Democrats made gains in Calif., but can they fix the Golden State?

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 2:18 PM

SACRAMENTO - In the Year of the Republicans, California is the great exception.

Whatever force hit the rest of the country in November stopped at the California border. Democrats won every statewide office on the ballot. They increased their already hefty majority in the State Assembly and maintain a sizable majority in the Senate. Their congressional delegation remains intact, as well.

For Democrats, that is cause for celebration, given the battering they took almost everywhere else. But it is also cause for sober reflection. Are they up to the task of governing?

Now in full control of California's government, Democrats here face the obligation of showing whether they can shake up a sclerotic status quo and turn around one of the most troubled states in the nation.

Events here last week suggest that some of their leaders are ready to try, but finding and implementing real solutions will require that they challenge their allies as much as - or more than - they compromise with their opponents.

On Wednesday, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown (D) held an extraordinary public meeting with legislators and others as he began, even before being sworn in, to lay the groundwork for a serious attempt to deal with a persistent budget crisis that has crippled state government and turned legislators into objects of derision among ordinary Californians.

A day earlier, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa used a forum hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California to publicly call out the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles. He branded the union "the most powerful defenders of the status quo" and later told me the speech marked the beginning of a campaign to challenge political orthodoxy in his party.

The two men's styles were strikingly different. Villaraigosa was deliberately provocative and chose his venue carefully for maximum impact. As a former union organizer, he knew he would attract attention by escalating his long-standing differences with the union leadership over school reform.

Brown, the former and future governor, was more low-key, appearing deliberately circumspect about the choices he will make when he offers his own budget early next year. He will need consensus to succeed. He has long hinted that a real solution to the budget crisis will require painful spending cuts and probably new revenue sources, and he isn't in a position to start alienating anyone.

The public policy challenges that Brown and Villaraigosa are tackling are among the biggest of this era: state and local budgets reeling from the weak economy and years of mismanagement, and public schools that are failing and in need of innovation.

California has wrestled with its budget for years, but the scope of the problem is not as well understood as it should be. Two days before Brown's public forum, Mac Taylor, California's legislative analyst, laid it out in grim terms.

"I have nothing but bad news for you," he said.

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