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Calbuzz Must-Read: Mathews-Paul Reform Opus

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

We finally set aside a few hours to sit down with “California Crackup,” the Joe Mathews-Mark Paul collaboration that closely analyzes the state’s political dysfunction, and it was time well spent: they’ve written a terrific book.

Cataloging the multiple, inter-locking political elements that caused the collapse of governance in California, the two veteran political writers draw these pieces together into a lucid framework that offers not only a clear diagnosis, but also a serious prescription for what ails the not-so-Golden State.

The clarity of their writing and the cogency of their argument put to shame the content of the current campaign for governor.

The contrast between their comprehensive, in-depth and detailed take on the state’s fractured political system with the worn-out platitudes mouthed by Republican nominee Meg Whitman and the vapid avoidances of Democrat Jerry Brown underscores the superficiality and lack of substance in the politics of California in 2010.

The civic moment is defined by more than bad news. What makes this moment seem different – makes it feel like what Californians call “earthquake weather” – is that California seems unable to talk about the crisis in a way that gets to the bottom of things and points to a better day…At the heart of the civic moment is the fear that California lacks even a language, and an understanding, equal to its calamity.

What Mathews and Paul attempt in “California Crackup” is to provide such a language, an effort in which they largely succeed.

Starting with an insightful sketch of early state history that shapes and drives their narrative,  they make all that follows – the corporate abuse of the ballot initiative system, the unintended consequences and anti-democratic impacts of Proposition 13, the dominance of Sacramento by lobbyists and special interests, the over-reaching of public employee unions, for starters – seem like inevitable developments that year after year have steadily sucked all accountability and integrity out of the system.

The whole system must be rethought with an eye to the sheer scale of California, a place grown too large and too various to be successfully governed from the top. Democracy and accountability would be the buzzwords. Windows must be opened so Californians can see in, peer out, and keep an eye on each other. This will require a Great Unwinding of old rules.

By setting forth an inarguable set of facts and a vocabulary for analyzing them, Mathews and Paul produce a potential shared agenda for change in California that seeks to include those provincial stakeholders — voters, consumers and taxpayers – who were long ago abandoned by the Capitol insider culture of corrupt deal making and fix-is-in demagoguery.

Skimming the cream. The three things we found most interesting:

1-Past is prologue: If you don’t have time to read the whole book (c’mon, it’s only about 200 pages) at least pick it up the next time you’re browsing and take a few minutes to read Chapter 2, which presents an intriguing look at the political stumbles, historical accidents and random influences  (California’s first constitution was overwhelmingly approved without being read, as the delegates were determined to go home before lunch) on which our current political structure rests.

First came the hastily scribbled original constitution, drafted at a rogue gathering convened by the military on behalf of a state the U.S. government had failed to recognize. Second were the three decades of failed attempts to put meat on the bones of that first constitution, culminating in the 1878-79 convention, perhaps the greatest civic disaster in the history of a state with a talent for disaster. Third were the sixty years of amendments, more than three hundred of them, nearly all aimed at remedying the consequences, intended and not, of the 1879 disaster. After a break for the Second World War, fourth came the attempt to edit out the worst of those amendments and turn California’s amateur government into a professional one. California is now in its fifth wave, a breaker that took off in the 1970s and still has not crested: a tsunami of ballot initiatives that, in the name of putting the fear of public anger in California’s professional politicians, threatens the whole enterprise.

2-Jerry’s role: Mathews and Paul draw a portrait of the young Governor  Jerry Brown during the crucial years just before, during and after the passage of Prop. 13, when a statewide crisis of homeowners being strangled by ever-escalating property tax bills was met with inaction, if not indifference by pols in Sacramento, which is anything but flattering:

Two things stood in the way of action. One was a governor more interested in big ideas and the grand sweep of technology and history than in the boring details of tax policy or the grunt work of passing legislation. Brown didn’t want to squander the whole surplus on helping homeowners. “The single biggest difficulty we had was the Department of Finance said ‘you can’t commit more than $300 or $400 million to property tax relief,’” remembers State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, then a member of the Assembly. “It was such a small amount that you really couldn’t provide significant enough relief for people to really think it mattered.” Brown had his own priorities – cutting the tax on business inventories and shooting California’s very own communications satellite into space. A large surplus, at a time when New York City was broke, could be held up in his impending reelection campaign as evidence of his tightfistedness (Brown now maintains that he was holding on to the surplus because he anticipated an economic downturn).

3-Solutions. The boyz get into some neck-deep, weed whacking wonkery in the second half of the book, when they offer up a menu of major reform proposals for starting to fix the broken political system.

Putting aside the question of whether actually offering actual solutions for problems is a gross violation of the Political Writers’ Code of Chronic Carping, the Mathews-Paul  disquisition on such poli sci matters as proportional representation, unicameral legislatures and instant runoff voting is both refreshing and consequential in its presentation to the reader of two key insights: a) things don’t have to be this way forever – our current system of elections and governance is not only not written in stone, it’s in many ways an exception to best practices elsewhere in the country and the world; b) changing the system in a substantive way requires much bigger ideas than the kind of nibbling-around-the-margins notions offered by California Forward and other small bore reformers.

The state’s current stalemate, while a formidable obstacle, is no more formidable than that faced by those who framed the state’s constitution in the 19th century, or than that confronted by the Progressives a century ago, when they elected a governor in the face of opposition from both parties and the railroad. And the changes we propose are far less radical than the Progressives’ push for direct democracy, which represented a sharp break with American history and its Madisonian system of divided government, checks and balances, and suspicion of government.

The fall of 2011 will mark the centennial of the 1911 special election in which the Progressives remade the state government’s operating system. It is long past time for an update.

Nice work, guys. Calbuzz sez: check it out.

Obama Pantsed, Lobby Exposed, Calbuzz Menaced

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

With a cast of thousands, it’s hard to decide exactly who’s the biggest loser in the sad and sorry saga of Shirley Sherrod.

For those who’ve been resting on Uranus the last few days, she’s the Department of Agriculture staffer who got briefly fired when the Obama Administration panicked after the vicious right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart posted a doctored video clip from a speech she gave to the NAACP.

In the cut up tape, she appeared to say she had given favored treatment to black farmers over whites; in fact, the point of her speech was to describe how an experience many years ago helped her  overcome her own bias and conclude that class, not race, is America’s crucial social marker.

Before that fact became abundantly clear, however, the Breitbart-to-Drudge-to-Fox-to-conservative blogosphere echo chamber succeeded, not only in stampeding most of the MSM into reporting on the phony tape as legitimate but also in intimidating the NAACP and Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture into falsely denouncing Sherrod.  As Calbuzzer Betty Medsger put it Thursday in a post-mortem email:

It’s about the gale force dangerous stupidity and injustice that can result when the mindless news judgment often caused by the 24-hour news cycle is mixed with the tendency of confidence-lacking liberals to fear extreme conservatives to the point of instantly asking how high they should jump.

Our vote for the biggest dumbo in the incident is Jim Messina, the White House deputy chief of staff who was dispensing high fives and attaboys at the staff meeting the morning after the firing, for the fine job of political rapid response they all performed in cynically tossing Sherrod under the bus.

The net effect of the actions of the self-infatuated political geniuses in the White House was a) to add even more weight to the increasingly inescapable conclusion that it’s amateur night on Team Barack and b) to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory by stomping all over the Administration’s story about passing financial reform legislation, the best news they’d had in weeks.

The best commentary churned out about the whole mess that we read came from Young Turk Cenk Uygur, who quite correctly compared Obama to the school kid who gives up his lunch money to the bully, and gets his pants tossed on top of the school bus in the bargain:

As we can all see now, when Fox says jump, the Obama administration asks how high? (Then jumps one inch less and considers it a progressive victory). Is there anyone Obama won’t fire or throw under the bus if Fox asks him to? What if they ask Obama to fire himself? Would he do it? Or would he just fire Biden and say he met them halfway?…

In Washington, Fox News is very important and you get judged by how quickly you handle the media maelstroms they create. That’s viewed as a barometer of how well you handle “bad news cycles.” So, the rest of the Washington press corps judges you by how quickly you drop to your knees to end the “bad news cycle.” Congratulations Obama administration, you’re now professionals!…

The only real damage that Fox can do is if they spread their poison to other news stations. That is why it’s so imperative to label them what they are — a conservative propaganda station (not that there’s anything wrong with that). They’re just not news. And they couldn’t have proved it any better than they did in this case. And what did the Obama administration do with this golden opportunity? They turned it into a massive loss. Who is fucking retarded now?

Here’s a transcript of what Sherrod actually said in her speech, courtesy of Joan Walsh at Slate.

The envelope please: Mega kudos to Karen de Sa of the Mercury News for a superb investigative series demonstrating and measuring the extent to which Sacramento lobbyists have been the biggest beneficiaries of term limits.

Methodically deconstructing the legislative session, de Sa disclosed that over one-third of the bills introduced in the Capitol originate with special interests and presented case-study reporting on how rookie lawmakers get sucked into the cycle of serving the whims of the Third House, then get rewarded with campaign contributions for their trouble.

It’s been an article of faith among pundits (we name no names) that with the 1990 term limits initiative, the lobbying corps supplanted the Legislature as the keeper of expertise and institutional knowledge at the Capitol. Now de Sa has firmly established the notion as fact.

Amid the constant stream of here-today-gone-tomorrow lawmakers obsessed with reaching for the next step of the political ladder, it’s easy to forget bygone days when when legislators  were around long enough – John Vasconcellos on the budget, Gary Hart on education and Peter Behr on the environment come to mind – to master the substance, complexities and nuances of public policy and how to pass it.

Complete with main bars, side bars, data bases and old school, got-the-reporter’s-back editorials, the entire Mercury News series can be accessed here.

Swimming with the sharks: No truth to the rumor being peddled by Flash Fleischman that eMeg finally agreed to meet Calbuzz for dinner if we agreed to swim out to her yacht.

Fishwrap: Jerry Flip Flop and Flip Out; See Carly Run

Friday, July 10th, 2009

EGBrown1EGBrown Flip Floppery: Calbuzz notes with distaste Jerry Brown’s weasley response to Insurance Commish Steve Poizner’s demand that Brown return $52,500 in campaign contributions he had received from an investment firm and relatives of two California businessmen he is investigating in a public pension fund corruption probe.

We scoffed last month when the insurance commissioner called on the AG to give back the money. “What’s the problem?” we asked.

Brown had taken $48,000 in contributions from relatives of Sacramento lobbyist Darius Anderson and another $4,500 from a company run by LA fundraiser Daniel Weinstein, according to the Sacramento Bee. Later, it became known that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was investigating Anderson’s Gold Bridge Capital and Weinstein’s Wetherly Capital for their roles in helping money management firms secure multimillion-dollar investments from public pension funds in several states.

Since Brown was just doing his job, why in the world should he have to give the money back, we wondered. The AG himself called the demand from Poizner “the silliest thing I’ve heard of.”

But on Wednesday, we learned from Peter Hecht in the Sacramento B- that Brown is giving the money back “so that the contributions would not distract from the work of the attorney general’s office,” according to  Rubeena Singh, treasurer of Jerry Brown 2010.

Which sounded to Calbuzz like Brown was weasling.

So of course Poizner jumped in and claimed victory with a press release declaring: “In Case You Missed It: Jerry Brown Returns Campaign Contributions After Pressure From Steve Poizner”

We tracked down Brown on vacation at the Russian River but he wouldn’t explain himself beyond the Singh statement. “This is not a court of law here. We’re just trying to be practical,” he said.

So apparently Brown had an epiphany and decided that returning the contributions would cause him less political grief than keeping them. What a shichen chit move. Is he now going to go through every campaign contribution he’s ever received and return the money from anyone who might “distract from the work of the attorney general’s office?”

We bet that’s a long list that some op researcher will serve up on a silver platter.

jerry_brownPaddle to the left, paddle to the right: Shortly after talking to Calbuzz, General Jerry took another break from vacation to pick a politically intriguing fight with Peter Schrag over at California Progress Report.

Schrag, former longtime pundit for the B-, had posted a CPR piece attacking Mark Leubovich and his Sunday New York Times takeout on California’s governor’s race, as a once-over lightly gloss job overly focused on personalities and not enough on policy substance and ordinary people afflicted by the budget mess.

Along the way, Schrag took some j’accuse shots at Brown, pointing the finger at his sophomoric style during his first reign as governor as being partly responsible for the passage of Prop. 13 and all that has followed.  Schrag wrote:

“And while Jerry Brown, in his prior tenure as governor was indeed labeled “Governor Moonbeam” (by a Chicago columnist) for his space proposals, as Leibovich says, the label applied much more broadly to his inattention to the daily duties of his office and, most particularly to his dithering while the forces that produced Proposition 13 began to roll.

“Brown later acknowledged that he didn’t have the attention span to focus on the property tax reforms that were then so urgently needed to avert the revolt of 1978. But to this day, almost no one has said much of Brown’s role in creating the anti-government climate and resentments that helped fuel the Proposition 13 drive.

“It was Brown, echoing much of the 1970s counter-culture, who, as much as anyone, was poor-mouthing the schools and universities as failing their students and who threatened to cut their funding if they didn’t shape up. It is Brown who spent most of his political career savaging politics and politicians, even as he ran for yet another office. Now this is the guy who wants to be governor again…”

Whereupon Brown leaped from his Russian River mud bath to post a riposte taking sharp and serious issue with Schrag’s analysis, memory and motivations, if not his ancestry:

“Mr. Schrag’s latest screed is a good example of why politics in Sacramento is so dis-functional…In recent years, Schrag has become increasingly bitter…That’s very sad because he once was an open-minded person with real insight into the predicaments of modern society. Finally, his memory is not serving him well regarding Proposition 13 and the factors that constituted the ethos of that period. In fact, there was a long and hard fought battle to get property tax relief that got all the way to the state Senate but foundered just short of the necessary two thirds vote…”

Ad hominems aside, the exchange carries significance for the 2010 race because it marks the start of what is likely to be an extended struggle to frame and define Brown’s role and responsibility in the lead-up, passage and aftermath of Prop. 13.

At a time when California teeters on the abyss of financial failure, and when reformers across the state are urging amendment of Prop. 13 as a crucial first-step for fixing the broken machinery of government, Brown’s blog-burst demonstrates both his extreme sensitivity on the subject, and his determination to shape the historic narrative.

Our own, occasionally fallible, off-the-top recollections lean towards Schrag’s version of history, but it’s an extremely important subject for another day that deserves a full airing of the Calbuzz Dustbin of History files.

For now, we’ll offer one scene from June 29, 1978; three weeks after Prop. 13 passed, Gov. Brown faced an angry crowd of state employees, demonstrating in Capitol Park in support of a pay raise – opposed by Brown – notwithstanding  billions in local government tax cuts the governor and legislative leaders were seeking to backfill through bail-out legislation.

As loud cries of “Bullshit!” repeatedly interrupted his speech, Brown said that “100,000 citizens of our state are facing layoffs” by cities, counties and special districts in the wake of Prop. 13.

To a roar of disapproval for Brown, one heckler shouted: “Whose fault is that?!”

carly_fiorina_630x

But which one gets to drive? Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is quietly stepping up preparations to enter the Republican primary race for the right to face off against Senator Barbara Boxer next year, says a dispatch from ace L.A. Timesman Michael Finnegan, who reports Fiorina is winning her battle against cancer and spending her days phoning up key GOPers to enlist their support.

A Fiorina candidacy raises the astonishing scenario that she and Meg Whitman, who both served as surrogates for John McCain last year, could give California Republicans the chance to make party history by putting forth two legitimate, high-profile women candidates for statewide office in the same election, should eMeg triumph in her nomination bid for governor.

Shades of 1992, when Democrats Boxer and Dianne Feinstein both won election to the Senate in what the late, great political reporter Susan Yoachum dubbed the “Thelma and Louise campaign.” Who says the Republicans aren’t cutting edge?

dr-hackenflackPaging Dr. Hackenflack:

Dear Dr. H,
Re: Your web site’s recent attack on the Chronicle. I  understand that you think the paper’s giving the San Francisco mayor a free pass on his record, but I thought saying that Gavin Newsom is “peddling swill” was an overly personal, over-the-top attack. What gives?
E.J. South, Garry, Ind.

Clearly you’ve never heard of the legendary Chronicle editor Scott Newhall; in the future, please do not read Calbuzz unless you’re wearing your Dr. Hackenflack Decoder Ring.

– By Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine