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Ernie Barrera, Petaluma
California, the Alternative to Republican Misrule
After nearly becoming a home to it, California is being looked at as something of the alternative to Tea Party rule these days. Governor Jerry Brown's direct style and transparent budget strategy have led to a waning in people's longtime pessimism about state government. Yet, with the extreme policies of other new governors dominating the news — and with Meg Whitman remaining in the public eye — one must wonder how it might have been had California gone Republican in 2010. And whether Whitman or someone else, we can expect more well-moneyed novices to throw their hat in the ring here. They frequently do.
The idea of a "Governor Whitman" can feel remote now, notably with Brown's smooth transition into his old job. But California's races were considered close, and Whitman's unprecedented self-funding ensured that she would remain competitive throughout. Also, there was constant buzz in the news about Tea Party momentum jumping all the way to the coast. As we witness a rookie Republican governor dominate the national news with a labor war in Wisconsin, it is clear that larger non-red states can flip to crimson, overnight. The shifts can border on the surreal. Florida's new governor recently refused $2.4 billion in federal funding, for high-speed rail no less.
Though conservatives lack the outsize presence in California that they had some years back, their offensive continues — statewide Democratic sweep notwithstanding. Due to Washington anti-tax icon Grover Norquist pushing statehouse Republicans to sign a "no tax" pledge, Brown's proposed tax referendum may not make it to the voters. (Norquist and Brown are now locked in battle.) Whitman herself had to run to the right in the 2010 primary to survive, and she made sure to state during the general election, "A lot of Tea Partiers were excited by my candidacy." Had she won, such excitement would have mimicked the Tea Party playbook elsewhere, with professionally funded operations immediately planted here, knives out for a prize like California.
Would a political novice have withstood that ...or have even wanted to? That is hard to say, since the former eBay CEO continues to divulge little about herself. For example, the post-race spotlight offered a good opportunity for Whitman to announce some local pet cause. Instead there has been her swearing-in to multiple boards — including Procter and Gamble's and HP's (a former employer and another Silicon Valley heavyweight).
Also, like many Tea Party candidates, Whitman employed pre-selected audiences and avoided media and editorial boards. Her campaign materials and the endless frills reminded one of a larger-scale Arnold Schwarzenegger, if such a thing could be possible. The latter, with his private-jet commute, irked Californians so much that the famously frugal Brown won major plaudits just for locking down in Sacramento and actually making himself available, to the people and the press (and even the other party).
Whitman's idea for Sacramento appeared quite different. Her call to "Take Back Sac" channeled national "Take Back America" anti-Obama slogans. With an ascendant right wing on the scene in the wake off a Whitman win, we could have expected not only cuts but also the dredging up of hot-button issues.
One can only imagine how crippling it would now be if immigration were staring down the veteran Brown. His cagey dance to fix the budget, and dysfunctional Sacramento itself, is already a study in complexity and nuance. But conservatives are nothing if not committed to their passions. Look at the replay of the health care fight in Washington this year. California Republicans are particularly passionate about immigration. They were fine with having a 2010 primary war over it, generating Arizona-like anger (while voters awaited reality-like budget solutions). Creative messaging, such as during Whitman's campaign, would not have cut it with emboldened immigration zealots. Forget her harmonious Spanish-language ads. It would have been all "tough as nails," to quote her ad featuring campaign chair and immigration warrior Pete Wilson.
Brown did win, and let's hope people continue to engage the process of moving things forward. But one would also hope that people keep in mind both what is happening in the rest of the country, and how easily it could have descended here as well. And since this is the land of the recall election, we had better stay engaged.
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