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Gray's Days in California.


Los Angeles

On this past election night, a line of jubilant United Farm Workers activists rolled through the sea of humanity outside the Biltmore Hotel ballroom where famously bland Governor-elect Gray Davis had just delivered one of his sharper speeches, his declaration of victory. "Si se puede," they chanted gleefully. Yes, it can be done. Meanwhile, walking past them in the opposite direction with a very grim look on his face, was Davis's oldest media enemy, syndicated columnist Dan Walters, a booster of outgoing Republican Governor Pete Wilson. Indeed, it was a bad night for those who had started taking for granted their position of dominance after sixteen years of Republican rule in California. Outgoing Governor Wilson's hopes for a lasting positive legacy were shattered by the results, as was the final vestige of California as a redoubt of Reaganism. Davis had just waltzed away with the biggest victory in a California governor's race without an incumbent since Pat Brown's triumph forty years ago.

Davis had been written off by almost all the experts, who first believed that Senator Dianne Feinstein would run and win; then that one of two unqualified super-rich candidates, Beverly Hills investor Al Checchi or Representative Jane Harman, would beat him for the Democratic nomination; and finally that Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren, the self-styled heir of Reaganism, would win the general election. Davis surprised even his own advisers with his 58 percent to 38 percent margin of victory, which was eerily the same as when the last Democratic victor, Jerry Brown, won re-election in 1978. In so doing, Davis may well have established California as a new Democratic stronghold. Despite a record low turnout, a whopping 25 percent lower than during the Brown landslide, most of the Democratic ticket was swept into office in the Davis landslide, with Barbara Boxer turning her close Senate re-election race into a ten-point romp over hapless Republican Matt Fong. With increased Democratic majorities in the legislature, Democrats were poised to tighten their grip on the Golden State in the post-2000 Census reapportionment, when the state will receive several more seats in Congress and more votes in the Electoral College. California already holds 20 percent of the electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Wilson, one of the most successful politicians in California history, left behind neither a potential successor nor a comeback ideology, as his clever blend of fiscal conservatism, moderate environmentalism and social liberalism at last ran aground on the shoals of just too many initiatives targeting nonwhites and lower-income folks. Voters rebuffed the Wilson-sponsored Proposition 8 education initiative by nearly two to one. The California Latino vote, which Wilson had aroused with the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187, went 77 percent to 17 percent for Davis. In the end, the most visible monument to the reign of Wilson was the winning of the Statehouse by Jerry Brown's former chief of staff--Gray Davis. In fact, Wilson was ending his gubernatorial stint less popular than the favorite butt of his jokes: Jerry Brown. "It's a new era tonight," noted a Budweiser-sipping top Davis adviser while partying at the Democratic headquarters. "Now we need to lock in the machinery to lock it in for us."

The bitterness that has filled California, Republican ranks since Election Day tells you it just wasn't supposed to turn out this way. The eight-year Wilson period had commenced on a very different note. Coming into office at a time when the Golden State, after a rocky few years, was again growing as a global center of transnational capitalism and accelerating cross-border flows of ideas, money and people, Pete Wilson began by declaring a new era of progressive conservatism. "We're going to change the Republican Party--first on the West Coast, then nationally," his campaign manager, Otto Bos, crowed to me over dinner in early 1991. Bos was Wilson's closest adviser and chief spokesman as his governorship began. A Sierra Club member, Bos spoke of a new-wave Republicanism of which Wilson would be standard-bearer: fiscally conservative but proactive on questions of social welfare.

"Preventive government," they called it: finding ways to use government to intervene earlier in the cycle of welfare dependency, short-circuiting future problems through early-childhood development and nutrition, remedial education and special job-training programs, all the while avoiding any scapegoating of welfare recipients. It sounded good, and the atmospherics were in place: The cover photo on the printed version of Wilson's first State of the State address was notably multiracial, featuring many Latino kids. And the governor made an early in-your-face speech to the Hoover Institution confronting its intransigent conservatism. But then Bos, a onetime All-American soccer player, died of a heart attack during a weekend warrior game. And as California sank into the recession of the early nineties, the heart drained out of the Wilson administration. The governor turned to more traditional Republican operatives from the party's Nixon wing.

In his second State of the State address, Wilson rolled out the old Republican rhetoric, targeting welfare mothers as the key to budgetary problems and eagerly embracing the old canard that teenage girls have more babies in order to gorge themselves on the public teat. Then Wilson sponsored a welfare cuts initiative in 1992, the first of a series of wedge issues. It lost, but 1994's Proposition 187, cutting benefits to illegal immigrants, powered his come-from-behind re-election drive against Kathleen Brown. And 1996's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, which he pushed to energize his abortive presidential campaign, also won. Wilson didn't stop there. Placing himself at the head of the Republican effort to defund union political activity, Wilson spearheaded the 1998 initiative drive to require that unions obtain permission from their members before using dues in political campaigns. But all of a sudden it seemed Wilson had gone a bridge too far to the right. This losing campaign ignited a powerful backlash from labor that helped drive the Davis victory.

Wilson came to rely on these initiative gimmicks to boost his political prospects because he has never demonstrated much personal appeal. As far back as 1982, he moved into the Senate race at the behest of GOP kingmakers who determined that their early front-runners, Barry Goldwater Jr. and Pete McCloskey, couldn't beat Jerry Brown. He won the Republican nomination for governor in 1990 only after party leaders--who first considered Clint Eastwood and 1984 Olympics boss Peter Uebberoth--cleared the way for his return from Washington. The only outstanding figure he's actually beaten is Jerry Brown, whom he topped in the 1982 Senate race. But it was a weakened Brown who was just coming off his determinedly marginal 1980 presidential campaign, was at the tail end of a tumultuous eight years as governor and was in his fifth appearance on as many statewide ballots. With all that, Wilson only eked out a six-point victory.

Wilson can't even take much credit for the relatively successful--for the moment--state economy that Davis inherits. The California economy, seventh-largest in the world, went in the tank shortly after Wilson's 1990 election. It was part of a national slowdown, aggravated in the state by major military base closures. The newly elected Wilson and his minions predicted disaster because of the base closings; instead, the economy took off as California re-emerged as one of the global leaders of this Accelerative Age, the epicenter of Milkenism, Murdochism and Wiredism. Disgraced eighties junk-bond titan Michael Milken showed that capital markets could be manipulated from anywhere, even Los Angeles. Rupert Murdoch, after shifting the center of gravity of his News Corporation empire from Adelaide to LA, blazed a trail of globalization that other media empires have followed. And, shouting from atop the wave of Silicon Valley technology inundating the world, the mavens of Wired magazine proclaimed that technological advances assured forty years of prosperity, a point of view echoed both on Wall Street and in the Clinton White House.

Now, as the millennialist Long Boom appears likely to come to an end before the millennium, California continues to be the nation's chief jobs generator. But apparel manufacturing and food processing are the leading edge. The high-value-added, world-leading sectors of high-tech and Hollywood are lagging. Layoffs are on the rise. And pro-business ideologists who once spread the gospel of entrepreneurialism free from big government have a new strategy, which is actually the old strategy of the right: more government money for the military establishment. A weakened Clinton, ever eager to embrace the precepts of the cold war national security state, has already signaled his intention to increase military spending. Neoconservative economic commentator Joel Kotkin, a staunch California booster, now worries that the state is not only headed for rough waters but also suffers from "unacceptable" levels of inequality endemic to advanced capitalism. "California's economy," he notes, "was basically fed on steroids during the Reagan era. The twin windfalls of the 1980s were defense and surplus Japanese capital. We may need some new steroids now."

The unpublished portions of a recent Los Angeles Times poll contain telling data on Californians' economic attitudes. While most respondents continue to say that they think things are "on the right track" and that the economy remains robust, almost half say that recent developments in US and foreign stock markets have made them "nervous about the United States' economic stability." And one in four say that, as a result, they intend to cut their household spending.

California now ranks forty-sixth among all states in income equality. Unionization has declined as auto, aerospace and other middle-income industries have contracted or disappeared and as the new immigrant populations from Latin America and Asia have fed the emergence of highly profitable but low-wage industries. For all the drama of leading-edge sectors of the economy, the underlying reality is stark. According to the California Budget Project, wages declined for all but the most affluent 10 percent of Californians between 1979 and 1997.

The new governor is a very cool and deliberate man, highly intelligent and disciplined, a decorated Vietnam veteran who served for seven years as the managerial ringleader of the Jerry Brown circus before going on to win election as a legislator, state controller and lieutenant governor. He was the guy in the Brown circle who didn't know the names of the Grateful Dead. Indeed, he recently asked someone what a Deadhead is. He's a loner who keeps his own counsel and doesn't like to be jostled. He doesn't panic, and he doesn't get swept away by enthusiasms. "He is the most calculating politician I've ever met anywhere in America," said one national Democratic leader.

Notwithstanding the campaign atmospherics--"I will be death on violent crime"; the constant retinue of police and veterans; the whir of approaching helicopters in the TV spots--Davis is a moderate liberal who has sometimes worked closely with Tom Hayden on environmental issues.

His backing from organized labor and virtually all environmental groups was crucial for his primary win. He prevented anti-affirmative action crusader Ward Connerly from becoming chairman of the University of California Board of Regents. He has pledged to restore the eight-hour workday--that is, to require employers to pay overtime--rescinded by Wilson and to provide tougher enforcement of health and safety laws. And he sharpened his initially vague stance on education, resolutely opposing the vouchers favored by Lungren and pledging to make it his mission to reform a misfiring public education system by focusing on poor teacher preparation and inadequate basic skills development among students.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that Davis will be the second coming of Pat Brown, the sixties builder of California's public infrastructure, much less a left-wing populist. Beyond education reform--Davis knows that patience with the public schools is wearing out, and he has accordingly signaled that he may buck the orthodoxy of his biggest contributor, the California Teachers Association, which gave him $1 million--Davis actually has a minimalist agenda. Indeed, he may govern as the great editor, picking and choosing among the plethora of bills to be offered by a newly empowered Democratic legislative majority. But as he makes these choices, he will not do so as a campaign finance reformer. He's simply too relentless a fundraiser for that. And the temptation to extend the power curve by building the Democratic machine will be great. This is a politician who is no policy wonk, who greatly prefers talking strategy and tactics in the back rooms to the oratorical and ceremonial aspects of the role, though he did out-debate the supposedly more articulate Lungren when he had to.

And what now of the Republicans, in this state whose political identity was once defined for the world by Ronald Reagan and seemed for a time as though it might be defined by Pete Wilson? In their very expensive embrace of Lungren--he soaked up more than $4 million of national Republican Party money as the GOP tried to keep pace with Davis--Republicans were victims of their Reagan enchantment. Lungren spoke the political epitaph for himself and perhaps for California Republicans twenty months ago when he declared: "Californians are more conservative than they even know." Republicans thought that Monicagate, never a factor in the governor's race, would make the Senate seat a sure pickup for them, perhaps the only explanation for Matt Fong's inert campaign. But though Clinton has a net negative favorability rating in California, the scandal wasn't much of an issue. Lungren and Fong made it easy for Davis Democrats to cast the election as a choice between taking California backward on abortion, gun control, the environment and public education--liberal issues that have become the new centrism--or moving forward into a vaguely defined future.

Californians will be especially ill prepared to make informed decisions if that future continues to darken. For California emerged during the Wilson era as an epicenter not only of the Accelerative Age but also of the encroaching End of Politics, at least as practiced in an informed democracy. For all races in California are now "down ballot." That's the term traditionally used to describe campaigns for statewide offices below the level of governor and US senator. These down-ballot races have generated only limited amounts of public attention and media coverage. Debates between the candidates have been lightly covered, if at all. Now that's true even for races for the highest offices. The closing debates in the races for governor and US senator received virtually no coverage on TV---certainly none anywhere near evening news and prime-time programs. Campaigns are almost entirely focused on paid media, and all we are left with is a display of naked greed and irresponsibility on the part of the state's TV industry and elections that turn more on what the winners are not than on what they are. Perhaps this is Pete Wilson's true legacy. He turned his politics into a weapon of mass distraction, trying to refocus public unease onto relatively powerless targets just as California's media culture was becoming ever more disconnected from its civic culture. Distract and Attack has become the dominant political mode, and record low participation is the result. It remains to be seen whether a new Gray Davis machine will change that, or merely profit from it in a more progressive way.

Bill Bradley (, who has advised Democratic presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, writes the New West Notes newsletter.
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Author:Bradley, Bill
Publication:The Nation
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 28, 1998
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