From the celebratory atmosphere over the weekend at the California Democratic State Convention, titled: “California Democrats — A New Era,” held at the Sacramento Convention Center, one could get the impression that the Democratic Party’s base is strong and the leadership of the State Legislature has made all the right moves. There was a stunning display of Democratic talent over the weekend, which included boilerplate speeches from Californians such as the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Barbara Lee, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The gathered delegates heard dozens of candidates for state office in 2010 make their cases, often with short video presentations. There were inspiring speeches from Harvey Milk’s nephew, Stewart, a life-long LGBT activist, and from Howard Dean. Speaker Pelosi presented the accomplishments of the first 100-Days of the Obama presidency and what the House of Representatives has achieved working with the new Democratic Administration. But there were tensions beneath the surface.
Speaker Pelosi stood up for her progressive “San Francisco values” saying: “We must have a future where health care is a right not a privilege.” Announcing that she recently became a grandparent again to a baby girl named Isabella, she said that the needs of women and children must be central to Congress’s legislative agenda. She outlined the benefits that California will receive from President Barack Obama’s stimulus package including tax cuts for working people, $4.7 billion for the state’s infrastructure, and $8.9 billion for education, including the biggest increase in Pell Grants for college students in history. She said that the federal budget should “reflect our values” and that has not been the case for the past eight years. She talked about the central role that members of the California Congressional delegation are playing, including Henry Waxman on energy, George Miller on education, and Barbara Boxer on the environment. She also talked about Californians inside Obama’s cabinet: Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Nancy Pelosi is an extremely talented politician. She exudes ebullience and style. She looked youthful and vibrant. Her optimism and hope for a brighter future is contagious. There is no doubt that Pelosi loves her job and sincerely takes great pride in her historic achievement of becoming the first woman Speaker of the House.
It’s amazing that the Republicans and their right-wing web sites spend so much time trying to vilify Pelosi. I don’t think they’ll have much to show for their bitter efforts because when you see her in person she comes off as such an authentic and caring human being there really isn’t much to vilify. But I understand the Republicans’ dislike for her since she obviously is more than just a smiling face; she understands power and knows how to wield it. That’s why so far she has been such an effective Speaker passing hugely complex pieces of President Obama’s legislative agenda quickly and efficiently.
But the reality of the story in the state of California is a bit different than the mood of optimism that has swept Washington since the inauguration of President Obama. Here in California there was quite a bit of conflict among the Democratic delegates regarding the wisdom of betting the state’s future on goofy ballot measures like Proposition 1A that California voters will either approve or defeat on May 19th. The spending caps and regressive tax hikes contained in these propositions won’t do much for the Democratic base. And they pit the interests of labor unions against each other while holding hostage funding for K-12 education unless all this stuff passes. Scare tactics were employed to sway delegates that if these propositions don’t pass next month the sky is going to fall.
But even after long hours of debate where the state’s legislative leaders pleaded with delegates to vote for a resolution in support of Proposition 1A the measure failed miserably. California’s Democratic Party will be officially “neutral” on Proposition 1A, which will drain it of support. It was a vote of no confidence in a ballot initiative that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wants badly to pass and it was also a vote of no confidence in the negotiating prowess of Democratic leaders in the legislature.
California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (pictured above) presented to the assembled delegates the idea that the propositions are the best we can hope for out of no good choices. But they might learn a thing or two from President Obama about how NOT to capitulate to the demands of a petulant and unpopular Republican minority. President Obama recently made clear to the House and Senate Republican leadership that he would continue to work in a bipartisan way, but that they didn’t have veto power over his health care policy. He would use the “reconciliation” process to pass health care reform sidestepping the Republican minority’s obstructionism by moving it forward without the option of a Republican filibuster.
When dealing with the state’s many budget compromises that strip services from working families, furlough state workers, give in to the “open primary,” or offer spending caps like those contained in Proposition 1A, the Republican minority has been the clear winner over the Democratic majority. The California GOP out-negotiates the Democrats every time in the state legislature because the anti-tax xenophobes and nihilists who run California’s Republican Party are perfectly willing to shut down the whole state and send it careening off a cliff if they don’t get their way. Senator Steinberg and Assemblywoman Bass are either terrible negotiators (who are still getting their bearings after the more experienced leaders were term-limited out) or they’re running a 2010 strategy aimed to win the governorship after our famous movie star governor finally, mercifully, leaves office. Unfortunately, California’s Democratic leaders expected their base to expend a lot of scarce resources and grassroots energy for measures that do not serve it well even while they sold out the base repeatedly in reaching bad budget deals with the Republicans.
Steinberg and Bass never should have caved in to the Republican ploy of giving away an opportunity to change the primary system to an “open primary” just to get a budget passed. Changing the way direct primaries have operated in California for decades affects the political structure of the state and favors Republicans. Steinberg and Bass never should have allowed structural changes to enter into the negotiations over the budget. The “open primary” has nothing whatsoever to do with the budget and the Democratic leadership, once again, capitulated to the demands of the Republican minority. The Republicans always hold the state hostage at budget time. It’s getting a little old. Maybe with a Democratic governor in 2010, preferably Gavin Newsome who is the best candidate the Democrats have to offer, the leadership in the legislature can finally call the Republicans on their bluff just like Bill Clinton did to Newt Gingrich back in 1995.
Senator Steinberg and Speaker Bass are taking a big gamble over the next two years. Their strategy appears to be similar to the one Pelosi ran against the Republicans in 2006 after the Democrats won both chambers of Congress. They didn’t go after Bush, but bided their time and bet all the marbles on a big victory in 2008. They succeeded only because of the skills of an extremely talented politician named Barack Obama. Whether the California Democrats have the candidates or the political skill to replicate in 2010 what the national party did in 2008 remains to be seen. But what could happen is the terrible concessions Steinberg and Bass have already given the Republicans, like putting the “open primary” on the ballot, might end up weakening the Democrats in the long run just as the Republican trick of recalling Governor Gray Davis did in 2003.
Does anyone doubt anymore that Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was an unmitigated disaster for the state of California? The “Terminator” ran for public office for the first time in his life in the circus-like atmosphere of the 2003 recall election as a wealthy “outsider” who was not beholden to campaign cash from any “special interest” (meaning the teachers’ and nurses’ unions). During the campaign, he denounced California’s budget deficit and the car tax. Today, we would love to have the deficits of 2003 and we’ve been stuck with the car tax anyway. Schwarzenegger rode George W. Bush’s coattails while creating the worst economic/financial/budget catastrophe in the history of the “Golden State.” (I’m glad I voted for Arianna Huffington.)
The Propositions to which Steinberg and Bass agreed pit different segments of California’s labor unions against one another. Schwarzenegger outwitted Democratic legislators once again by successfully dividing and conquering the complex mosaic of California’s competing Democratic labor interests to the advantage of the Republican minority. What Steinberg, (who is my state Senator and a good friend of my union, the California Faculty Association), and Bass might have done is seal California’s fate as a fiscal basket case for years to come; a basket case that is ruled, in effect, by a permanent Neanderthal right-wing Republican minority.
We’ll have to wait and see.
by 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).