The Magazine

Where Liberals Still Rule

In California, it's leftward ho!

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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San Francisco
SOMETHING went terribly wrong on the way to last week's Republican revolution: California. While the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives were lining up Republican, Sacramento was looking like Washington, D.C., in reverse: The governor's mansion, the state Senate, and the Assembly will remain firmly in the hands of Democrats, who also may have captured every statewide office (not all vote counts are final at this writing). Soon there won't be anyone to greet President Bush when he gets off the plane to visit California. If he visits California.

Still, beneath the all-Democratic surface of state politics, last Tuesday saw one significant shift: Governor Gray Davis was reelected with just 47 percent of the vote--down from the 58 percent he won in 1998. While that landslide reflected weariness with 16 years of Republican executives more than enthusiasm for the colorless Davis, this year's distinctly tepid showing confirms Davis's failure to establish himself in his first term as a popular leader of the state.

Davis will continue to face the most left-wing legislature in America. The Senate breakdown probably will remain 26 Democrats, 14 Republicans. In the Assembly, despite the loss of up to 3 seats, the Democrats will retain at least 47 of 80 seats. Since it takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass the state budget, Gov. Davis will have to peel off a few Republican votes in each house to pass a budget. The bottom line: The chief thing standing between California taxpayers and the legislature's long and creative left-wing agenda is Davis's dream of winning the White House as a moderate Democrat.

The next four years, in other words, are likely to look a lot like the last four, with the legislature pushing left and the governor, jealous of his moderate credentials, often hedging his bets, sometimes going along, sometimes resisting.

Davis tries to style himself the long-suffering adult supervisor of a gaggle of far-out Democrats and contentious Republicans. That might be credible if Davis had spent less of his time raising $65 million for his campaign and actually had overseen the legislative process. Instead, his game has been to keep mum on most bills until they reach his desk, in the meantime watching his campaign collect checks from interests that regard the Davis administration as a pay-to-play operation. His policies swing from rewarding donors to rewarding key constituencies.

Even though Davis served in the Assembly, he never established cordial relations with lawmakers. His imperious nature angered Sacramento Democrats, who see less of Davis than his major donors. And when they do see him, he's not exactly Mr. Personality. His no-muss hair and buttoned-down manner have prompted the nickname Gumby. Davis tries to make light of his non-personality; he can always joke about being Al Gore's charisma adviser. But few lawmakers laughed when Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999 that it was the legislature's job "to implement my vision." Ever styling himself the moderate Democrat, Davis added, "They have a totally different view of the world than I do, totally different. It was my vision that commanded a 20-point victory."

But visionary leadership has not characterized Davis's tenure. On the contrary, early in his first term liberal Democratic legislators seized the initiative, passing a spate of union-friendly, business-hostile bills. One that Davis signed was a measure restricting the 40-hour flextime work week in favor of the inflexible 8-hour work day. Then Democrats started taking bites out of workers' compensation reforms enacted under the previous governor, Pete Wilson, when lawmakers of both parties had responded to cries for help from employers up against a costly and fraud-ridden system. Davis signed an increase in benefits.

The California energy crisis came in the summer of 2000. Bad poll numbers for Davis mounted as he put off a decision on how to deal with electricity shortages, but declined to put off fund-raising. Californians' ire also was directed toward energy giants and utilities; as blackouts continued in 2001, angry leftists began flirting with Green party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo.

When the legislature was working on a bill that promised to reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, in the spirit of the unratified Kyoto global warming treaty, journalists asked the governor if he planned to sign it. Davis was coy. He didn't want to alienate enviros, but he also was aware that almost half of new vehicle purchases in California in 2000 were of light trucks and SUVs. Nonetheless, with Camejo threatening to steal protest votes, Davis climbed onto the greenhouse gas bandwagon. (Last week, Camejo took 5 percent of the vote.)

In the summer of 2000, to the accolades of eastern newspapers and environmentalists and with Robert Redford standing at his side, Davis signed the bill. One enviro gushed, "With one stroke of the pen, he did more to reduce global-warming emissions than the other 49 governors combined." (Actually the bill set no new standards. Instead it directs the state Air Resources Board to issue regulations in 2005 for 2009 models and gives the legislature authority to modify those regulations. The enviros got rolled; this bill is a major shakedown opportunity.)

Back on the left again in September, Davis signed a bill guaranteeing paid family leave for employees. The new program, funded by an employee-paid payroll tax, will pay up to $728 per week for as many as six weeks so that workers can take off time to care for dependents. Readers may recall the bill's author, state senator Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, from her TV stint playing the lovelorn Zelda opposite Dobie Gillis. Jubilant supporters crowed that the measure would spur passage of similar legislation in 27 states.

Davis closed the session with a signature and a veto. Once again, he had been mum as a controversial bill passed both houses. It established mandatory state mediation in stalled farmworker disputes. There was reason to believe Davis would veto it--he had raised $1.5 million from agri-business. On the other hand, he needed the support of Latino groups and the United Farm Workers. At the same time, the legislature had passed a bill allowing illegal aliens to obtain California driver's licenses. Davis already had signed into law a measure that allowed illegal immigrants to pay subsidized in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. But he had vetoed other driver's license bills, while promising to sign one that addressed his concerns about illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. In the end, Davis split the difference. He signed the farmworker bill and vetoed the driver's license measure.

Many Latinos were furious--they didn't want to settle for only half a loaf. But the hard-bitten and usually profane president pro tem of the Senate, John Burton, was positively teary-eyed at the unexpected signature on the farm bill. You can see why he once told the Chronicle, "The only way that you can really find out what it is that you can get into law is to send the bill down to the chief executive, whoever it is."

That spirit works. In 2000, the same legislature passed and Davis signed two reparations measures. One created a panel to set a dollar amount on the economic costs of slavery--even though California was never a slave state. This year, Sacramento enacted a law allowing stem cell research and cloning in California--not that they were illegal, but just to grab a headline; the bill also required fertility clinics to inform parents how they could donate their unused embryos to science. And Davis signed a bill allowing nonphysicians to perform nonsurgical abortions, as well as one Zelda sponsored requiring all California obstetrics-gynecology residency programs to provide some abortion training, moral objections notwithstanding. So much for choice.

At least Davis has vetoed or failed to sign some of the far-out measures passed by the Assembly and Senate. This year he refused to sign a bill that would have added a $10 fee to TV and computer purchases to pay for recycling. Lawmakers also passed a bill to reduce the penalties for civil disobedience--except for antiabortion protesters; another to set up a hotline for anonymous tips about corporate misdeeds; and another to allow pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription. None of these became law.

In recent months, as the $100 billion state budget faced a $24 billion shortfall, Assembly speaker Herb Wesson proposed raising the state cigarette tax from 87 cents to $3. Assembly Republicans fought the measure hard, and Davis's political guru Garry South was so disgusted with Sacramento Democrats during budget negotiations that he told the New York Times, "Everybody wants everything now. They try to ram things down the governor's throat without any analysis or thoughtful consideration of the impact it has on the governor or the image it gives of the State of California and the governance of our state."

Senate Republican Caucus communications director H.D. Palmer complains that, even as state revenues shrink, Democrats in the legislature are indifferent to the need for job creation. There's little doubt that they will soon propose steep taxes on "the rich," higher tobacco taxes, and even more imaginative recycling fees. And it's only a matter of time until a Democrat writes a bill requiring employers to contribute to the state family-leave program.

The worst of it is, says GOP strategist Dan Schnur, the legislature "is about to get lefter. Up and down the state, Sheila Kuehl's candidates won primaries against more moderate Democrats. For the last four years the state's business leaders have had to work harder and harder to find enough moderate Democrats to work with. By January, when the new class comes in, it will be impossible." Against that backdrop, a vacillating "moderate" governor offers little reassurance.

Debra J. Saunders writes a nationally syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.