California’s Death Throes: A View From Sacramento

arnoldCalifornia Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his Republican colleagues are using the trauma of the economic collapse and the record state budget deficit to implement policies they’ve been advocating for years. “This budget ought to be solved in one chunk, at one time,” the governor says, “and let’s do it quickly.”

As usual, the working poor are going to suffer the brunt of the Republicans’ slash-and-burn fiscal policies aimed at decimating the state’s social safety net. Arnold and his rich friends propose throwing one million children off CalWORKS, the state’s primary welfare program, and they want to strip away health care for 900,000 children by ending the “Healthy Families” program. They’d rather destroy the state’s services, including the higher education system, instead of raising taxes on big corporations and rich individuals.

The “supermajorities” needed to pass state budgets means that six Republicans (two Senators and four Assembly members) can hold hostage the nation’s most populated state. “Cal-EE-Forn-Ya’s day of reckoning is approaching,” Schwarzenegger intones, (as if he’s starring in another Terminator movie). No wonder voters rejected his and the Democrats’ ballot propositions last month. The Governor says the vote means he has a mandate to gut the government, while the Democrats say it means that voters didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I think a lot of people were sending the message to these politicians that they should do their damn jobs instead of expecting voters to give them political cover.

With all the fiscal carnage you would never think that California’s registered Democratic voters outnumber the Republicans by about 1.3 million and hold substantial majorities in both chambers of the legislature. California never gave a single electoral vote to George W. Bush and the trend lines show it is becoming more Democratic each election cycle. Yet for years now the Democrats’ key constituencies have been taking it on the chin.

The origins of the current crisis go back to early 2001 when Dick Cheney and “Kenny Boy” Lay conspired with Cheney’s “energy task force” to allow Enron and other renegade companies to plunder California’s energy markets. Bush and Cheney blocked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) from stepping in to stop the hemorrhaging and California Republicans slammed Governor Gray Davis for causing the whole mess. They then tapped “The Terminator” to lead their charisma-challenged party. Arnold offered up his celebrity in a bid to topple Governor Davis by abusing the recall provision in the state’s constitution.

Soon Arnold was out on the stump promising to “terminate” all new taxes. He even staged an event where his supporters dropped a car from a crane symbolizing their opposition to a vehicle tax that Davis had proposed to deal with the then relatively small (but growing) budget deficit. In 2005, Scharzenegger supported Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme and tried to do the same thing to the state’s pension plan CalPIRS, the biggest in the country, by pushing a set of failed propositions that were a frontal assault on California’s working middle class. And throughout this entire spectacle the Democrats allowed Arnold to make them jump through hoops like trained circus dogs. And they continue to do so today.

The Democratic “leaders” in the state legislature have over and over again betrayed their most important constituencies — working people, educators, public employees, etc. — leaving millions of California Democrats to wonder why they were thrown under the bus only so their representatives can reach terrible “compromises” with a recalcitrant and retrograde Republican minority.

One thing that contributes to this dismal state of affairs is that in the legislature here in Sacramento the Democrats often carry out their governing duties differently than do the Republicans. For example, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the typical California Democrat, values comity and decorum as he extends his hand across the aisle to reach compromises in good will with his Republican colleagues. While the Senate Minority Leader, Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta), the typical California Republican, tears out the Democrat’s heart and pees on his lungs through the hole in his chest. You might say the two parties have different negotiating styles.

Californians concerned about the future of the state might think of forming “Progressive Democratic Clubs” at the grassroots level modeled on the California Democratic Clubs that kept the ideals of the New Deal going in California in the post-WWII era, especially during the administration of Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown who built up the state’s educational and social services. Progressive clubs such as these (like a state-level Moveon.org) could link up local communities to press the Democrats to get off their knees and start fighting for the people who put them in office.

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At a time when President Barack Obama enjoys a 62% approval rating, and the California Congressional delegation is stronger than ever with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in the driver’s seat, it’s curious that Democrats in Sacramento still cower from the bullying of “conservative” Republicans. A grassroots movement working within Democratic Party structures might break the cycle of abuse the Republican minority has inflicted upon the state for purely ideological reasons.

Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He’s the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).

Originally published by The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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