For me, spring break means heading back home to California, that “we aren’t failed yet” state where they say anything is possible, which most recently means defaulting on just about everything from home mortgages to municipal bonds.
Even Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist who spent less than three hours in the state on a layover at Los Angeles International Airport, couldn’t help but envisage its slow death just from looking around a food court. I hear that’s a bad sign, and yet, I endeavor to spend a week in this place where some 36.9 million brave souls call home.
But as much as I am utterly awestruck by the ineptitude of the state’s governing apparatus, and utterly appalled by the general indifference towards actually reforming it, I cannot escape the fact that I remain a Californian, and as a Californian, I am obliged to do something about it.
On Thursday, a Daily Kos-Research 2000 poll released numbers on the state’s upcoming gubernatorial race: Jerry Brown (D) leads Meg Whitman (R), but only barely. I would normally disregard the results of a gubernatorial election since the institutional framework and composition of the state’s government, regardless of its executive, render it legislatively impotent and at the mercy of plebiscitary whim. However, there’s reason to believe this year will be different.
Right now, there is a movement in California to rewrite the state constitution and rectify the many flaws that have been festering within it for decades. While I don’t think constitutional reform can reshape the social attitudes that produce, and would reproduce these flaws, I also don’t think the likely impermanence of reform is grounds to reject it altogether. The idea is also wildly popular in California: nearly 75 percent of voters support a constitutional convention.
So what does constitutional reform have to do with the governorship?
Earlier this month, the organization campaigning for the constitutional convention (Repair California) exhausted its funding. In the regrettable realm of California politics, this meant that the organization no longer could afford to pay professional petitioning companies to collect, organize, present and defend the signatures necessary to place the convention enacting propositions on the November ballot. Since it is nearly impossible for three-fourths of both state houses to agree on anything, let alone pass a revolutionary motion like a constitutional convention, reform effectively died with Repair California.
That is, unless the next Governor of California makes constitutional reform a central issue of his or her administration and uses his or her campaign and party funds to introduce a slate of ballot initiatives on their own. The idea is not without precedent. Using these tactics, Governor Schwarzenegger circumnavigated both state houses to propose economic policies in 2006 and 2008.
There is really only one reason why a sitting Governor would oppose organized public reform: it is politically unsavory for current politicians. In all likelihood, a panel of constitutional experts, legal scholars, business leaders and qualified citizens will denude state representatives—who currently boast a mighty 11 percent approval rating that barely edges such luminaries as Pinochet and Fidel Castro—of much of their power.
Indeed, since the state’s crisis is ultimately fiscal, reform would necessarily detach legislators from the treasure trove tax code and streamline regulatory provisions. These reforms expropriate two powerful instruments that politicians use to win favors from powerful lobbies with deep pockets. If a governor is to propose such reform, he or she must be willing to accept the limitations it will likely place on his or her ability to raise the funds needed to remain politically viable.
There is only one person currently running for Governor in California who, I believe, is willing to accept these consequences, and he is a 72-year-old former Governor without illusions of higher office, nor long-term political attachments to the Governorship. But Jerry Brown is not only a viable martyr because he is at the end of his political career, but also because he carries in him the spirit of revolutionary breakthrough. Creating “a new beginning” has been the essence of Brown’s 40 years in politics, and the reinvention of California is already in his heart.
At the end of the day, what have we to lose? If there is no reform, California creeps closer to collapse and it makes no difference who captains the sinking ship. If there is reform, California might yet have a chance. The question is who is more likely to deliver on that reform: an inexperienced political upstart with connections to the chamber of commerce and a political record to ruin with a radical first decision, or a veteran statesman with nothing to lose?
It might be spring break, but this one’s a no-brainer.