Archive for 2013

Jimmy Breslin: Digging JFK’s Grave Was His Honor

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

breslinWhen President John F. Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery 50 years ago,  most news coverage focused on the ceremony of the event. Jimmy Breslin, the great New York tabloid columnist and champion of the working class, offered a very different take.

By Jimmy Breslin
New York Herald Tribune

Washington — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him.

Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him. “Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.” Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does. At the bottom of the hill in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Pollard started the digging.

jackieLeaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it. “That’s nice soil,” Metzler said. “I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”

James Winners, another gravedigger, nodded. He said he would fill a couple of carts with this extra-good soil and take it back to the garage and grow good turf on it. “He was a good man,” Pollard said. “Yes, he was,” Metzler said. “Now they’re going to come and put him right here in this grave I’m making up,” Pollard said. “You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”

Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Yesterday morning, at 11:15, Jacqueline Kennedy started toward the grave. She came out from under the north portico of the White House and slowly followed the body of her husband, which was in a flag-covered coffin that was strapped with two black leather belts to a black caisson that had polished brass axles.

She walked straight and her head was high. She walked down the bluestone and blacktop driveway and through shadows thrown by the branches of seven leafless oak trees. She walked slowly past the sailors who held up flags of the states of this country. She walked past silent people who strained to see her and then, seeing her, dropped their heads and put their hands over their eyes. She walked out the northwest gate and into the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. She walked with tight steps and her head was high and she followed the body of her murdered husband through the streets of Washington.

jackie 2Everybody watched her while she walked. She is the mother of two fatherless children and she was walking into the history of this country because she was showing everybody who felt old and helpless and without hope that she had this terrible strength that everybody needed so badly. Even though they had killed her husband and his blood ran onto her lap while he died, she could walk through the streets and to his grave and help us all while she walked.

There was mass, and then the procession to Arlington. When she came up to the grave at the cemetery, the casket already was in place. It was set between brass railings and it was ready to be lowered into the ground.

This must be the worst time of all, when a woman sees the coffin with her husband inside and it is in place to be buried under the earth. Now she knows that it is forever. Now there is nothing. There is no casket to kiss or hold with your hands. Nothing material to cling to. But she walked up to the burial area and stood in front of a row of six green-covered chairs and she started to sit down, but then she got up quickly and stood straight because she was not going to sit down until the man directing the funeral told her what seat he wanted her to take.

The ceremonies began, with jet planes roaring overhead and leaves falling from the sky. On this hill behind the coffin, people prayed aloud. They were cameramen and writers and soldiers and Secret Service men and they were saying prayers out loud and choking. In front of the grave, Lyndon Johnson kept his head turned to his right. He is president and he had to remain composed. It was better that he did not look at the casket and grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy too often.

breslin2Then it was over and black limousines rushed under the cemetery trees and out onto the boulevard toward the White House. “What time is it?” a man standing on the hill was asked. He looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes past three,” he said.

Clifton Pollard wasn’t at the funeral.

He was over behind the hill, digging graves for $3.01 an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn’t know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards.

“They’ll be used,” he said. “We just don’t know when. I tried to go over to see the grave,” he said. “But it was so crowded a soldier told me I couldn’t get through. So I just stayed here and worked, sir. But I’ll get over there later a little bit. Just sort of look around and see how it is, you know. Like I told you, it’s an honor.”

Reflections on Dallas, Half a Century Later

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

JFK_saluteFor many people who had developed or who were forming an adult world view 50 years ago, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 was a pivotal event, especially for those who had been inspired by JFK’s call to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

As our friend David Townsend, a Sacramento political consultant, put it, JFK and his brother Robert F. Kennedy “taught me that politics is a calling — that it is our civic and moral duty to get involved in the governing of our country.”

But for even more of us who were younger then, the full meaning of the JFK assassination only became clear as part of a cluster of events that shaped how we grew to understand our country.

The Cuban missile crisis, attacks on the civil rights movement, JFK’s assassination, the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, urban riots, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the escalation of the War in Vietnam, all within the blink of an eye, conspired to signal the death of the American promise made to Baby Boomers by their World War II parents.

For many of us, it was later that we saw the assassination of JFK as part of the challenge to all we’d been taught: that America is the land of the free, the home of the brave, the bastion of truth and justice. Only after suffering a brief train of abuses that killed the bright, shiny image of American as the cradle of democracy did alienation and suspicion grip us by the throat.

oswald09The killing of President Kennedy was scary. It was sad. We were glued to the TV, watching first the murder of Kennedy’s assassin and then the procession of mourning, the widow, the brothers and the children who personified our grief. When, years later, we looked back at that moment as part of a string of tragedies, we were no longer sure about America the Beautiful.

For at least one of us, the immediate significance of the assassination was that it threatened the weekend football games. Fortunately, the Ohio State-Michigan game was not cancelled and the Buckeyes won 14-10; nor was the Browns-Cowboys games, which Cleveland won 27-17 at home, dealing, we felt at the time, some measure of revenge to Dallas for the assassination. Alas, the game wasn’t televised but when we went looking for it around kickoff time and we happened upon the live murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.

Ah, but we were so much older then; we’re younger than that now.

Here are some thoughts from some of our readers and members of our consultant panel.

eckeryKevin Eckery: I was 5. I remember our Irish-Catholic Mom making us kneel in front of the TV to pray when she heard the news. I remember the flag in our kindergarten class being draped with black crepe paper. I believe the assassination had less impact on our politics and culture than Vietnam and Watergate. JFK’s death got the Civil Rights Act passed, but the corrosive impact of the war and Watergate undermined public faith in institutions and continues to play a role in today’s polarized politics.

mcnallyRay McNally: I was in ninth-grade band class when the school principal came over the PA, saying the president had been shot. Then he switched to Walter Cronkite reciting Kennedy’s biography. We knew the president was dead, and sat in stunned silence. The following days were spent at home in front of the TV — watching the grainy black-and-white coverage of the assassination, seeing Oswald’s twisted face as he was murdered on live television, viewing the funeral procession with the rider’s boots turned backwards on an empty saddle. My Irish Catholic father was devastated, but promised me “the milk will be delivered tomorrow morning and the sun will come up. Life will go on.” He was right.

townsendDavid Townsend: I have the “Kennedy for President….leadership for the ‘60s” poster on my wall next to the Bobby Kennedy for President “Kennedy” poster on my office wall.  They are there to remind me on a daily basis why I got into politics in the first place.  John Kennedy asked us what we could do for our country.  He started the Peace Corps and VISTA as a vehicle for young people to give back to this country.  I joined VISTA and served for two years in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY, which was one of Bobby Kennedy’s area of focus when he served as the United States Senator from New York.  The Kennedy brothers taught me that politics is a calling.  That it is our civic and moral duty to get involved in the governing of our country.

In rapid succession, we lost John, Bobby and Martin Luther King — Men that I respected intensely. They gave their lives for their beliefs, the least that I can do is to try each day in some small way to make a positive impact on the political process.

naylorBob Naylor: I was studying at Stanford’s overseas campus in Germany.  I was returning by train from Stuttgart to the little town of Beutelsbach.  When I got off the train, the Germans were very upset and I learned that Kennedy was shot. I went into a pub and watched on a little black and white television the feed from the U.S.  It became clear shortly that he had died. I went back to our little campus and mourned with the other students.

One striking thing that day and the next few was how grief stricken the average German was about the loss.  The “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech had made a huge impression. Kennedy was more beloved in Germany up to that time than in the U.S.

At that point I was backing Barry Goldwater for President, but no politics could overcome the shared sense of loss — he had stood for the kind of idealism and sacrifice for something bigger than ourselves that underpinned the civil rights movement in the ’60’s, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley the very next year, and that we now forget Arnold Schwarzenneger expressed in his campaign for Governor in 2003.

I am not really sure the assassination changed politics all that much, except to the extent a new generation of public servants was a little less selfishly motivated than the generation before. Remember Kennedy by today’s standards was center-right: anti-Communist to the core; an advocate of cutting taxes to promote economic growth.  He did set the stage for the Vietnam War.

But his legacy is best summed up by his “Ask not” phrase in his inaugural address. That is a pretty good starting point for beginning to heal our national political malaise.

Sterling+Clifford+Democratic+Gubernatorial+bbqMQ1DIq9UlSterling Clifford: I was born 15 years after President Kennedy was assassinated and I grew up in a conservative house where the Kennedys weren’t held in high regard. Kennedy’s assassination was introduced to me as a tragedy for the country but not the “end of Camelot.” Was it a cultural change moment? I guess those of us who weren’t there will have to take your word for it.

roseRose Kapolczynski: We were at our desks, reading, when my fourth grade teacher walked in, clutching a handkerchief and staring into the distance and you knew something bad had happened.  Finally she said “The President’s been shot.”  We looked around, confused, like we couldn’t make sense of the words. There were no outbursts, no wailing.  Later the principal announced that the President had died and school was dismissed. I walked home, wondering and worried about what would happen next.  Our family watched the evening news together and for the next few days, the TV filled our living room with rumor and fact, shock and grieving.  It was my first nonstop news experience and I was transfixed.

mike_siciliaMike Sicilia: I had planned to travel to the moon in Mrs. Neibauer’s Philadelphia, Pa., kindergarten class in 1963, but we were suddenly sent home.  When I got home, my mother and sister were crying. I couldn’t understand why. The next day was Saturday, and no cartoons were on.  Just boring news.  Then I saw a man get shot in the stomach. They showed it over and over again. On Monday, there was a horse drawn carriage with a flag on it. I saw a young boy salute. I finally understood. He was just like me and didn’t have a daddy anymore.

Press Clips: Assassination 50th Anniversary Edition

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Rather_hiMany hotshot national news hounds who covered the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas 50 years ago today long ago became part of assassination lore — from Tom Wicker’s extraordinary first-day story for the Times and Dan Rather’s man-from-Mars earphone feeds for Uncle Walter, to Bob Schieffer’s taxi service exclusive interview with assassin mom Marguerite Oswald and Robert MacNeil’s bizarre search for a phone in the Texas School Book Depository.

Among the list of journalists who built careers on the JFK assassination, however, the most famous one you’ve never heard of is 82-year old Hugh Aynesworth.

Far more than the others, it is the local Dallas reporter Aynesworth whose sustained work — and several inadvertent screw-ups — has shaped the assassination and its aftermath, both as a news story, and as an historic narrative.

From a series of first-day scoops he delivered to his editors at the Dallas Morning-News through several books and a terrific, new online one-hour documentary he produced featuring interviews with reporters, photographers and lawmen on the scene that day, he’s spent five decades working the “assassination beat,” the repository of more first-hand knowledge of the event than any journalist living or dead and the primary source of vast amounts of derivative coverage.

As author Philip Shenon describes him in “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” a newly-published, superb and essential investigation of the Warren Commission:

Aynesworth had many gifts as a reporter, including a phenomenal memory, a polite, aw-shucks manner, and a slow, soft-speaking style that encouraged people to trust him. Despite a boyish face, he was a big man who knew how to defend himself. He had a scar that ran from his throat to one ear, the result of an encounter with a knife-wielding assailant who broke into his home in Denver when he worked there as a reporter for United Press International.  An admiring Texas reporter once said that the scar made Aynesworth “look like a cross between Andy Hardy and Al Capone.”

Aynesworth (2)Where the hell’s my notebook? On Nov. 22, 1963, Aynesworth was employed as his paper’s space and aviation reporter, then a glamor beat, and not assigned to the coverage of the President and First Lady’s visit to Dallas. He had strolled to Dealey Plaza on his lunch hour just to see the motorcade, but immediately started interviewing witnesses after shots were fired – despite a lack of some basic reporting tools:

He had no notepad, so he grabbed a utility bill from his back pocket. He had no pen either, so he paid a child on the street 50 cents for his “fat jumbo pencil, like the ones kids used to use in early grade school.” A tiny plastic American flag dangled from the eraser.

Over the next few days, Aynesworth was a whirl – extremely resourceful, lucky and good.

Moments after the shooting, he leaned in to eavesdrop as a Dallas cop interviewed Howard Brennan, a craftsman who was the first witness to report seeing a man with a rifle in the sixth-floor window of the book depository; monitoring the scanner on a police motorcycle, he heard about the shooting of Officer J.D. Tippet, had a hunch it was related to the JFK killing, and rushed to the scene in time to witness Oswald’s arrest inside the Texas Theatre; he assigned himself to go to Dallas police headquarters on Sunday morning to watch the alleged assassin being transferred, and was standing 15 feet away when Jack Ruby murdered Oswald.

Hey, we’re in Houston, we’ll print anything: In the weeks, years and decades that followed, Aynesworth kept piling up scoops, from the first interview with Marina Oswald to reporting on the assassin’s Moscow diary.

He sometimes heard from reporters less enterprising than himself, pleading for help, trying to run down leads or gather some background. One of the more annoying was a purported competitor named Lonnie Hudkins, from the Houston Post, who pestered him with calls.

The month after the murders, Aynesworth decided to play a practical joke on Hudkins, when the Houston reporter called and asked if his Dallas colleague had heard anything about Oswald being a paid FBI informant. Oh sure, Aynesworth replied, doesn’t everyone know that? For good measure, he said that he assumed Hudkins had Oswald’s official FBI confidential informant number, then read off some figures from a paper on his desk.

To his shock, the Post ran a Page 1 story headlined “Oswald Rumored as Informant for U.S.,” under Hudkins’s byline on January 1, 1964, strongly suggesting the rumors were true (which they were not) and reporting Oswald’s hush-hush double secret FBI number. When the story reached Washington, Chief Justice Earl Warren promptly ordered the staff director of the commission investigating the assassination to confront FBI director J. Edgar Hoover directly about the claim. Hoover, insulted, humiliated and ever-eager to play the bully, hit the roof, then quietly ordered his agents to stop cooperating with the commission:

Only later would Aynesworth learn, to his astonishment, that his practical joke on a competitor created the Warren Commission’s first great crisis – and forever ruptured the commission’s relationship with the FBI.

marinaOn the conspiracy beat: From the first hours after JFK’s shooting, Aynesworth also was beset and besieged by every manner of conspiracy theorist, eventually including New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who invited the reporter down for an exclusive briefing and look inside his three-ring circus investigation.

Garrison got more than he bargained for. By then a Newsweek correspondent, Aynesworth was the first to call out Garrison’s inconstant and crackpot theories and extra-legal methods, including his responsibility in the death of one of the D.A.’s targets. His May 15, 1967 piece began:

Jim Garrison is right. There has been a conspiracy in New Orleans – but it is a plot of Garrison’s own making. It is a scheme to concoct a fantastic “solution” to the death of John F. Kennedy and to make it stick; in this case, the district attorney and his staff have been indirect parties to the death of one man and have humiliated, harassed and financially gutted several others.

Aynesworth’s interactions with conspiracy buffs were not always so heroic.

In December 1963, he got a call from Mark Lane, the New York lawyer whose “Rush to Judgment” would later jump-start the still robust JFK conspiracy industry, and agreed to meet with him in Dallas.

When Lane began hectoring Aynesworth with a batch of factually challenged assertions about the day of the assassination, the reporter told him he knew Lane was wrong because he had hard copies of all the witness statements to the Dallas P.D., which had been leaked to Aynesworth by a friendly cop.

Hugh_Author_Photo_Color(2)_rdax_250x327Lane asked if he could borrow the documents, the better to get the full truth; to his ever-lasting regret, Aynewsworth agreed. Surprise, surprise, Lane not only never returned them, as he’d agreed, but also began flourishing them at news conferences, complete with his original interpretations, using them to establish his credibility as an assassination expert with secret sources.

“I was very naïve,” Aynesworth would say later. “I made mistakes. I helped create the monster of Mark Lane. There’s no doubt about it.”

Our special coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination continues tomorrow with some personal recollections from Calbuzzers, Calbuzzards and Consultanate members.

Big Ag’s Secretive $50-Million Obamacare Contract

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

americangothicWestern Growers Association, one of California’s most powerful conservative business forces, is profiting handsomely from Obamacare — despite its fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Calbuzz has learned that a $50-million contract to oversee implementation of health insurance for small businesses in California was awarded to a private company wholly owned by the heavyweight ag group. The contract was granted by Covered California, the organization set up to manage Obamacare in the state.

Pinnacle Claims Management Inc. — a subsidiary of Western Growers Service Corps, which itself is owned by Western Growers Association – won the lucrative three-year contract in April, with only one other company – Xerox – bidding for the job, confirmed Lizelda Lopez, spokeshuman for Covered California.*

“We are excited to partner with PCMI in this historic moment when we can help thousands of small businesses provide affordable health care for their employees,” Peter V. Lee, Executive Director for Covered California said in a widely ignored press release at the time. “PCMI has demonstrated the requisite knowledge of California’s small business community and has shown us they can move quickly and effectively in providing all the services we require to help Covered California get up and running this fall.”

Fair enough, but what was not revealed in the press release, or disclosed in any coverage before now, was that PCMI is owned by Western Growers Association.  According to Oscar Hidalgo, Covered California’s communications director, the organization knew at the time that Pinnacle was owned by WGA.

Beyond its opposition to Obamacare, their contract is significant for another important political reason: loyal Calbuzzers will recall that the influential lobbying group has used its political and financial clout – sometimes secretly, surreptitiously and sneakily — to fight against candidates who are the kinds of progressives who firmly support the legislation.

David Zanze

David Zanze

The high cost of investigative journalism: Unraveling the tangled relationship between PCMI and Western Growers required some Actual Reporting, because information about such companies is hard to come by, heavily shrouded in layers of bureaucracy. At enormous expense, Calbuzz selflessly scoured the internets, finally obtaining copies of the bylaws and articles of incorporation of Pinnacle and Western Growers from the Secretary of State’s office (price tag: $26.50!).

Pinnacle and Western Growers both can be found at 17620 Fitch St. in Irvine. Their agent for service of process (attorney) is the same: Jason Resnick, who is also vice president and general counsel of Western Growers.

Until a half-hour after we started asking questions of Pinnacle spokeswoman Natalie Krosel last last week, the president of Pinnacle, David Zanze, was listed on WGA’s staff page as senior vice president of Western Growers. Then, suddenly, Zanze’s identification on the Western Growers web site was changed to senior vice president of Western Growers Assurance Trust. (Never mind: Zanze is listed as senior veep of Western Growers all over the internets, like here, for example, at least until WGA changes that, too).

Why Western Growers was so eager to alter Zanze’s identification is not altogether clear. Western Growers Assurance Trust, sponsored by Western Growers Association, was established in 1957 as a Multiple-Employer Welfare Arrangement to provide health benefits for members of Western Growers Association, allowing its members to provide health plans for their field and seasonal workers. WGAT reports to its own Board of Trustees.

Maybe the suits think it appears less untoward for the president of a company with a $50-million contract to manage small business insurance under Obamacare to be vice president of a health benefits trust, but not the vice president of a big, tough special interest lobby and political force. Since they’re all part of Western Growers, it seems like a difference without a distinction to us.

Zanze refused to speak to Calbuzz, but Krosel confirmed for us that Pinnacle is a subsidiary of Western Growers Service Corps and that Western Growers Service Corps is a subsidiary of Western Growers. When we asked if the profits from Pinnacle belong to Western Growers, she replied, “Yes.”

And while she would not tell us who the directors of Pinnacle are, claiming that’s because it’s a privately-held company, according to the company’s filing with the Secretary of State, the officers and directors are:

David Zanze, CEO; Shannon Kay Hinz, Secretary; Ward Kennedy, CFO, and Directors David Gill of King City, Edwin Camp of Bakersfield and Gary Pasquinelli of Yuma, AZ.

Ward Kennedy, by the way, is also senior vice president and CFO for Western Growers, so he’s the  guy who knows how the money flows. Except he’s not listed on Pinnacle’s web site. But Patty Benkowski is – as vice president of operations, the exact position she holds over at Western Growers.

Tom Nassif

Tom Nassif

A double standard for Big Ag: Hypocrisy is, of course, hardly rare in politics. But the Western Growers-Pinnacle variety is especially glaring. Here’s Western Growers President, Tom Nassif, in an open letter to his members in November 2012 titled “Regardless of Election, Obamacare Will Throw You a Curve:”

Will we continue to work toward the repeal of Obamacare and, short of repeal, amendments to address agriculture’s unique problems? Yes. We are requesting that state and federal governments exempt the agriculture industry from Obamacare until meaningful immigration reform has been enacted by legislation or an ag provision has been included in the regulations promulgated by Obamacare; we are requesting that Multi-Employer Welfare Arrangements like WG Assurance Trust be allowed to sell in the exchange to ag businesses.

In other words: We’d like to undo the whole damn thing but if we can’t we want to be exempt until immigration reform is adopted (hah!) or at least be allowed to profit from the crappy program.

It’s also worth emphasizing how important, and secretive, a role Western Growers played last year in ousting incumbents favored by Speaker John Perez and other legislative leaders to help electing members whose views were more attuned to their own:

There’s also the fact that the California Chamber and Western Growers – after thumping Mr. Speaker Himself — appear to have tried to hide their involvement by working through shell vendors, sharing valuable data and personnel and failing to report their spending until they were exposed months later. (HT to Dan Morain for digging into this whole issue)…

The Great and Powerful Speaker of the Assembly had lost two incumbent seats. Despite his bullyboy threats to punish anyone who opposed his people, the Western Growers had kicked his ass.

Inquiring minds who want to find out more about Pinnacle — the firm now charged with administering the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) — can call them at the numbers listed on their web site. But when we did, our calls were all transferred to Western Growers Association.

Funny that.

*When we first contacted Lopez, she said our inquiry about who had bid for the SHOP contract would be treated as a Public Records Act request. After we gently pushed back a bit up the food chain at Covered California (in our usual calm and tactful manner) , we were told who the other bidder was.

Op Ed: Pensions Need Real Reform, Not Rhetoric

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Senior couple paying billsBy Chuck Reed
Special to Calbuzz

One of the main reasons our politics are so dysfunctional is that each side spends a ton of money on focus groups and polling to figure out how they can make their opponents look bad. Then, regardless of the facts, these same groups spend millions repeating those poll-tested charges, turning their opponent into some kind of villain.  Solutions to fix the problem are rarely discussed, much less acted upon.

Mayors cannot afford to engage in the politics of dysfunction. Our constituents face real problems and it is our responsibility to come up with real solutions. We have a responsibility to keep our citizens safe, to ensure our children get the education they need and to provide the essential services on which our residents rely.  However, the skyrocketing cost of government employee retirement benefits is impairing our ability to meet these responsibilities.

Pension-IOUOf equal concern to mayors is the fact that that growing pension costs are also having a major impact on our current government employees. As a growing percentage of our budgets goes toward pensions, cities have been forced to lay off loyal, effective workers and cut their salaries. If we are not able to get our retirement costs under control, the layoffs and the salary reductions will continue and the quality of the services that we provide our community, which includes our hard-working government employees, will continue to deteriorate.

That’s why I have joined a group of California mayors in authoring a pension reform initiative that would provide state and local governments with the tools necessary to control their unsustainable retirement costs.

Unfortunately, our opponents have decided to follow the dysfunction playbook: “deny, mischaracterize, and attack.”

First, they claim there is not a problem. Yet the largest pension system in California (CalPERS) recently indicated that California taxpayers will see their annual pension contributions jump by 50% over the next six or seven years. These increases will eat up the growth in revenues that we hope to see, further strain government budgets and services, and push more government agencies closer to the edge.

calstrsEven more shocking, many leaders of our government employee unions show little concern about the significant underfunding in our state pension systems. In particular, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has stated that the state teachers’ pension fund (CalSTRS) is currently scheduled to run out of funds in 30 years, meaning new teachers who are contributing their hard earned money into the system are at risk of not receiving their pensions when they retire. The situation keeps getting worse, and CalSTRS recently reported that its unfunded liabilities are growing at the astonishing rate of $22 million per day!

The problem deniers then claim the initiative “gives local elected officials the power to break their promises to public employees” and allows for “unilateral” changes to retirement benefits. Nothing could be further from the truth. The initiative specifically protects all benefits that are earned as work is performed, while simply allowing for changes to future benefits when circumstances dictate. Furthermore, any such changes must comply with applicable collective bargaining rules. Read exactly what is in the pension reform initiative

Finally, our opponents try to attack the initiative as some sort of right-wing conspiracy. Such nonsense ignores the facts that: four of our five proponents are Democratic leaders of Democratic-majority cities; polls consistently show that Democrats, Republicans and independents all support the need for pension reform; and the donations that we’ve received (which have only been for the initial policy work) have come from people across the political spectrum.

People support pension reform not because they are part of some ideological struggle.  People of all political stripes support reform because they understand that this is simply a math problem with potentially disastrous consequences.

We have an obligation, to both our residents and our public servants, to fix this problem now before we see more cities, counties and government agencies slip into insolvency.  The last thing we want is for our retired public servants to lose their accrued benefits when they are counting on them the most (as has happened in the bankrupt cities of Stockton, Central Falls, RI, and verChuckReed_r620x349y possibly Detroit).  This initiative provides the tools we need to ensure we can pay our employees the benefits they earn, without gutting essential services or placing unbearable burdens on our taxpayers.

The politics of dysfunction are easy. Finding real solutions to serious problems is hard. Let’s make this an example of how we can rise above the politics of dysfunction and achieve a fair and reasonable solution for the benefit of all Californians.

Chuck Reed is the mayor of San Jose. His article is a response to an op-ed from Steve Maviglio posted last week on Calbuzz.