Five myths about California politics

By Bruce E. Cain
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Tuesday is Election Day in California, with primary races for governor and U.S. Senate that have received much national attention. But when it comes to national politics, is California a bellwether, an outlier, a mirror, or a little of each? From a distance, appearances can be deceiving.

1. California is a high-taxing, big-spending state.

Although California's prolonged budget battles and eye-popping deficits have made it America's poster child for fiscal recklessness, the case is not so clear. Factoring in personal income levels, California's per capita state and local tax burden ranks 18th among all states.

Meg Whitman, the leading Republican candidate for governor, said recently that she intends to solve the state's budget crisis by cutting 40,000 public jobs. But according to 2007 Census data, California has the second-lowest number of state employees per capita (103 per 10,000 residents), a rate 28 percent below the national average and lower than the ratios in more conservative states such as Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

To put California's budget woes in a local context, Maryland's Montgomery County, home to about 1 million people, including a number of California's most prominent national critics, has a budget deficit of $1 billion. Based on California's population of nearly 36 million, if the state spent like Montgomery County, its deficit would be almost twice current projections.

2. California is a majority- minority, solidly blue state.

A majority of California's population may be nonwhite, but the reverse is true for its electorate. While non-Hispanic whites now make up just over 42 percent of the population, down from 69 percent in 1978, they still account for about two-thirds of voters. (This voting gap between whites and nonwhites is primarily based on differences in average age, citizenship rates and socioeconomic status.)

And even though Democrats have had an almost continuous advantage in California party registration since the New Deal, voters haven't been especially loyal to the party: In the 20th century, the state had only four Democratic governors. So at best, California is pale blue, and one might argue that its true color is brown: Two of the four Democratic governors were Browns (Pat and Jerry), one (Gray Davis) had been Jerry Brown's chief of staff, and now Jerry Brown may win another term as chief executive, a position he last held in 1983.

3. California politicians are soft and flaky.

When Nancy Pelosi became House speaker in 2006, the prevailing wisdom in Washington was that she would be weak and ineffectual. After all, she was a liberal Democrat from San Francisco. But after the passage of the health-care overhaul this year, most people now agree that Pelosi is one of the most effective political negotiators of our time. Whatever influence Pelosi's original home town of Baltimore may have had, San Francisco, home of some of the savviest, most calculating minds in the history of American politics -- among them Phil Burton and Willie Brown -- provided her with ample role models. Among California's other contributions? Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

With Jerry Brown again seeking the governorship, opponents and journalists are sure to use his onetime nickname ("Governor Moonbeam") and other bits of lore from the 1970s (he dated Linda Ronstadt; he proposed a state space program) to suggest he's an eccentric.

Sure, Jerry is unconventional, but Dennis Kucinich he is not. He began politics as much an ascetic as a Democrat, vetoing more bills put forward by the Democratic legislature than any Democratic governor of California before or since. Brown was a maverick before John McCain, one who would switch on a dime if survival required it. He was against the 1978 anti-property tax ballot initiative Proposition 13 before he was in favor of it. And while he presided over lenient sentencing procedures as governor, he shifted to the right on crime after stints as Oakland mayor and state attorney general.

4. California is fertile ground for grass-roots politics.

California's user-friendly direct democracy (think ballot initiatives, referendums and recall elections) and populist culture would seem an ideal breeding ground for grass-roots politics. But California is much closer to a plutocracy than a grass-roots democracy. It takes lots of money to draft initiatives, get them on the ballot and run a media campaign for or against them. As a result, the ballot initiative process has been taken over by the very special interests that direct democracy was supposed to counter. For example, Tuesday's ballot contains a measure sponsored by a big utility that would require a two-thirds vote for a community to start generating its own electricity, along with an insurance-industry-backed measure that would reward consumers with discounts for continuous auto insurance coverage.

And running for office continues to get more expensive. California now has two breeds of statewide candidates: the perennials and the rich. The former are predominantly Democrats who have managed to stay on the scene for decades and who have reputations and name recognition that money can't buy -- among them Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and most of the congressional delegation. The other group is self-financing. Republicans, lacking as deep a bench, have put up a series of extremely wealthy candidates -- including Michael Huffington, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carly Fiorina, Bill Simon and Meg Whitman. Rarely do big names like these start at the bottom of the political ladder, of course. Their egos and investments lead them to aim high, and when they win, they have to learn on the job.

5. California is immune to political trends in the rest of the country.

California is widely regarded as a policy trend-setter, mainly because of measures (such as property tax limitations and term limits) that the state first passed and then were adopted elsewhere. By this logic, California may tell us something about the nation's future, but it is too far out to tell us much about the present.

But in reality, California is buffeted by the same political winds as the rest of the country. Like a majority of Americans, 53 percent of Californians say jobs and the economy are the No. 1 issue on their minds. And like other Americans, 61 percent of state residents disapprove of the job Congress is doing. Border issues rile the southern part of the state almost as much as they do Arizona and could play a role in November. And Californians, like voters elsewhere, are opposed to tax increases unless they are targeted at sinners (smokers, drinkers) or the very wealthy.

As a result, what happens in the rest of the country will not simply stay in the rest of country. Might the GOP sweep California's open Senate seat and governorship, and even pick up a seat or two in the House? Yes. If voter frustrations about health care, bank bailouts, the deficit and Afghanistan create a national wave against the Democrats in November, California may well be part of it.

Bruce E. Cain is the Heller professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley and executive director of the UC Washington Center.

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