Archive for the ‘California Politics’ Category

Op Ed: A Modest Proposal For State Political Reform

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Senator-Hiram-W.-JohnsonBy Patrick Atwater
Special to Calbuzz

The Public Interest Research Group, the national Naderite network of grassroots think tanks, has just released “Following the Money,” a report that grades the efforts of all 50 states in providing taxpayers online access to government spending data.

California flunked.

Alas, Silicon Valley’s mother ship ranked dead last – along with Alaska and Idaho, and behind Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia — in making arcane but important public finance information, about matters like contracts, the purchase goods, services and other state expenditures, easily available and clearly understandable:

Every year, state governments spend tens of billions of dollars through contracts for goods and services, subsidies to encourage economic development, and other expenditures. Accountability and public scrutiny are necessary to ensure that the public can trust that state funds are well spent…

Over the past year, new states have opened the books on public spending and several states have adopted new practices to further expand citizens’ access to critical spending information. Many states, however, still have a long way to go to provide taxpayers with the information they need to ensure that government is spending their money effectively.

That would be us.

Ziggurat_BuildingAsking the wrong questions: Among other things, California’s site loses major points for lack of searchability. It falls short on providing access to some very useful information like tax expenditure reports.

It’s also an abiding mystery why our public bureaucracies continue to offer only mammoth pdf documents rather than using the miracle that is the hyperlink.  Witness Wikipedia.  It too has oodles of information but unlike any CAFR or the BDCP or any other pretty, consultant-produced PDF, it has an amazing feature: it’s actually readable. So much for naïve dreaming.

As interesting and thorough as it may be, the PIRG analysis, however, is a case of mistaking the map for the territory.

For the 99.8% of Californians who don’t read state financials directly, the searchability of the Department of General Services website matters far less than the quality of the coverage in the Sacramento Bee.

And for the .2% of Californians who, out of professional interest or passion actually bother to dig into state government financials, a pretty search interface matters far less than simple machine readability; any analyst worth her salt will run her own numbers anyway, and any journalist who deserves the name will go beyond the numbers to dig into inside sources and figure out what’s really going on.

rooseveltDrilling down: More deeply, as the recent corruption saga of Leland Yee and Ron Calderon demonstrate, the real challenge is not spinach and broccoli website upgrades so much as dealing with the “invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it.

Like TR, we live in an era of crony capitalism.  Similar to the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society, the information age has spawned massively wealthy corporations and rampant rent-seeking, as groups of all stripes scramble to preserve their share of a rapidly shifting economic pie.

This reality demands reform.  Yet the failures of campaign finance in a post-Citizen’s United world make that problem tricky, to put it mildly.  So how might we tackle this challenge at a structural level?

With that, here’s a not so modest proposal – let’s call it the initiative to restore truth, justice, and the American way.  It has three simple planks:

moneyfist1) $1,000 internet advertising voucher for every California voter courtesy of Google, Facebook and the other mega-platforms.  Tech types like to talk about how they’re building a more open society.  Why not help them put their money where their mouth is by creating this simple regulation? Every voter would be free to spend their advertising promoting a cause, candidate or message they support.  Or they can allocate their money to a group or individual of their choice.  It’d be no different than how cable companies have to donate airtime to public access channels – just at an individual level.  And unlike promising proposals like “patriot dollars,” “Zuck Bucks” would require negligible funds from the public purse.

2) Returning corporate purses to the people.  In order to spend money for political purposes in California, any corporation would need to “(A) describe the specific nature and total amount of expenditures proposed for political activities for the forthcoming fiscal year and (B) provide for a separate shareholder vote to authorize such proposed expenditures” (similar to the proposed federal Shareholder Protection Act).

3) Returning union purses to the people.  In order to spend money for political purposes in California, any union would need to get the advance authorization of its members.  This reform would prohibit the automatic deduction of union dues for political activity.

Such organizations – regardless what IRS code they’re incorporated in – are just legal fictions.  And their political spending should reflect the views of the actual people they claim to represent.

Voters are justifiably skeptical that “people like themselves” have a voice in our democracy.  These reforms would put money behind the votes of everyday Californians and help break the stranglehold that moneyed interests have on the state legislature.

patrickatwaterIt’s been said that campaign finance reform is like “trying to stop water from flowing downhill.”  Luckily, we’re Californians, and we have a long history of pioneering structures to move water from where it is to where it needs to be.

It’s equally important to remember what this reform won’t solve. Neither nifty technobucks nor transparency can solve the problem of evil in the human heart. But we can take pragmatic steps to move forward.

Political writer Patrick Atwater is an author, entrepreneur and frequent Calbuzz commentator who has a major jones for reforming California’s government. 

Why Anti-DiFi Spook Is An “Emotional” Martinet

Monday, April 14th, 2014

difistareMichael Hayden is a man’s man – yea, a Manly Man – a career Air Force officer, former CIA Director and lifelong, hardcore fan of the blue-collar Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet: Hayden is also a man of deep emotional feeling.

If that last phrase sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the precise language Hayden used recently in an attack against Senator Dianne Feinstein (carried out, surprise, surprise, on “Fox News”). It was aimed preemptively at a secret report, which DiFi’s been laboring over for years as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, detailing the CIA’s use of torture during Hayden’s years as a top spy under George Waterboard Bush.

As every schoolchild knows, Feinstein’s behind-the-scenes battle with the CIA recently burst into public view, when she proclaimed publicly the report would ensure “an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation” would never happen again.

Hayden’s sexist response — “That sentence – that motivation for the report — may show deep, emotional feeling on the part of the senator, but I don’t think it leads you to an objective report” — has been hammered effectively, both by her colleagues and by the inestimable Cathy Decker.

haydenWhat has been less noted is that Hayden himself has a history of huffy, hissy-fit tossing, which a reasonable person (we name no names) could describe as “emotional.” This YouTube clip, for example, shows how Hayden, the father of the National Security Agency’s surveillance dragnet of  U.S. citizens, gets all peevish and surly when he’s challenged about the constitutionality of his pet project. An excerpt:

REPORTER: I’d like to stay on the same issue. And that has to do with the standard by which you use to target your wiretaps. I’m no lawyer, but my understanding is that the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution specifies that you must have probable cause to be able to do a search that does not violate an American’s right against unlawful searches and seizures.

HAYDEN: Actually, the Fourth Amendment actually protects all of us against unreasonable search and seizure. That’s what it says.

REPORTER: But the measure is probable cause, I believe.

HAYDEN: The amendment says unreasonable search and seizure.

REPORTER: But does it not say probable —


REPORTER: The court standard, the legal standard —

HAYDEN: The amendment says unreasonable search and seizure.

A couple of takeaways:

fourthamendment1-Hayden’s assertion that “if there’s any amendment to the Constitution that employees at the National Security Agency are familiar with, it’s the Fourth,” is laughable, given his claim that the amendment does not require the government to have “probable cause” before spying on Americans.

2-The whole exchange at the National Press Club in 2006 represents a reminder and a tidy summary of how the Bush, and now Obama, Administrations have invented a legal fiction to subvert and end-run Congressional strictures on NSA domestic spying. Thanks to Amy Goodman, the full transcript is here.

3-Trained observers may see small puffs of steam leaking out of Hayden’s ears, as the bumps on his head begin to percolate during Stage 1 of a volcanic eruption of his chrome dome. His whole affect is that of an authoritarian personality used to being obeyed, whose self-control starts to slip the moment his prerogative is questioned.

neverletemAnd another thing: Despite her doggedness on the CIA report, we’re not big fans of DiFi’s years of shilling and overall support for the Beltway Spook Community.

But describing her as “emotional” is just plain silly.

In our collective half-century plus covering politicians in California, we’ve seldom encountered one more repressed and tightly wound as the Senior Senator from California (George Deukmejian comes to mind, except we were there the day he cried on the floor of the state Senate while eulogizing the assassinated George Moscone).

There’s a good reason the author of the greatest Feinstein biography in the history of the publishing industry titled the book, “Never Let Them See You Cry,” (plenty of free parking). It’s drawn from a list of 10 rules for dames trying to make it in a bro’s world that Herself provided to a woman’s magazine when she was S.F.’s mayor.

Not to go all Freudian, but Feinstein’s public persona was forged in childhood, as the oldest of three girls, when she protected and stood up for her sisters against the abusive behavior of a mother who was not of sound mind, and liked her cocktails with an assortment of pills, a secret the prominent Goldman family kept well-hidden from public view:

Painfully discussing the long-hidden past, Dianne and her sisters all recall a childhood of almost constant anxiety and fear. “My mother was an abuser and a basher,” said (youngest daughter) Lynn, remembering the day (mother) Betty forced and held her head under water. “My first memory was of my mother trying to drown me in the bathtub. I was five, and my father pulled me out.” Her mother was “scary, distant and forbidding,” she added. “You never knew what was going to happen.”

difiearlyTight from the start: Never a movement feminist, Feinstein began to build her career at a time when it was rare for a woman to seek and be elected to office, let alone be in a position of power (whether in politics, business, medicine, law, journalism, or any other profession) and she prided herself on never displaying, at least in public, signs of emotion, as she adapted herself to traditionally male attitudes and behavior.

The example of her steeliness in the aftermath of the City Hall assassinations in 1978 has been well chronicled, but there are countless, more prosaic episodes that make the point, from the first days of her long climb up the political ladder:

Stanford coed Dianne Goldman walked into the Phi Delta fraternity house on the leafy campus known as ‘The Farm.’ She was running for vice president of the Associated Students, the college student council, and her strategy this spring evening in 1954 was to campaign in the fraternity houses at dinner-time, when she could address the male students in large groups.

As she began her standard earnest pitch about improving the effectiveness and efficiency of student government, she was met with the usual combination of heckling, indifference and snide comments from what she recalled as a “milling throng of insane humanity.” All of a sudden, a student stood up from a table and rushed her and before Dianne knew what was happening, hefted her slender frame over his shoulder.

To the cheers of his fellow scholars, the student hustled her down the hallway and dumped her into a shower, where she was quickly and unceremoniously drenched…

Her response to the episode foreshadowed her approach to politics for the next forty years; rather than protesting or making a fuss about the offensive behavior, she accepted the humiliation as part of the game and promptly returned to her campaign rounds. Then she won the election and got her revenge.

GoldenGateBridge-001Bottom line: In the Hayden matter, Feinstein typically “stopped short of characterizing Hayden’s comments as sexist,” MSNBC reported, “but she defended her report as “objective, based on fact, thoroughly footnoted, and I am certain it will stand on its own merits.”

Top Secret/Eyes Only Memo to Michael Hayden: Watch out for this one; confidential source reports she’s not pushing on this CIA memo because she’s “emotional.” Source says it’s because she’s “against torture.”

P.S. Some small-minded readers might accuse Calbuzz of hypocrisy in this matter and say, “Hey, men of Calbuzz, wait a minute, you yourself have indulged in chauvinistic rhetoric against Feinstein, describing her as “coy” and the “grand dame of California politics,” a “political window shopper” who performs the “dance of the seven veils” and conducts an “obsessive flirtation with the political spotlight” and is “older than the Golden Gate Bridge.”

To which we say: Well yeah, there is that. But let us be clear: as the fathers of five daughters and two grand-daughters and deep believers, personally and politically, in equal rights for women, we are compelled as journalists to call out Hayden’s brand of sexist cheap shot.

Besides, Dianne’s our turf. Off, spook, off.

Field Poll Shocker: Republican Leads Statewide Race

Friday, April 11th, 2014

peteperson1With Gov. Jerry Brown in a commanding position to be re-elected in November and with transparency and integrity in office thrust into the news by scandal in Sacramento, the most interesting statewide contest – one in which a Republican has at least a shot at winning a constitutional office — is the race for Secretary of State.

It’s the office that propelled Brown himself to statewide prominence as a Watergate era reformer – an office that oversees elections and corporations – sort of Sacramento’s Minister of Fairness.

And right now, before any real campaign has been launched, Republican Pete Person is the leading contender in the latest Field Poll.

alexpadillamugPeterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at PepperdineUniversity, is pulling 30% of likely voters compared to state Sen. Alex Padilla of the San Fernando Valley at 17% in the Field Poll from March 18-April 5.

Others Sucking Wind The rest of the candidates trail far behind, with the Green Party’s David Curtis at 5%, non-partisan Dan Schnur at 4% and Democrat Derek Cressman at 3%. The differences among them are statistically insignificant.

A whopping 41% of likely voters are undecided about the race and even the best-known candidate – Padilla – is still unknown to 54% of the voters.

In California’s two-step election process, the top two candidates in the June “primary”  election, regardless of party, face off in the November general election.

Before Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco was arrested and charged with gun running and bribery, the standings in the survey were Peterson at 27%, Padilla 10% and Yee 8%. After Yee dropped out of the Secretary of State’s race, Peterson picked up 3% and Padilla added 7% in the Field Poll being conducted at the time.

Dan SchnurHow Non-Partisan Plays One of the most intriguing aspects of the SOS race is the presence of Schnur, the former Republican operative (and friend of many reporters) who later headed the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and re-registered as a “no party preference” voter. At Calbuzz’s urging, the Field Poll — as an academic exercise — tested whether Schnur is helped or hindered by running as a non-partisan instead of as a Republican.

What the survey found was that when Schnur is listed as a non-partisan, about eight in 10 likely voters have no opinion about him – he’s the most unknown of all the candidates. Among those who have an opinion about him, 11% are favorable and 10% are unfavorable.

When Schnur is identified as a Republican, the number of voters with no opinion drops to 67%, his favorable goes up 4 points to 15% but his unfavorable rises by 8 points to 18%.

In other words, his favorable-unfavorable ration is +1% as a non-partisan and it’s -3% as a Republican. More people express an opinion about Schnur, political science suggests, because they react to the party label.

It’s an experiment worth undertaking since party registrations are declining and no non-partisan candidate has ever been elected to a statewide office in California.

Sadly for Schnur, he’s so utterly unknown to voters, that he’s got a long way to go to break into the top two finishers in June, as do Curtis and Cressman. About seven in 10 voters don’t know who they are. With turnout expected to decline in June and November as Jonathan Brown predicts, it will be especially difficult for those at the back of the pack to break through.

Party registration remains the most powerful predictor of voters’ preferences.

Peterson, the Republican, has a favorable-unfavorable among likely voters of 18-19%. Among Republican it’s 32-8% favorable, but among Democrats it’s 11-30% unfavorable and among non-partisans it’s 9-18% unfavorable.

Padilla, on the other hand, has a 35-9% favorable rating among Democrats and a 7-44% unfavorable among Republicans. Where he has and edge on Peterson is among non-partisans, who rate him 22-18% favorable.

lelandyee1Leland We Hardly Knew Yee As if to prove the point that a significant portion of voters are ignorant, the Field Poll also reported that before his arrest and withdrawl from the SOS race, Leland Yee’s favorable was 24-20% favorable and after his arrest it was 15-34% unfavorable. In other words, 15% of the voters still had a favorable opinion about a state senator charged with gun running and bribery.

It’s a great country.

The Field Poll surveyed 1,000 registered voters by land line and cell phone. 504 were identified as likely voters – 212 interviewed before Yee’s arrest and 292 after. The margin of error among voters interviewed after Yee’s arrest was +/- 5.5 points;  before his arrest it was +/- 6.5 points. Calbuzz is not permitted to subscribe to the Field Poll because some mainstream media clients are afraid of the competition so Calbuzz obtains the survey from sources.

Op Ed: SCOTUS Has Eviscerated Contribution Limits

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

briberyBy Sarah Swanbeck
Special to Calbuzz

Four years ago, in Citizens United v FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures in political campaigns. In the wake of that decision, we’ve seen an arms race among the nation’s wealthiest donors, each vying to outspend the next in order to exert the greatest possible influence over our elections and lawmakers.

But if Citizens United started the arms race of money in politics, the Supreme Court’s decision last week in McCutcheon v. FEC has only escalated it. And we are about to see money in politics go nuclear.

mike-myers-21In its decision in McCutcheon, the Court further dismantled what remains of our country’s campaign finance system by eliminating aggregate caps to federal candidates, parties and certain political committees, opening new channels for the wealthiest donors to funnel even more money into our political systems. The increase in access for the wealthiest will come at the expense of average Americans, who don’t have the same means to purchase such political “free speech.”

In equating money so completely with speech, the Supreme Court has sent a clear message: you have a First Amendment right to speak, but not necessarily to be heard.

Since the Court made clear that money is a form of speech, the primary question up for consideration in McCutcheon was whether or not the Court could restrict that speech, in the form of aggregate caps on campaign contributions, in order to prevent corruption.

It is on the issue of corruption that the Court exhibits a complete lack of understanding for how money actually moves through the political system. Roberts’ majority opinion defines corruption narrowly as a quid pro quo in which a donor makes a campaign contribution in return for a particular favor – essentially bribery.

money-tornadoBut corruption can run through a system in ways that are much more subtle. The nation’s wealthiest donors have found ways to buy access to all areas of the political arena; major donors receive special access to the candidates they help elect, and their lobbyists spend millions to influence and even write legislation once the official takes office.

It’s this type of access and special consideration that can result in lawmakers prioritizing the will of the wealthiest few over the interests of the general public. It may not be an explicit quid prop quo, but excessive spending in our political system is equally corrosive to our democracy.

Californians are all too familiar with the corruption that comes with excessive money in politics. Just this year, three separate state senators have been indicted or convicted for egregious ethical violations and illegal activities. Yet in the wake of these scandals, the focus in the state legislature, and from the mainstream media, has been on quick legislative solutions to the ethics problem. Far too little time has been spent thinking about the underlying root cause of these ethics violations – a broken campaign finance system and the onslaught of money in politics – and the kinds of systemic changes needed to remedy the situation.

constitutionSo where does the McCutcheon decision leave those of us in the reform community, those groups fighting in the trenches to limit the corruptive influence of money in our political systems? What weapons are left in our arsenal as the Supreme Court continues to tie our hands behind our backs?

The clearest answer, although also the most difficult to implement, would be a constitutional amendment authorizing Congress and the states to limit campaign spending. But that may be a long-term solution for a problem that will continue to wreak havoc on our political system in the meantime.

In the short term, legislative solutions like improved campaign finance disclosure laws or a public financing system could help to level the playing field among donors and reduce the corruptive influence of money in politics.

But here lies another problem: the very people in position to change our campaign finance system – our legislators – are those currently benefiting from the status quo. Although elected officials will tell you how much they hate fundraising full-time, we have seen few lawmakers with the political will to step forward and advocate for a real overhaul of our campaign finance system.

If all this seems like a dire outlook, in some ways it is. It’s also the perspective of a campaign finance reformer still recovering after last week’s ambush.

Journalist David Simon recently commented that “if democracy is going to work, the government in some sense is you and your neighbors.” By that he meant that, at its core, government should be about the small conversations held among citizens and elected officials, working through issues and figuring out how to make government best serve the needs of the people.

swanbeck_photoThe influx of money into our political system has all but drowned out these quiet conversations. As Simon also observed, however, if we have reached a point where government is no longer about you and your neighbors, “then that’s the fight to have and it can’t be had by walking away.”

If there’s a bright side to all of this, it is that maybe — just maybe — in the battle against the corruptive influence of money in politics, we have reached a tipping point.

Sarah Swanbeck is the Policy and Legislative Affairs Advocate for California Common Cause

Op Ed: Time to Expel Senators Tainted by Corruption

Monday, April 7th, 2014

3senatorsBy Fred Keeley
Special to Calbuzz

Imagine that you are an employee working in the food mart of the corner gas station.  One night, you’re arrested for driving under the influence. You show up for work the next day, and your employer fires you for getting arrested.

Your due process rights for the drunken driving charge are limited to the criminal charge, not to whether or not your employer can fire you for getting arrested. People can disagree about the fairness of the law, but that’s the law.

Now, imagine that you are a state senator and that you have been charged, indicted, arrested and/or convicted of crimes that relate directly to your job as a legislator.  Can you be “fired” by the Senate? Yes.

corruptionOur state constitution says, “Each house shall judge the qualifications and elections of its Members and, by roll call vote entered in the journal, two-thirds of the membership concurring, may expel a Member.”

After three state senators [Democrats Ron Calderon, Rod Wright and Leland Yee], have, in 2014, been either charged, indicted, arrested, tried and/or convicted of felonies directly associated with the performance of their official duties, the question arises as to the proper reaction of the state Senate itself.  To answer that, let’s look at another political scandal, not so long ago.

In 2000, then-Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush [a Republican] resigned his statewide constitutional office, following hearings by the [Democratically controlled] state Assembly, because of charges that he had  misdirected millions of dollars of insurance settlement funds meant to compensate victims of the Northridge Earthquake into funds that assisted his political ambitions.

quackenbushQuackenbush resigned ahead of an all-but-certain impeachment in the Assembly and a trial and conviction in the Senate. My role in all that was to manage the non-partisan Assembly hearings (I represented the Monterey Bay area in the Assembly from 1996 through 2002).

In the case of Quackenbush, there was no call in the Legislature for him to take a paid vacation or to wait until he had been convicted in a court of law and his appeals were exhausted. There was no argument that he had a right to due process in the criminal matters first that would prevent the Legislature from investigating, impeaching or convicting him.

Quackenbush was a constitutional officer, not a state senator, but the analogy is apt. There is no question about whether the state Senate must wait for a conviction and appeals before it can expel a member. There is only the question of whether the state Senate can muster the backbone to expel the three members who have rained disgust and dishonor on the body that voters rely on to make our laws, pass a budget and serve as a check and balance to the extensive powers of the governor.

We have seen a stream of newspaper articles, blogs, editorials, op-ed pieces and general conversation about the three state senators involved in this swirl of unethical and, perhaps, criminal behavior, and what should be done about it. Some argue the weak case that the state senate has done the right thing to suspend them with pay and not take stronger action unless and until they are convicted and sentenced.

fred keeley_0102They are wrong.

Our democracy is strong but it needs the constant trust and confidence of the electorate that their representatives represent the citizenry fairly and honestly.

A paid vacation for three disgraced state senators will not do it.  Immediate expulsion will.

Fred Keeley, a liberal Democrat, is the elected Treasurer of  Santa Cruz County of Santa.  He served in the California State Assembly (1996-2002) during which time he led the Assembly’s hearings into the actions of former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush.