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The Calbuzz Primary Begins Today

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

patriotic_012002007One year from today, primary election voters, Democrats and Republicans alike, will choose their candidates for governor of California.

Seldom in California’s history has there been an election with stakes as high for the people of the state. A global recession, felt more acutely here than elsewhere in the nation, has crippled families and tax revenues alike, exposing for all to see the economic and political decay at the core of state government.

With about eight in 10 voters saying California is on the wrong track, the battered economy and political gridlock in Sacramento have combined to create a dark and turbulent atmosphere. Candidates who seek to lead the Golden State will be facing angry, frustrated, pitchfork-wielding voters.

The political unrest and budget meltdowns of recent years, among other things, have triggered a wave of reform efforts aimed at the Capitol unprecedented since the beginning of the last century.

Calls for a constitutional convention, demands for sweeping changes in taxation and the basic structure of government, plus efforts to pass initiatives that change the mechanics of governance all will roil the waters in 2010. That’s not to mention continuing fallout from the Proposition 8 gay marriage battle, conflicts over the embattled public schools and institutions of higher education, or concerns about California’s failing water and infrastructure systems.

Amid this treacherous landscape, candidates will face widespread skepticism about whether California is governable at all, and whether or not it really matters who is elected to succeed the failed Arnold Schwarzenegger.

At Calbuzz, we think it does matter: Governors put people in charge of huge agencies and departments and small bureaucracies, they appoint judges, manage relations with trading partners and neighbors, shape the budget and the legislative agenda, wield the blue pencil, rally the people and set the tone for civic discourse.

But if voters are unhappy with the trajectory of the state and demand “change,” what will that mean next year in California? In 2008, Barack Obama personified change – a radical shift from all things Bush-Cheney: easy to identify, easy to encapsulate.

But in 2010, in California, will change mean competence and common sense? Reform and realignment? Private sector values and principles? Will it mean a change in party or a generational shift or both? After Arnold, can another rich Republican outsider stand for change? Can a septuagenarian lifelong pol challenge the status quo?

We’ve been watching the candidates closely since launching Calbuzz a few months ago and offer this year-out scorecard as a handicappers’ guide to the meta-messages they’re pitching.

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DEMOCRATS

Jerry Brown: Common sense, for a change
(Or: I made all my mistakes the first time)

An All-World political gymnast, General Jerry is trying to invent a brand-new campaign trick by becoming both the youngest and oldest person to be elected governor of California.

Casting an uncharacteristically critical eye on parts of his 1975-82 record as governor (when he was labeled – unfairly – as Gov. Moonbeam), Brown argues that he’s older and wiser in terms of management skill and style, but still miles ahead of the curve in seeing the need for social and economic changes that he was mocked for advocating decades ago – like clean, green energy, for starters.

Brown’s biggest strengths remain his singular intelligence and ability to graft big ideas onto public policy; his greatest weakness is his well-earned reputation as a political chameleon willing to strike almost any stance on almost any issue that brings political benefit.

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Gavin Newsom: I tweet therefore I am.
(Or: We’re moving to the left, whether you like it or not)

Young, bright and attractive, Prince Gavin is positioning himself to run an Obama Lite campaign of generational change, promising new ideas, new approaches and new outcomes to old and intractable California problems. He’s also running the risk of fighting the last campaign war by casting Brown as Hillary to his reprised Obama.

Newsom has had a moderately successful term-and-a-half as San Francisco’s mayor, but it remains to be seen whether his shining City on the Hill portrayal of his record stands up to the scrutiny of a long campaign (here’s hoping his hometown paper provides some answers soon). And it’s an open question whether much of anything that happens in San Francisco translates to voters outside the Bay Area’s liberal Democratic precincts.

Newsom’s biggest strength is the energy and enthusiasm with which he reels off reams of sound-good, feel-good proposals for improving California’s quality of life – organic veggie gardens at City Hall!! – while his greatest weakness is his tendency to overweening arrogance, which he casually displayed by kissing off every Californian who disagreed with him on gay marriage.villaraigosa1

Antonio Villaraigosa: Si puedo – Yes I can
Or: (I’ll chase the governorship — unless I keep chasing skirts)

On paper, Tony V looks like a top contender for the Democratic nomination, with a strong base built on a pro-labor record and appeal to the ethnic pride of California’s emerging Latino majority. In the arena, however, he’s been looking more and more like he’s got a glass jaw, as his underwhelming re-election margin has been followed by a series of political and personal embarrassments.

Once seen as a rising star, Villaraigosa backed the wrong horse in the Democratic presidential race (as did Newsom), and then saw his standing with West Side liberals and unions decline as he seemed more interested in celebrity and self-aggrandizement than in the substance of governing and wrestling with L.A.’s tangled finances. Recent disclosures about a new fling with yet another pulchritudinous T.V. reporter have pushed him dangerously close to late-night comedy territory.

Villaraigosa’s biggest strength is his star-power potential to make history as a Latino governor who also repackages Democratic values for a green and digital age; his greatest weakness is the growing perception that he lacks the seriousness of purpose to be governor, or even the fuego en el vientre to try.

REPUBLICANS

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Meg Whitman: A billionaire businesswoman rides to your rescue
(Or: Once I’m elected, everyone in Sacramento will do exactly what I say)

The latest in a string of successful private sector executives who’ve sought to start second careers at the top of the political ladder, Whitman made a bundle in her years at eBay, and is calculating that voters are so sick of the Sacramento status quo they’ll beseech her to bring business savvy to bear on straightening out state government.

So far, eMeg’s proved only that she can court favor with the national media and hire battalions of high-priced campaign consultants. But she hasn’t found much to say about California’s problems that go beyond Republican platitudes of the last three decades. Her aversion to mixing it up with media types, at least those with some understanding of the state’s problems, quickly became a campaign meme, but for now at least she seems smugly satisfied to stay aloof from the gritty give-and-take of authentic politics.

Calbuzz wants to know, for example, what makes Her Megness think her business career gives her the ability to handle an assemblyman from Turlock or somewhere who says, “Sure, I’ll vote for your budget, as soon as you give the community college in the district a new swimming pool.”

Whitman’s biggest strength is her potential to analyze and articulate fresh approaches to chronic economic and political problems; her greatest weakness is her failure to come close to doing so, at least to date, as she keeps trying to sound authentic while masking her moderate politics with talking points borrowed from the right.poiznerpointing1

Steve Poizner: The outsider’s insider
(Or: Neener Neener –I’m better than the other guys)

Like Whitman, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner struck it rich in Silicon Valley, but unlike his even better-heeled rival, he at least had the modesty to get elected to something before pronouncing himself ready to take the states’ top job.

The Poison Commissioner’s promise to bring gimlet-eyed, bottom-line acumen to the business of governing is also not unlike Whitman’s pitch, but it’s tempered by a more seasoned and clear-eyed notion of what he’s getting himself into. With a brisk and brook-no-nonsense style, Poizner approaches his own right-wing pandering from a less ethereal perch than Whitman, which could sell with fed-up voters hankering for a governor who acts more like an IRS auditor who works for them than a political celebrity who wants to work the room.

Poizner’s biggest strength is his self-disciplined focus on a core conservative message; his greatest weakness is that his constant aggressive attacks on rivals can make him sound like a grumpy old man with a tin-foil hat and a pocket protector.

tomcampbell1Tom Campbell: I actually know what I’m talking about
(Or: I’d be a great governor if only someone would appoint me)

With the squeaky cleanest, best-and-brightest resume of the bunch, Dudley Do-Right can claim the mantle of substantive specificity (or specific substance) in the race. He’s the only candidate on either side who combines the knowledge and courage (or maybe foolishness) to get down and dirty with the details of ways and means to pull state government out of the primeval ooze into which it’s sunk.

Campbell’s moderate-to-liberal positions on most social issues are way beyond squishy for Republican primary voters, and he simply doesn’t have the table stakes to play with Whitman and Poizner when it comes to mounting a costly media air war. To have a chance, he’s going to have to catch fire as the candidate of free media, a plain-spoken, straight-from-the-shoulder kind of guy, who roams the land, from radio talk show to radio talk show, telling voters unpleasant truths about the way it really is.

His biggest strength is his outsized intelligence and under-the-hood understanding of how government actually works; his greatest weakness is his proven inability to close the deal in a statewide race or to translate his big brain Eagle Scout act into an emotional connection with voters.

Wildcards

Calbuzz has said for months that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein – who could likely have the Democratic nomination in a walk-over — won’t make a run. And she admitted as much as few weeks back. But it’s never too late for a late entry wildcard to juice a little jolt of excitement into what is, truth be told, a candidate field a few degrees south of scintillating.

The Reps don’t have a true-believing movement conservative running, so there’s plenty of room on the right for another GOP entrant. On the other side, are attractive and ambitious Dems – Jack O’Connell comes to mind – really going to cede the field to this crowd?

Whither California?

The next governor cannot be a caretaker. He or she must have the vision and raw political skill to guide California through the structural and fiscal changes demanded by the crumbling, contorted and corrupted system that state government has become.

As we’ll continue to argue – California’s challenge is to restore democracy where institutional chaos now reigns. It will be the next governor’s job to lead us into a new era.

Calbuzz Dustbin of History: DiFi’s First Labor Squeeze

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

dianneworriedHunger-striking union protesters unhappy with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s lack of support for labor’s top priority bill in Congress picketed her San Francisco office this week — while Chamber of Commerce lobbyists insisted to her in Washington there can “no compromise” on the legislation.

For those who watched her formative political years, Feinstein’s stance, squarely in the middle of the controversy over labor’s bid to make it easier for workers to join unions and get contracts through the Employee Free Choice Act, is a familiar one. As a city politician in 1970s San Francisco, an era of constant and sometimes violent labor strife, DiFi repeatedly tried, without much success, to thread the needle between what Marx called “the fundamental contradiction” between workers and bosses.

Today the Calbuzz Dustbin of History sweeps us back to 1974, when DiFi was president of the Board of Supervisors and positioning herself to run what would become her second (failed) campaign for mayor the next year.

One of the year’s biggest local stories (along with the racially motivated “Zebra murders” and the kidnap of Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army) was a strike by city workers represented by the Service Employees International Union, whose members had received tiny or no pay increases in a new contract passed by the board. Aided by thousands of sympathetic transit union workers, the SEIU strike kept San Francisco in turmoil for nine days, snarling traffic, stranding commuters, closing hospitals and resulting in raw sewage being dumped in the Bay.

DiFi and her supervisorial colleagues caved in and came up with $4.5 million in new compensation and benefits for SEIU to settle the strike, but it fueled a backlash among homeowners outraged over skyrocketing property tax bills (anger that soon enough would be channeled into passage of Proposition 13).

Trying to tap into the anti-tax, anti-labor mood in preparation for her mayoral bid, without totally alienating the political potent unions, Feinstein put on the ballot a measure called Proposition L, to bypass contract negotiations by pegging public employee salaries to other large cities and counties, but also reserving the city’s right to award sweetheart fringe benefits.

The unions denounced Prop. L as a union-busting tool, while conservative pols (there were some in S.F. then) and homeowner groups opposed it as more the same, over-generous City Hall giveaways gussied up as reform.

Presaging last week’s protest at her office, SEIU at one point organized a “female only picket line” in front of Feinstein’s Pacific Heights home, bashing her both for Prop. L and for crossing a picket line at SF General Hospital during the strike. Maxine Jenkins, a powerful local union leader of the time, got to the heart of the problem labor often had Difi:

“While Dianne casts herself as the representative for women’s issues…and rides on the back of the women’s movement, she is unworthy of support from women, as she works against the basic survival needs of the city’s poorest working women and represents instead wealthy members of the Chamber of Commerce. The lowest paid city workers are women…Contrary to popular belief, women do not work for pin money or luxuries for themselves and their families.”

On election day, Prop. L went down to defeat, beaten by the strange bedfellow alliance of labor and anti-tax voters. That foreshadowed what would happen to her campaign for the mayor next year, when she finished third, squeezed between a liberal and a conservative in the middle of the road (where Jim Hightower famously said the only thing you find are “yellow stripes and dead armadillos”).

In the current EFCA fight, Feinstein is the only California Democratic member of Congress to not support the bill; at the same time, she has rejected the Chamber of Commerce push to oppose any such legislation.

“I am working to find common ground between the needs of both business and labor in order to reach a bipartisan solution,” she said this week, in a prepared statement released by her office.

The more things change…

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

problsky1“A pollster’s job is to put voters in a box. Make them choose a side – see how they would respond to a neighbor or co-worker’s words like ‘we need to give someone else a chance’ or we need more checks and balances or ‘we need to back the president.”

When we read this steaming pile of horsepucky from pollster Adam Probolsky, the guy who does the polling for Capitol Weekly, Calbuzz decided we couldn’t put much stock in their new survey announcing that Tom Campbell is leading the GOP race for governor.

Since at least 50% of the principals at Calbuzz have been professional pollsters, we figure we can offer at least a half-assed comment, which would be one-half less asinine than some of the questions in the Capitol Weekly poll, to wit:

“Governor Schwarzenegger has said he will seek to close the state budget gap by borrowing or taking money from California’s local governments like cities, counties and water districts. However, the state is unable to perform any such cash grab from funds that are generated from local taxes and fees. Would you be more likely or less likely to support a new tax or fee, tax increase or fee increase by your city, county or water district knowing that these funds would be shielded from the state and stay local?”

or:

“Thinking about the job that U. S. Senator Barbara Boxer is doing, would you say she deserves to be re-elected or do you think it’s time to give someone else a chance?”’

WTF?? “Taking money from California’s local governments,” “cash grab,” “shielded from the state” – what the hell kind of survey uses this kind of loaded language? And the Boxer question confuses job approval with re-elect and then casts her re-election as fundamentally unfair because it wouldn’t “give someone else a chance.” C’mon.

“The questions are clearly biased questions asked in an unbiased way. This is a critical point. We want people to react, to respond. Not prompt them how to respond, but to respond,” Probolsky said in John Howard’s Capitol Weekly story on their own poll.

This is utter bushwah. Not only were the questions loaded, but there’s no evidence in the report of how the sample was drawn or how it was weighted except that we could see the final results have too few voters from Los Angeles and too many from the Central Valley.

The ballot designations for candidates seemed to have been drawn from a hat – every elected official is given a title except Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner who is called entrepreneur/educator. The question order is bizarre, with Nancy Pelosi’s approval and Barbara Boxer’s re-elect at the top – both federal questions – followed by questions about the governor’s race.

Give us a break.

If you want to study the “poll” for yourself you can find it here.


Davis Bullish on Wider Sales Tax, Bearish on eMeg

Friday, June 5th, 2009

graydavis1It’s not often that former Gov. Gray Davis makes news, but in a low-key appearance with Erin Burnett on CNBC’s “Street Signs” Friday, California’s recalled chief executive made several observations worth noting on taxes and the governor’s race.

Asked by Burnett – who seemed fixated on blaming the initiative process for all that ails the state – Davis pointed squarely to the 2/3 vote requirement to pass the state budget and California’s dependence on income taxes as the culprits.

“Fifty percent of our income tax comes from the top one percent (of taxpayers) and they pay us a lot of money when the market is doing well and real estate is doing well, neither of which are happening right now. So that’s a very volatile tax,” Davis said.

“But the sales tax is very predictable and I think you’ll see Governor Schwarzenegger’s tax commission come back and recommend that the sales tax be lowered and widened. Meaning that law firms, accounting firms — any service — when you go get your car repaired — all that will be subject to a sales tax. And I think that will be a much more dependable that will even out the ups and downs we experience.”

Mark those words, Calbuzzers – lower the sales tax rate and widen its application. Don’t be surprised if Arnold’s Parsky Commission recommends a similar change, linked to something like a small reduction of the capital gains tax – the combination aimed at increasing and stabilizing tax revenues.

Since it was Erin Burnett and a business show, Davis was also asked if he thought former eBay CEO Meg Whitman would make a good governor.

Davis: (pause) “Uh, she may be. I know her. She’s a good person. Outsiders have not had a great track record in winning in California or governing that effectively. People like to say it’s like running a business but if it was, government would run more efficiently. But I think people tend to change and after a Republican governor I think they’ll be looking for change, so I think Democrats have a better chance in 2010.”

So says Senior Statesman GGD.

Friday Fishwrap: Time for Mayor Tony V’s Close-up

Friday, June 5th, 2009

lu-parker-4Setting the record straight: The news that L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been granting, um, exclusive face time to yet another TV journalist of the female persuasion brought an anguished cry of apology from Dr. P.J Hackenflack, Calbuzz staff psychiatrist and executive BBQ chef.

Several L.A. media hounds, led by KNBC-TV,  reported that Hizzoner has been doing close ups with Lu Parker, a local TV reporter and fill-in anchor, who also was Miss USA of 1994 (Our old pal Rick Orlov of the Daily News, the town’s most venerable political scribe, has the best piece on the gubernatorial implications of the matter). As all the world knows, Tony V in 2007 crashed his decades-long marriage when he had a much-publicized affair with another TV reporter, Mirthala Salinas of Telemundo.

Here at Calbuzz, we’re mostly of the what-he-does-on-his-time-is-his-own business school of political affairs, but when we occasionally wade into tabloid territory, we like to make sure our facts are nailed down. To wit: our own Dr. H was asked, back on April 11 why Villaraigosa was eyeing a race for governor so soon after being re-electeed mayor and replied:dr-hackenflack

“He heard that Telemundo has a new reporter on the political beat.”

Who knew? Today the good doctor issued this correction:

On April 11, I incorrectly identified the TV outlet employing the reporter in question. Ms. Lu works for KTLA-TV, not Telemundo. The Hackenflack Institute regrets the error.

GOOOAAAALLLL!!! When a grim-faced Gov. Terminator stood before the Legislature Tuesday to deliver the latest bad budget news, he somehow forgot to tell them about his latest happy idea for bringing big bucks to California.

Seems the same day as the speech, the AP reported that Arnold is helping to kick start the effort to bring the World Cup to the U.S. – and hopefully to Kaleefornya.

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“Soccer is the world’s most popular sport and California has been home to some of its most exciting games, and I am proud to be a part of bringing the World Cup back to the United States,” Schwarzenegger said. “The millions of fans from around the globe that will travel to the United States to cheer their teams will prove a great benefit for our state, our nation and the world of soccer.”

Not only that, Herr Governor has offered a host of possible venues – including at least two owned by the state – Cal’s Memorial Stadium and the L.A. Coliseum. Wait a minute – isn’t Arnold selling the Coliseum to make money to keep the schools open? Talk about double booking a venue.

Endorsement ennui: eMeg Whitman has gotten major mileage for her Rose Garden campaign for governor from several big-name national endorsements, including the ubiquitous John McCain, whom we apparently have to blame for convincing Her Megness to get into politics (Yo Meg! Ever heard of the Straight Talk Express?)and House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, proclaimed an alleged rising star by much of the Beltway MSM.

Now Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, the grouchiest man ever to run for governor, is firing back with his own set of endorsements. And while they’re not flashy, unlike most endorsements, they might be actually useful in running a governor’s race.

Poizner spinmeister Kevin Spillane reports his guy has collected endorsements from 32 of 44 GOP legislators, plus “eight former California Republican Party Chairs, dozens of local elected officials, numerous current and former Republican County Chairs and hundreds of members of the California Republican Party State Central Committee.”

Such backing from the political hoi polloi for sure won’t get you a seat with Wolf on “The Situation Room,” not to mention a sloppy wet kiss from Fred Barnes; but it can’t hurt if your goal is to organize a voter registration or GOTV operation in some Assembly district out in Indio or Buttonwillow.

Drill baby drill: The shaggy dog story about the much-chronicled-by-Calbuzz Tranquillon Ridge offshore oil drilling project took another turn this week, when the State Lands Commission hit back at the governor for his effort to overturn their decision rejecting the proposal.

The commission meeting on Monday featured mucho fireworks, with Lite Gov. John Garamendi, who opposes the plan, facing off against fellow commissioner Tom Sheehy of the Department of Finance, representing the governor. For political junkie fans who tire of watching re-runs of Brian Lamb interviewing presidential biographers on “Booknotes,” much of the entertainment is up on You Tube here.

Our favorite highlight is watching Santa Barbara coastal advocate and Democratic assembly hopeful Susan Jordan try to keep her head from exploding when she testifies after Sheehy’s comments.

susanjordansbJordan had a weird week all in all: on Wednesday, the layoff-riddled Chronicle ran an obit of famed lefty attorney Susan Jordan, who cut a wide swath in Bay Area political trials back in the day, and who died in a plane crash this week. Apparently lacking anyone who was around in those days, the Chron managed to publish it with a photo of The Wrong Susan Jordan, who fielded calls from friends across the country to assure them reports of her death were greatly exaggerated. The Chron ran a no-big-deal correction, but no one from the paper bothered to contact The Wrong Susan Jordan to apologize.

Calbuzz condolences to the family of attorney Susan Jordan and to Tom Sheehy, who had to leave the lands commission hearing when he was informed of the untimely death of a family member.

Must reads of the week: The Wall Street Journal reports that California is far from the only state in crisis – and that fiscal health is not returning to the states anytime soon.

Finally: Amid all of America’s awful problems, let’s be glad we at least don’t have a poetry scandal.