Californians agree: State government doesn't serve them
And it's no wonder, with all the money wealthy donors, or their operatives, toss around in Sacramento.
As metaphors go, last week served up a doozy. A married
member of the Legislature resigned his office after
blurting out over an open microphone salacious details
about relationships with two women, at least one of them
said to be a lobbyist.
The assemblyman later said he was not guilty of affairs
but, rather, of "inappropriate story-telling." If you
believe his original words, then, he was in bed with a
lobbyist. If you believe his recantation, he just wanted
people to think he was in bed with a lobbyist.
You didn't have to be outside the windows looking in to get
the picture, and Californians do, according to a poll
released last week by the Public Policy Institute of
California. The poll showed that, overwhelmingly,
Californians believe their state government is servicing
the few -- say, those represented by lobbyists -- over the
needs of the many.
Only 20% of Californians, and only 15% of regular voters,
felt the government elected by the people and for the
people had any interest in the people, broadly speaking.
And the poll was taken before the scandal involving
Republican Mike Duvall broke.
The only good news in the poll, if there was any, was its
demonstration that we have finally become the unified,
"post-partisan" state that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has
been advertising: Everyone distrusts government, or at
least huge majorities of all political groups do.
On the question of whom state government serves, "a few big
interests" was the answer of 75% of Democrats. And 78% of
Republicans. And 74% of independents.
In their view, "something is terribly broken about state
government -- it's not responsive, it's not effective and
it's not efficient," said PPIC President Mark Baldassare, a
veteran California pollster.
It's little wonder how Californians draw their conclusions.
Even those who pay only scant attention to Sacramento can
pick up a distasteful whiff. Capital calendars are
chock-a-block with lavish meetings between wealthy donors
-- or their operatives -- and legislators. Overseas
junkets, professional sports games and other activities
fill in gaps in the dance cards.
The current speaker, Democrat Karen Bass of Los Angeles,
chummied up with lobbyists in Pebble Beach earlier this
year. Her predecessor, Fabian Nu?ez, also a Democrat from
Los Angeles, spent tens of thousands of his campaign
dollars on overseas travel, expensive wine and other
That would be the same Fabian Nu?ez who is now a partner in
Mercury Public Affairs, the public relations firm that was
due to receive a $9-million contract from a state
commission 10 days ago, until an article in The Times
disclosed the idea and derailed it.
The state high-speed rail commission is dominated by
Schwarzenegger appointees; the recommendation for the
contract came from a staff panel with close ties to
Mercury's partners, which include the governor's top
political advisor and his former campaign manager, as well
as Nu?ez. After a burst of publicity, the commission
announced it will rethink the whole thing and issue a new
recommendation in the fall.
None of that means Mercury itself did anything wrong, but
it served to corroborate the belief of many Californians
that their government inhabits a tight little world that
excludes most of the state.
That sentiment is only exacerbated by the fearful
recession, which has driven the demand that someone,
somewhere, stop the destructive spiral of job losses, home
losses and dislocation. When people see no improvement in
their own circumstances, Baldassare said, they presume that
the in-crowd must be benefiting instead.
"Increasingly," Baldassare said, "they are seeing things
slipping away in California. This is a state that was
great, not a state that is great. That is very depressing
to the average Californian."
At least part of the depression stems from the notion that
California has tried almost everything to stem its fall,
including throwing a Hail Mary pass in 2003 by selecting a
previously unelected movie star to run the state, on his
promise that things would be better.
Now the governor, whose landslide election drew the highest
voter turnout in a governor's race in two decades, is mired
with the highest disapproval rate of his tenure, 61%.
This has always been a tortuously difficult state to
govern, too big and diverse to come to peaceful agreement
most of the time. But part of the problem has also been a
California notion that to all problems there must be an
easy solution, if only we could find it.
A depressed and distrustful California would not seem
inclined to eradicate that flaw. Yet Dan Schnur, director
of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a
former Republican strategist, said he caught glimmers in
the poll of a populace that might now be more ready to
accept difficult realities.
"Voters are learning that there is no magic,
snap-your-fingers solution," he said. "They've been told
any number of times that things are going to make the state
magically work better, and they just don't believe in magic
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