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Archive for 2010



Happy Holidays From the Hoary Hacks at Calbuzz

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

We’re off for a spell to chill and Spend More Time With Our Families, while consuming mass quantities of cheap carbs and a wide variety of alcoholic beverages.

It’s our annual unpaid holiday leave, offering us a brief respite from our normal, push-push-push, deadline every minute (more or less) multitasking posting routine. Also unpaid.

Upon our return, the National Affairs Desk in all its might and majesty will be heading up to River City to witness Jerry Brown be sworn in as governor for the third time — a feat that only Republican Earl Warren has previously accomplished.

From all we’re hearing, Brown’s “transition” to date has appeared to be a bit… haphazard. We can’t help but wonder if Gandalf  hasn’t quite grasped that the state he’s about to command is one helluva’ lot bigger and more complex  than when he was crashing on the floor and cruising around in the Plymouth  several lifetimes ago.

One thing we’ll be keeping an eye on is the key question of how he intends to integrate his lovely and talented wife, Anne Gust Brown, into the day-to-day operations of his new administration, on the theory that it would be a big mistake to install her as the gatekeeper or switch point in the governor’s office. Not, by any stretch, because she’s not more than fully capable of serving as de facto chief of staff, but because as First Spouse, she would be immune to firing, which would raise all manner of political, policy and human resource complications.

For starters: Any person of substance who might work for Brown will want to know to whom her or she reports and where, exactly, the lines of authority run. Or totally criss cross. Will everyone have to go through Anne to get to the governor? More than a mere bad idea, that would be a total humbug.

Remembrance from our first-ever Christmas posting:

On behalf of our Department of Spiked Eggnog and Cooked Geese, here’s a bit of holiday cheer from our favorite yuletide poem, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by the late Calbuzzer Emeritus Dylan Thomas.

Years and years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: “It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”

“But that was not the same snow,” I say. “Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like dumb, number thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

All best wishes for the holiday from Calbuzz.

Richie Ross Talks to Dead People; Garry’s Oops

Friday, December 24th, 2010

As an engaging and entertaining literary form, political memoirs typically run the gamut from A to B. Witness recently published, self-serving snoozers from alleged authors such as George Bush, Sarah Palin and Meg Whitman.

In contrast to these banal and bromidic tomes, California political consultant Richie Ross has just penned “My Letters to Dead People,” a lively little volume which is one-part personal history and one-part professional perspective about some of the biggest personalities and events of the last four decades in state politics.

As befits an operative who not only once ran a guy for governor by chronicling his weight loss online, but who also organized a campaign for county supervisor by having the candidate rebuild an old lady’s house, Ross’s book is an original.

Quirky and eclectic, it’s a kind of kaledioscopic, quick-cut narrative framed as a series of wish-I’d-had-a-chance-to-tell-you messages to three-dozen members of the deceased community.

His  recollections and reflections are addressed to the politically famous and  influential (Cesar Chavez, Phil Burton and Jess Unruh); the infamous and the victimized (Michael Prokes, the tormented onetime spokesman for the Rev. Jim Jones and Chandra Levy, the  murdered intern of former Rep. Gary Condit, a longtime client); the unpretentious and unnoted (his own parents and the unborn baby of a farm worker whose miscarriage motivated him to push for agriculture laws banning toxins in the fields).

It’s written in a crisp style, packed with anecdotes and private remembrances recounted by a veteran backroom player. The letters are chatty conversational essays which on one level trace Ross’s personal evolution from idealistic Catholic seminarian (“I never remembered wanting to be anything but a priest”) to hard-ass sardonic insider (“Ross, your job is to spend all the fucking money you can get your hands on to keep me as speaker,” he recalls Willie Brown telling him, in the note addressed to Unruh).

Beyond this, however, it also provides a full-tilt, historic tour of California’s ever-changing political landscape: “The other day I had dinner with Jerry Brown – he’s running for governor again,” Ross informs the ghost of his ex-boss Leo McCarthy, another former Speaker. “I gotta tell you his crazy ideas are better than the no-ideas government we’ve had.”

Ross enjoys a well-earned reputation as a brash, cynical and ruthless political warrior, and it’s on full display, as in his farewell message to the erstwhile Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose cops routinely arrested and beat on him and his union colleagues sent to that city in the early 1970s to work on UFW boycotts and protests.

Dear asshole,
You’re dead. I’m not. You were such a fucking creep when you were police chief I can’t believe that decent people would elect you mayor…you fucking fuck.

But he also employs a surprisingly poignant and emotional voice that shows the flip side of the ferocity with which he plays hardball. In his letter to the slain Harvey Milk, for example, Ross expresses regret for the take-no-prisoners approach he took in managing Art Agnos’s winning bid for the Assembly in the famous “Harvey Milk vs. The Machine” campaign in 1976.

At the time it was all about survival for me, a roof over my wife and kids’ head. But for you, it was about something much bigger. Looking back, I know that now…

I feel bad today about running around the city at night, tearing down your campaign signs. At the time it was fun. Me and another guy would spot one of your signs on a telephone pole, pull over, he’d squat down, I’d climb on his shoulders, he’d stand up, and tear down your sign. What the fuck, Harvey.  Didn’t your guys ever figure out that they needed to put them up another two or three feet and you’d have won the sign war?

But it was like were being the bullies. And I hate bullies.

The basic premise of the book, Ross told us, “is an attempt at capturing our era and also exposing folks to the power of writing letters (to dead people) themselves.” As part of the roll-out, those who write such letters can post them on the website for the book.

Full disclosure: Richie is a longtime friend of, and occasional contributor to, Calbuzz. All that aside, for political junkies, his book is a truly interesting and funny good read.

It’s available at Amazon, and he’ll also be signing copies at Sacramento’s Chicory Coffee Shop at 3 p.m. on Monday, January 3 (inauguration day) with proceeds going to the United Farm Workers. Calbuzz says check it out.

Garry Owns His Error (Not Really): When we saw the headline on his commentary at Capitol Weekly – “OK, I was wrong about the elections” – we thought our friend, Democratic consultant Garry South, was going to explain how wrong he’d been throughout the election season to constantly suggest (without ever saying so exactly in public) that Meg Whitman was going to kick Jerry Brown’s ass because Krusty was running an underfunded, understaffed, lackadaisical, meandering, arrogant and amateurish campaign.

But in his tongue-and-cheek article, Garry merely argues that California has become too Democratic for a Republican to win statewide and he “apologizes” to the GOP for suggesting they field a diversity ticket (which they did to no avail). It’s the same argument Whitman Field Marshals Mike Murphy and Rob Stutzman have been peddling, as if to say nothing they could have done would have made any difference because California is too blue.

We don’t buy it. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated that if they appeal to the middle-of-the-road California voters Republicans can indeed get elected statewide at the top of the ticket. eMeg and Sister Carly the Fiorina didn’t do that on a host of strategically crucial issues, especially immigration and the environment, which matter mightily to Latinos and independents.

Meanwhile Brown — by intelligence or necessity, take your pick — ran the right campaign, with the right messages on the money he had (with more than a little help from labor over the summer) and with the timely appearance of Nicky Diaz, eMeg’s housekeeper.

By arguing that the election was only a matter of political geography, South, Murphy and Stutzman let the Armies of eMeg and Hurricane Carly (and themselves) off the hook too easily.

BTW: When lots of others were predicting that Barbara Boxer would lose to Fiorina, Garry wrote a piece for Politico more than two months before the election, telling why he believed Babs would win. And she did.

Cocodrilo Tears re Latinos & a Sad Farewell to Truth

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

We had to laugh when we saw Rob Stutzman, one of Meg Whitman’s top strategists, telling columnist George Skelton that Republicans in California need to demonstrate some “empathy” for Latinos if they hope ever to convince them to vote for one of their candidates.

Not because his comments were funny, mind you, but because they were breathtakingly ironic.

For under his guidance, Stutzman’s candidate eMeg:

– Kicked her Latina housekeeper, Nicky Diaz, to the curb when she confessed she was an illegal immigrant, eventually calling for the woman’s  deportation.
– Flipped-flopped on whether undocumented immigrants should have a path to legalization (concluding they should not).
– Endorsed Arizona’s “papers please” immigration law (for Arizona, not California, a distinction that meant little to Latinos).
– Told a young Latina honors student she was taking up space at Fresno State that rightfully belonged to a California citizen.
– Relied on former Gov. Pete (“Hijo de Puta”) Wilson as her campaign chairman and third-party validator.

No wonder Latinos voted 80-15% for Brown over Whitman, 75% had an unfavorable view of her and 65% said they didn’t even consider voting for her, according to the USC/LA Times post-election survey.

But what’s got to worry Stutzman and every other Republican going forward is this: 34% of Latino voters told the USC/Times they “would never consider voting for a Republican.”  That’s one third of the Latino vote that is off the table even before they hear what the candidate has to say.

As Calbuzz noted throughout the election, in plenty of time for Whitman and her campaign geniuses to take it seriously and even after Nicky Diaz made news, Whitman made a strategic error by opposing a pathway to citizenship – a position that at least eight and perhaps as many as nine in 10 Latinos view as a threshold issue.

What that means is this: if a candidate is opposed to allowing undocumented workers an opportunity to go through a process to become legal residents, Latinos don’t even care what their position is on the economy, jobs, education or anything else. They can’t get past the threshold.

It’s not about “empathy” — it’s about concrete stands on real-life issues. Which is why Calbuzz gently suggested the California GOP needs to change its position on a pathway to citizenship if it ever hopes to become relevant.

Just as the Republican Party was the Northern standard-bearer for the abolition of slavery in the 1850s and 1860s, so could the California Republican Party become the advocate for citizenship for honest working men and women who have come to the U.S. to make better lives for themselves and their families.

Another reason we laughed when we read Stutzman’s argument: “We’ve got to stop looking at it as purely a legal issue . . . If you want to make it a moral issue, we should appreciate the virtue of men and women trying to make the best life possible for their families.”

At least Stutzman has the cerebros y cojones to face up to the problem, unlike numbnuts like Michael Der Manouel, Jr., who wrote over at FlashReport:

I think there are plenty of Republicans and conservatives, like me, that appreciate all hard working people, regardless of country of origin and skin color.  Making a case that this is somehow a gateway to getting Hispanic votes is not only simplistic, but ignores the fact that 2nd and 3rd generation Hispanics seems to be, well, just as leftist as leftists . . .

And this nonsense about ignoring our immigration laws in order to curry favor with one voting block (sic) is just nonsense.  I guess if we really needed the Muslim vote Stutzman would be advising us to go soft on terrorism too . . .

It seems to me that a pattern of voting for the wrong person has emerged in the Latino community.  Until they truly feel the pain of their poor decision making, we are at their political mercy.  Instead of “appealing to them” we should spend what few dollars we have on a permandent (sic) educational campaign highlighting the conservative platform, to all voters, including Latinos.  This would be much more effective than “understanding” people.  Give me a break.

This is exactly the kind of stupid, dead-elephant thinking that will continue to render the California Republican Party a permanent minority.

Mr. Scopes, Meet Mr. Fleischman: The fact that a majority of Republicans still believe in the “theory” of creationism, positing that God put humans on earth within the past 10,000 years, is the clearest evidence yet that facts, science and rationality are increasingly lacking to political debate in the U.S.

The new Gallup Poll research demonstrating widespread disbelief in the science of evolution, coupled with a just-released University of Maryland study showing that Fox News viewers become more ignorant the more they watch Fox News, suggests that Neo-Luddism will only grow more popular when the GOP takes control of the House next month, empowering political giants like Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, who’ll bring his climate change denial stance to the Science Committee; Ron Paul, poised to demand a return to the Gold Standard as an overseer of the Federal Reserve and Peter King, who plans to launch a wide-ranging investigation of American Muslims as chair of the Committee on Homeland Security.

Alas, this distressing trend, part of a broad political shift which Calbuzz has dissected as the Death of Truth, flourishes as well in California, where the hate-government crowd routinely substitutes opinion for fact in decrying our fiscal woes, recklessly asserting that the state stands on the brink of bankruptcy because of an orgy of public spending, a huge, bloated government bureaucracy and a vast exodus of businesses fleeing a blood-sucking burden of regulation.

Now comes Treasurer Bill Lockyer, joined by economist Steve Levy, to put the lie to each of these canards, in a splendid op-ed that should be required reading in the re-education of every yahoo in Sacramento:

Critics have suggested the state will default on its debt payments, that it is addicted to spending and that it has a hostile business climate. The criticism is long on inflammatory rhetoric, but it lacks any evidentiary foundation…

Our critics say we are addicted to spending. But the numbers show that isn’t true. Thirty years ago, general fund expenditures totaled about $7.43 for every $100 of personal income. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, that ratio was almost $2 less, at $5.52 for every $100 of personal income. In the current fiscal year, per capita general fund expenditures will total $2,246, less than the $2,289 spent 10 years ago and roughly equal to the inflation-adjusted level of 15 years ago.

Moreover, state and local government has grown slimmer relative to California’s population. In 2009, the state had 107 state employees per 10,000 residents, the fourth-lowest proportion in the nation and 25% below the national average. California also has the sixth-lowest combined number of state and local government employees relative to population, 12% below the national average and 16% below Texas.

Sadly, demonstrable fact matters little to the know-nothing dervishes whirling in the mosh pit of ape dance debate over state finance, a lamentable state of affairs spanning a nation beset by the strange triumph of failed ideas.

Queen Kamala II: Those lusty screams that shattered windows on the executive floors of Calbuzz World Headquarters came from loyal fans of Attorney General-elect Kamala Harris, who expressed the view that our dispassionate analysis of Herself’s transition operation was somewhat, um, asymmetrical (Lock up the kids, Maude – there’s hyperbole on the internets!).

Deeply committed as ever to doing all we can to lower the temperature on the kind of inflammatory, name-calling, ad hominem cheap shot politics and media that makes our blood boil and which we oppose with every fiber of our beings, we encourage readers to avail themselves of an opposing view about the matter. All hail the Empress of River City!

The Calbuzz Plan for Budget Reform and World Peace

Monday, December 20th, 2010

Thirty-two years ago, over the strenuous objections from then-Gov. Jerry Brown and nearly every Democratic and Republican official in public life, California voters passed Proposition 13 by 65-35%, slashing property taxes and requiring a two-thirds vote to increase local taxes of virtually any sort.

Brown and the Legislature swiftly rode to the rescue with AB 8 and SB 154, using the $5 billion state surplus to funnel money back to cities, counties and school districts, which meant voters did not absorb the impact of their decision through the immediate reduction of services.

So the dire consequences that the opponents of Proposition 13 had predicted didn’t happen – at least right away.

As a practical matter, a huge financial burden was shifted from local governments to Sacramento and the state’s general fund instantly ballooned by 40% — from $11.7 billion in 1977-78 to $16.3 billion in 1978-79. As a political matter, Prop. 13 opponents were easily portrayed as Chickens Little—and conservative advocates were free ever after to peddle the canard that the tax cut had no impact on local services.

While the numbers now seem quaint — in light of general fund spending plans that soared as high as $103 billion under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – that 40% one-year increase was a financial earthquake that fundamentally transformed the political landscape of California. And while many things have happened in the intervening years – notably the narrow 1988 passage of the Proposition 98 guarantee for funding public schools — the overall mechanism to pay for a huge chunk of the operating cost of California’s cities, counties and school districts has remained a state responsibility.

It’s time to cut the cord.

The general idea is neither new nor hard to understand. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last year proposed a partial plan to “devolve” some services and funds to local governments.

“The only alternative in this difficult fiscal environment is to rethink the roles of government at both the state and local levels and shift programs, along with the dollars to run them, closer to the people served,” Steinberg said at the time. And Gov-elect Brown echoed the theme in his campaign commercials: “We’ve got to take power from the state capital and move it down to the local level, closer to the people.”

Strategically, Brown during the campaign pointedly did NOT explain what that really meant. As Calbuzz noted many times, however, the underlying premise of Brown’s idea was that both power and responsibility must transfer to the local level for the idea to work. In Brown’s recent public hearings on the budget mess, it didn’t take long for the fullness of that implication to emerge. As reported from last week’s session in L.A.:

One dilemma, he said, was that the state tries to make sense out of competing outlooks from regions that have little in common — an argument, he said, for shifting many of the state’s responsibilities to local governments.

“When we take so many local decisions and put them all at the state Capitol, then we have all these different perceptions working on the problem,” he said. “That’s why we get a lot of breakdown and gridlock. Because people see the world differently.”

Based on recent conversations with Steinberg’s staff and Department of Finance types, it’s clear that the transfer of pre-Prop. 13 fiscal responsibilities of cities, counties and school districts back to the locals would account for about 40-50% of the state’s general fund. What’s also clear is that divesting the responsibility for those programs would require the governor and Legislature, by some to-be-determined process, to also provide cities, counties and school districts the authority to find a way to pay for them, most logically through a majority or 55 percent vote of local voters.

So if county residents want a fully staffed sheriff’s department and health services, if a city wants cops, libraries and parks, if a school district wants athletics and music, the residents would have to find the funds to pay for those services, by deciding to raise their own taxes. No more pass-through state funds, no more hocus pocus.

Precisely how California gets to this solution is a level of detail the Calbuzz Department of Management Delegation and Big Picture Thinking is prepared to leave to Sacramento’s legions of hotly talented legislative architects. In this, we associate ourselves with the famous words of the Babylonian sage Hillel who said, after declaring the Golden Rule the essence of Jewish law:  “The rest is commentary.”

No less a modern sage than Big Dan Walters has suggested a pathway to a temporary local tax solution until the full Calbuzz Modest Proposal could be enacted and implemented. As Walters explained it to us in an email, legislative Democrats could quickly pass two new budgets with a majority vote – one with taxes and one without:

“Tax bills would be framed as amendments to an existing statutory initiative that’s germane, such as Steinberg’s income tax surtax for mental health a few seasons back. The Constitution allows the Legislature to propose amendments to statutory initiatives and doesn’t require two-thirds vote to do so because it doesn’t amend Constitution.

“If done in special session, the package (which also could short-circuit election deadlines as in 2009) would take effect 90 days after adjournment of the session. Thus, if done by mid-February it could be on ballot in mid-May — say May 17 when runoffs in LA city elections would be held, perhaps boosting Democratic (pro-tax) turnout somewhat and offsetting what otherwise could be anti-tax Republican turnout.

“Framing tax measures as amendments to past initiative may, in fact, may be only legal way to place taxes before voters; that’s how 2009 measures were framed. If it’s done that’s probably how it will be done since Republicans won’t sanction taxes even going to voters . . . (and this process) is the only way legally and politically it could be done.”

All that could buy time to get to what we’re suggesting –a wholesale restructuring of the way local government is financed.

The general line for the political movement that would get us there is this: return power to the people. With its echoes of the 1960s (God, how we miss those times) those words might not be exactly the preferred slogan, but the fundamental point is clear: transfer power away from Sacramento hacks and back to local communities.

Of course, the Prop. 13 fetishists will scream to the heavens that the idea of allowing local taxes to be raised with a 50% or 55% majority (even if such tax hikes are required to include sunset provisions, which help them pass) offends the laws of nature. They’ll call it an unholy attack on the Sacred Cult of Howard and predictably go nuts.

Let them. Voters in California trust local decision-makers far more than they do the Legislature and they deserve the right to choose – by majority vote – whether to hand the power to those local officials to actually govern. Local school board members, city council members and supervisors are far more susceptible at election time to the decisions of grassroots voters than are state lawmakers representing huge far-flung districts.

Local officials with the power to determine levels of service — based on local support – will finally, and properly, have the tools to make some tough decisions about local programs and pensions – while also facing the up-close-and-personal political consequences of making them.

And when the drown-the-baby-in-the-bathtub anti-government types scream about all this, proponents can reply: We’re for democracy and for empowering local government. It’s the other guys who are for keeping all the power up in Sacramento and in smoke-filled back rooms where THEY have power. We want to return power to the people, to local communities, where you can keep an eye on how money is spent and for what.

A lot has happened in the 32 years since Proposition 13 that will have to be taken into account. The landmark Serrano vs Priest decision, for example, will require that school districts aren’t wildly underfinanced in one community and lavishly funded in another. Proposition 98 will have to be handled. All kinds of state mandates that don’t include funding will have to be altered. See Hillel: on commentary.

California state government has plenty to do to fund and repair higher education, highways, state parks, state law enforcement, prisons, state courts, environmental protection, natural resources and the like, just as state government did before Proposition 13.

But three decades after the great transfer of power to Sacramento, it’s time to fight for power to local communities, for sanity in government finance and even, we dare say, for democracy.