the balance is the thing. And only a handful of politicians—even among the Big Fivers—ever seem to get that balance right.