Pa Joad: Ain't you goin' with us?
Casey: I'd like to. There's somethin' goin' on out there in the West, and I'd like to try and learn what it is.
--The Grapes of Wrath
More than 60 years after John Steinbeck's Oakies headed west, California retains its power to confound--or even astound. Over the past decade, America's megastate has been transformed beyond recognition, demographically, economically, politically. The state that only yesterday gave the nation Richard Nixon, Howard Jarvis's Proposition 13, and Ronald Reagan is today the nation's most reliably Democratic big state. Indeed, with its Democratic governor, U.S. senators, state legislature, and congressional delegation, California is the only one of the nation's 10 largest states that is uniformly under Democratic control.
California is more than just the Democrats' electoral anchor, however. Increasingly, a number of its cities are coming to look like Justice Louis Brandeis's "laboratories of democracy"--enacting minimum wage, health care, and worker-rights ordinances that would normally be the responsibility of the federal government (if only the feds could be interested in the conditions of working-class life). In city after city, a civic left has emerged in California, with the state's new-model labor movement--the most dynamic in the country--at its core.
As I was writing this article, for instance, two back-to-back events dramatized just how deep and wide the transformation of California really is. On April 24, several locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union announced that they'd reached an agreement with Gigante Supermarkets--a Mexican chain with big plans to come into Southern California--to allow for the uncontested unionization of its employees. A day earlier, the elected supervisors of suburban Ventura County--long a Republican bastion--voted to enact a living-wage ordinance for county contract workers.
Neither of these events rated a front-page story or even a big-type headline inside, but both were utterly stunning. Reaching the deal with Gigante required all the political smarts and muscle of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council that has emerged in California over the past half-decade as the sine qua non of progressive change in California. There are 88 separate municipalities in Los Angeles County, an increasing number of them heavily Latino. And for the past several years, as Gigante has tried to site stores in those cities, the county labor federation has had enough clout in city after city--as a result of backing candidates and building religious and community coalitions--to block the necessary approvals, until finally the company agreed to a unionized workforce.
The Ventura living wage was even more of a bolt from the blue. California is home to a number of municipal living-wage coalitions, but they're found disproportionately in major metropolises or in college towns--that is, on liberal terrain. Ventura County--a former agricultural backwater that's now home to white L.A. exurbanites and a Latino working class--is nobody's idea of liberal terrain. Until recently, it's been solid Republican turf; in 1992 it was home to the Simi Valley jury that acquitted the cops who beat Rodney King. Now, however, its increasing Latinoization and the social liberalism of a growing number of its L.A. commuters has led sleepy, staid Ventura to join the ranks of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Santa Cruz in living-wage land.
A New Political Culture
Broadly speaking, the moving force behind both the Gigante accord and the Ventura living wage--and behind Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, the passage by voters of mega-bond measures for schools and parks, and their enactment of a ballot measure dismantling some of the fiscal mischief of the Howard Jarvis era--is one and the same. It is the state's burgeoning labor-Latino alliance, which is fueled by a massive immigration from Mexico and Central America and shaped by a labor movement that has become the tribune not only for low-wage workers but for immigrant Californians generally. If Villaraigosa is elected mayor, his victory will clearly be a testament to the strength of the labor-Latino alliance. Even if he loses to the other finalist, the more conventionally liberal James Hahn, the alliance will remain the most potent force in L.A. and statewide politics--and it will only grow.
Over the past couple of months, however, California Democrats have been growing nervous, and understandably so. The energy crisis has already consumed so much state funding that newly expanded social spending may be cut. The eternally temporizing Democratic governor, Gray Davis, is losing public support. Even so, Republican elected officials are running faster from George W. Bush's profiteer-friendly energy policies than Democrats are running from Davis's positions. Then again, Davis doesn't really have positions. The irony is that while the public favors immediate government intervention, up to and including seizing the power plants [see "Power to the People," by William Bradley, on page 24], Davis's Prufrockian caution has kept the state from the kind of bold activism that in this exceptional circumstance would win public acclaim.
Yet it's hard to see how the fallout from the energy crisis could fundamentally reverse the leftward evolution of California politics. Republicans, after all, are in trouble for their obeisance to the market; Democrats, for their hesitancy to devise an alternative to the market. And beneath the politics of energy, there are deeper tectonic movements in the state that portend a shift even further toward progressivism.
Indeed, the labor-Latino alliance is far from the only factor pushing Golden State politics to the left. California's social liberalism on such issues as environmentalism, gender equity, and choice is strong and getting stronger. And California's new progressive in-migration has been complemented by conservative out-migration.
The California makeover begins with the fall of aerospace. Other than the nations of the former Soviet bloc, no place was more affected by the end of the Cold War than California. Since World War II, the state had been the center of the aerospace industry; but when the Berlin Wall fell, it dragged down much of the California economy with it. Pentagon spending declined nationally, but it dropped disproportionately in California: During the Reagan presidency, the state accounted for 20 percent of stateside defense spending; now, just 12 percent. Inflation-adjusted Pentagon spending in California is less than half today what it was in 1988.
California aerospace employed engineers as well as unionized blue-collar workers--both groups disproportionately white and socially conservative. When the industry suddenly contracted, hundreds of thousands of middle-income jobs simply disappeared. The result was massive out-migration. In the 1990s, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, the number of Californians moving to other states exceeded the number of Americans moving to California by two million. Just between mid-1993 and mid-1994, the net loss to other states was 400,000.
But still, the state filled up--because immigrants continued to pour in from Asia and, most especially, Latin America. In the newly released census results, California is now a "majority minority" state. Whites today constitute 47 percent of the state population, with Latinos at 32 percent, Asians at 11 percent, and African Americans at 7 percent.
With the decimation of aerospace, the middle fell out of the California economy. When the recession ended, Los Angeles remained the nation's largest manufacturing hub--but increasingly it was nonunion manufacturing, whether in metals or garments. In construction, too, there was a massive substitution of nonunion workers for union, while the fast-growing service sector had been nonunion from the outset. Southern California in particular became home to a vast, low-wage, Latino working class.
Economic conditions are considerably better in California today than in 1994, but the basic configurations of income distribution still make clear the declining economic condition of California workers. In the boom year of 1999, Californians at the 25th income percentile were making 9 percent less than their counterparts in the boom year of 1969; Californians at the 10th income percentile were making 14 percent less. Today, fully seven million Californians lack health insurance.
The change is most apparent in Los Angeles County, which grew by 7.4 percent during the 1990s while the number of Angelenos in poverty rose by 64 percent. Indeed, if the transformation of California is astounding, the transformation of Los Angeles--and I write as an almost lifelong Angeleno--almost defies comprehension. Los Angeles, after all, was the one major American city least affected by the great second wave of immigrants that brought millions of Italians, Poles, Jews, and Slovaks to other cities between 1880 and 1924. Los Angeles hardly got any of them; instead, its business elite recruited fellow Wasps from Iowa, Ohio, and across the Midwest. Straight through 1950, Los Angeles was the most white and Protestant of U.S. cities.
Today, Los Angeles is the major American city most affected by the third great wave of immigrants. The whitest city has become the least white: Of the seven largest cities in the 2000 census, Los Angeles has the smallest share of whites, just 29.7 percent. Nor is that the only total reversal in Los Angeles's identity. What was in the early years of the last century the bastion of the open shop is now home to the most dynamic union movement in the land.
Los Angeles's political identity has changed utterly, too. Last November, Los Angeles County voted for Al Gore at exactly the same rates as the seven counties of the traditionally far-more-liberal San Francisco Bay Area. And since when has Los Angeles been as liberal as San Francisco? In fact, this transformation has been ongoing for the past decade. In 1988 the county gave Michael Dukakis 52.1 percent support, which was 4.3 percentage points higher than the state average. In 1992 it gave Bill Clinton 52.5 percent support, or 6.5 points higher than the state average. In 1996 Clinton won 59.3 percent of the vote, 8.2 points higher than the overall California figure. And last November, Al Gore's 63.5 percent in Los Angeles was fully 10 points higher than his state total. In both San Francisco and Los Angeles, moreover, a growing gay and lesbian population--estimated by some surveys at 6 percent of the state's electorate--is itself voting more Democratic. (Gore pulled down 70 percent of the California gay vote last November.)
Los Angeles is not the only part of the state moving left: California's increasingly Latino suburbs in San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura, and northern Orange Counties are moving left too, as are some Bay Area exurbs. But it's fair to say that the makeover of the L.A. metropolitan area is what's driving the whole state in a more Democratic, and liberal, direction.
For years the conventional wisdom about the future of California politics was based on two very shaky precepts: first, that the inland parts of the state were growing more than the filled-up coastal parts--a trend that would shift the state rightward; and second, that when Latinos finally got around to voting, their cultural conservatism would shift the state rightward, too.
In both instances, the premises were correct but the conclusions fundamentally wrong. The inland regions--the San Joaquin Valley, the Sierra, the deserts--are indeed more conservative. At the same time, all the long-standing Republican strongholds in the suburbs of the coastal cities from Los Angeles north have been turning Democratic, more than compensating for the interior's GOP tilt. As for Latinos, their cultural traditionalism is real and of a piece with almost every immigrant group to this country. Their economic progressivism, however, has consistently trumped their cultural conservatism.
As Ventura County makes clear, there are really two forces driving coastal California toward the Democrats. First, from Santa Barbara to Silicon Valley, an older white population is being supplanted by younger, more liberal white professionals in high-tech and service professions. Second, Latinoization has altered the entire Southern California landscape. Whites are a minority now in the San Fernando Valley and in northern Orange County. Of the six Latino members of Congress from the Los Angeles metropolitan area, only two have districts preponderantly within the L.A. city limits. The other four represent districts as far from downtown Los Angeles as San Bernardino and the Orange County seat.
The three L.A.-area congressional districts that have seen the greatest change over the past decade were home to the state's greatest concentration of aerospace manufacturing. In 1990 the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena area housed a major Lockheed Martin factory that by mid-decade was being rented out to the movie studios and a design college. In the seven years from 1993 to 2000, aerospace workers moved out, yuppie studio employees and blue-collar Latinos moved in, and GOP registration declined by 7 percent. In 1996 the area sent two Democratic assembly members and a Democratic state senator to Sacramento for the first time since the 1930s (in one assembly district, for the first time since 1916). Last November, Democrat Adam Schiff unseated Republican incumbent Jim Rogan, House prosecutor and grand inquisitor, by a hefty 9-point margin in the most expensive House race in U.S. history.
A similar makeover took place in the other two districts--in Los Angeles's South Bay (once home to North American Aviation and Rockwell Standard) and in Long Beach (home to a McDonnell Douglas plant that had been the largest factory in the nation). Long Beach, which in the 1930s had more "Iowa Clubs" than any other part of the state, is now represented in the assembly by progressive Latino and Jewish members, and it has a strong living-wage movement. Democrat Jane Harman unseated the Republican incumbent in the South Bay district last November, while Democrat Gerrie Schipske came within a single percentage point of unseating Republican incumbent Steve Horn (whom the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee never fully targeted).
In sum, from the top of the ticket on down, from president to city council, entire regions of the state have flipped their political identity. Since 1994, Republicans have lost 11 assembly seats, three state senate seats, and five U.S. House seats. Democrats now outnumber Republicans 5030 in the state assembly, 2614 in the state senate, and 3220 in the state's congressional delegation. They control six of the seven statewide elective offices and both U.S. Senate seats. And Al Gore carried California by 11.8 percent--though George W. Bush dropped $15 million campaigning in the state while Gore spent just a couple hundred thousand.
The Labor-Latino Alliance
None of this would have happened, of course, if Latino immigrants had not become citizens and flocked to the polls to vote chiefly for liberal Democrats. The two individuals who deserve the most credit for this sea change in California politics are former Governor Pete Wilson, the Republican who sent Latinos screaming into the streets with his 1994 initiative to deny public services to undocumented immigrants, and Miguel Contreras, who, as head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor since 1996, has done more than anyone to channel that outrage into hard, progressive politics.
These days, Wilson has become a pariah in Republican circles--kept far from podiums at national and state GOP conclaves. (At the party's national convention in Philadelphia last summer, I chanced upon Wilson and his wife lunching in one of the city's ritziest hotels, a venue filled with GOP moneymen and hierarchs. No one came over to greet them; the couple might as well have dined within an isolation booth.) Certainly, the intense backlash against Proposition 187, which would have tossed the children of undocumented immigrants out of public school, and against Proposition 209, another Wilson-backed measure, which has greatly held down black and Latino enrollment at the University of California, is partly responsible for California Latinos' Democratic tilt. Al Gore won the support of 68 percent of California Latinos last November, considerably higher than the 62 percent he won nationally.
But the funding of the naturalization programs and the financing and running of voter education and get-outthe-vote campaigns have been the handiwork largely of the new, Latino-led labor movement generally and of Miguel Contreras in particular. An organizer first for the United Farm Workers and then for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), Contreras took the helm at the Los Angeles County Federation in the spring of 1996. Since then, the labor federation, known as the Fed, has built a political operation the likes of which Los Angeles has not previously seen. Mobilizing thousands of member volunteers, with the most loyal and hardworking invariably provided by two almost entirely immigrant locals--HERE's hotel workers and janitors affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)--the Fed has plunged itself into 23 hotly contested congressional, legislative, and city council races around Los Angeles in the past five years and has won 22 of them.
Characteristically, a Fed campaign--which involves mail, phone banks, precinct walking, and work site proselytizing--has two target audiences: union members and new immigrant voters. Focusing on these populations, and framing these races around core economic concerns, the Fed has fundamentally altered the volume and character of Latino political participation. In April's Los Angeles mayoral primary (in which the Fed was Antonio Villaraigosa's most fervent supporter), the Latino share of the turnout rose to 20 percent, up from a scant 8 percent when Republican Richard Riordan was first elected mayor in 1993. And in last November's balloting, Latinos constituted 15 percent of the California electorate--up from 12 percent in 1996 and 9 percent in 1992.
The new Latino voters do live up to the hopes of conservative strategists when it comes to cultural issues. In 1996, when Californians legalized medical marijuana by initiative, Latino voters opposed it. Last year, when state voters approved an initiative banning gay marriage, Latino voters gave the measure stronger support than non-Latinos. Like every immigrant group before them, with the exceptions only of the defeated German revolutionaries of 1848 and the Eastern European Jewish socialists, the migrants from Mexico and Central America hewed to traditional mores.
But as wedge issues splitting Latinos from other liberals, these measures were utter failures. While voting to the right on cultural questions, Latinos were voting to the left--well to the left--on economic matters. Compared with African Americans, they were more supportive of both a 1996 initiative to raise the minimum wage and a giant 1998 school bond measure. They were more decisive even than union members in rejecting a 1998 initiative from Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to curtail union political-action programs (Latinos rejected the measure by a 75-to25-percent margin). On using the state and unions to promote economic opportunity, Latinos are the single most progressive voting bloc in California.
In candidate races, the Fed has often supported--in all but one instance, successfully--Latino candidates with labor backgrounds who were running against more centrist, nationalistic Hispanic candidates. In last year's Democratic primaries, the Fed achieved three notable successes of progressivecoalition politics over tribal politics. In two races for open assembly seats, the group persuaded a majority of Latino immigrants to vote for non-Latino prolabor candidates (one a Jewish lesbian, the other an African American) over their Latino opponents. In the third, the Fed supported State Senator Hilda Solis--a sterling environmentalist and feminist, who had jump-started the 1996 initiative campaign for a higher minimum wage with a $50,000 contribution from her own campaign coffers--against incumbent Democratic Congressman Marty Martinez, a dim-bulb 18-year veteran who two years earlier had offered to vote for the Clinton administration's fast-track trade-negotiating authority in return for White House support for a freeway extension. Solis's 69-to-31-percent victory was one of a precious few instances in modern political history in which a progressive Democrat ousted a centrist incumbent. As Contreras saw it, it also marked an extension of the Fed's political operation to the county's working- and middle-class suburbs.
For Contreras, the capstone would be a win for Villaraigosa in the L.A. mayoral campaign, which will be decided June 5. Contreras and Villaraigosa go way back in labor and Latino politics; Villaraigosa is a former community and union organizer and was a leader--along with Maria Elena Durazo (the president of Los Angeles HERE Local 11 and Contreras's wife)--of a radical student-community group in the early 1970s. April's mayoral primary was a classic Fed campaign, with thousands of members padding their way through the Latino neighborhoods of the Eastside and East San Fernando Valley. When they were done, Villaraigosa carried the Latino vote (in a six-candidate field) by a 62-to-17-percent margin over Congressman Xavier Becerra, who epitomized the more nationalist and centrist kind of candidate that the Fed has been opposing for years [see Harold Meyerson, "City of Tomorrow," TAP, April 9, 2001].
The End of Proposition 13
Latinoization has also transformed California's fiscal politics. After two decades during which major bond measures routinely failed, Californians since 1998 have enacted a massive $9.2-billion school bond measure and a $2-billion initiative for parks and open-space preservation. More fundamentally, last November state voters endorsed a measure reducing the proportion of votes a local school-bond measure needs for enactment from two-thirds to 55 percent.
With these changes made by the electorate, the dead hand of Howard Jarvis has finally been lifted from California public life. Jarvis's 1978 initiative, Proposition 13, had effectively made it impossible for local governments and school districts to raise property taxes to fund new projects. With its passage, school construction, save in largely exurban new developments, ground to a halt. During this same period, immigration has led to more and more children squeezing into California's increasingly overcrowded classrooms; two years ago, the state ranked at the absolute national bottom in average class size. For the past 20 years, an aging white electorate easily rejected bond measures for more schools; after all, it only took a one-third vote to doom such proposals.
With the uptick in Latino voting in 1996, however, the rate of bond approval began moving upward too. The gap between the voting public and the people who need public services began to narrow. It was this, as well as the rising prosperity, that led Gray Davis to propose these increases in state spending--though he had to be prompted by Villaraigosa, who was the assembly speaker at the time, and state senate leader John Burton. The same legislative leadership also successfully leaned on Davis's predecessor, Pete Wilson, to expand the scope of the Healthy Families Program to children and parents in families earning as much as 250 percent of the poverty rate; and last year, it created the most generous grant program in the nation to help low-income students attend state colleges.
Public investment has long been dysfunctionally low in California; a 1998 report from the California Budget Project concluded that while the state spent one dollar out of every $100 of personal income on schools, roads, bridges, and the like during the Pat Brown glory days of the 1960s, it was spending just 7 cents out of every $100 of personal income on such things by the late 1990s. Prosperity and Latino voting are turning that around--though the state's finances are taking a major hit right now from both the energy meltdown and the Silicon Valley slowdown. But both setbacks will pass. With the shift in the composition of the electorate, the public now supports state spending. The de-Jarvisization of California is well under way.
It's on the local level, however, that California progressives have achieved their greatest victories. The pervasiveness of immigrant-and-working-class poverty and the unwillingness of the federal government to address it is increasingly leading cities to move into such areas as minimum wages, health insurance, and workers' rights to form unions. A pluralized version of Hillel's first question--If we are not for ourselves, who shall be for us?--is being sounded in cities up and down the state.
Consider, for instance, the evolution of the living wage in California. As adopted initially in Los Angeles, and then in San Francisco, San Jose, and smaller cities around the state, the approach mandated that companies that contract with the city pay their employees an hourly wage about $1.50 over the state minimum with health benefits or about $2.50 over the state minimum without. As the dot-com boom sent rents soaring in the Bay Area, however, San Francisco, San Jose, and other cities raised the figures several dollars higher.
In Los Angeles, the nation's most innovative living-wage coalition moved off in other directions--in particular, to increase the scope of the ordinances to cover more than just the small number of city contract workers. In Hollywood, with the help of thenCity Councilwoman (now Assemblywoman) Jackie Goldberg, a theater-hotel-retail complex being built with city redevelopment assistance is bound by an explicit commitment not only that the hotel-and-theater workers will be free to join a union--which they have done--but that the employees at the Gaps and Banana Republics going up there will be paid the living wage as well. In Santa Monica, a separate city governed by a left DemocratGreen coalition, a proposal is advancing to create a coastal zone in which employees of large businesses--namely, the posh beachfront hotels--will receive a living wage from their employers as well. And one plank in the Villaraigosa platform is that employers who are beneficiaries of city redevelopment funding--chain stores, large restaurants, hotels--be required to pay a living wage, too.
Working closely with the County Fed, the L.A. living-wage movement is thus extending the measure's reach well into the private sector (but not into manufacturing, since garment makers, unlike hotel owners, can easily plunk their operations south of the border). In some service industries, however, the threat of a living wage is really an inducement to some employers--the beachfront hotels, certainly--to allow unions into their establishments.
Indeed, much of the L.A.-area living-wage campaign is part of labor's efforts at what writer Kelly Candaele has called "organizing by other means." Through its election day clout and the strength of the living-wage and other labor-community coalitions it has nurtured, the local labor movement has achieved the unionization of employees in airport concessions (such as duty-free shops) not unionized elsewhere and breakthroughs such as snaring the chain of Gigante Supermarkets, which will eventually include 200 stores. The SEIU's megavictory of 1999--organizing 74,000 L.A. home-care workers, the largest single unionization of workers since the United AutoWorkers organized Ford in 1941--was actually the work of more than a decade, and chiefly an exercise in political organizing: bringing pressure on the state legislature and the county supervisors to amend the law and provide the funds to enable the workers to unionize, with a small raise. At the state level, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (former general manager of an SEIU local and a boyhood friend of Villaraigosa) authored and, remarkably, persuaded Gray Davis to sign a bill forbidding state contracts from going to any company engaged in anti-union activities among its workers. A new Cedillo bill wending its way through the legislature requires companies with state contracts to recognize unions when a majority of their employees sign union affiliation cards.
The epochal L.A. janitors strike of a year ago last spring relied on the mobilization of thousands of dedicated members but also involved political support from just about every elected official in a 50-mile radius. (It didn't hurt that the janitors had walked more precincts than any other local union in Los Angeles.) When it was done, a union almost entirely composed of immigrant workers had won a 26 percent, three-year raise from some of the nation's largest commercial property owners. [See Harold Meyerson, "A Clean Sweep," TAP, June 19July 3, 2000.]
In the course of waging and winning these battles, Los Angeles's union movement--much like the garment unions in New York in the early years of the last century--has become the tribune for the city's immigrant population and the Latino working class. Both the hotel workers and the janitors won innovative provisions in their contracts requiring employers to hold jobs open for a year for workers deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It was California unions that took the lead in persuading the national AFL-CIO to drop its long-standing support for sanctions against employers who hire undocumented immigrants; and it was the Los Angeles County Fed that sponsored the nation's largest rally calling for a new amnesty for immigrants.
Los Angeles is not the only major California city with an especially innovative union movement. Under the leadership of Amy Dean, the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council in San Jose--that is, Silicon Valley--has taken a leaf from the old guild model and offers training, benefits, and a hiring hall to the high-tech temps so beloved by new-economy employers. Ultimately, however, the critical factor in the growing influence of organized labor in California is the fact that the state's dominant union is the SEIU. Encompassing the state's major public-sector locals for both state and local governments, its leading health-care and home-care locals, and the now fabled janitors local, the SEIU is the largest AFL-CIO union in California. Under the leadership of President Andy Stern, it is also by far the most committed to organizing: Fully 47 percent of the SEIU's budget goes to organizing, and hundreds of enthusiastic, chiefly young organizers crisscross the state on unionizing campaigns. A much smaller union, but the power behind many of the state's living-wage coalitions, is the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees.
Many states with larger, more established union movements than California's are sinking under the dead weight of old industrial unions that lack the will and the smarts to organize, and whose political muscle and community bona fides have long since diminished. California is fortunate that its movement is dominated by the most active, strategically savvy unions in the country--unions that can build enough community goodwill and political moxie to keep a major supermarket chain out of dozens of separate municipalities until that chain agrees to a unionized workforce.
Death by Brownout?
But is this emerging California model now in danger? The state's lifestyle liberalism, its renewed commitment to public investment, its municipal social-justice movements, its Democratic tilt--are they all imperiled by the energy crisis?
Probably not, though are some setbacks. The first budgetary casualty is public investment. Already, a projected $8-billion surplus has turned into a deficit, what with the dot-com bust costing the state $3.4 billion in anticipated tax revenues and $6 billion in public funds going for energy purchases that the state's private utility companies can longer afford to make themselves. Additional state funds for affordable housing and expanded health insurance, two progressive goals that appeared eminently realizable at the start of the year, now seem unlikely to materialize.
The energy crisis is clearly not a problem of Gray Davis's making. Davis was lieutenant governor when Pete Wilson and his free-marketeers, abetted by sundry corporate lobbyists, persuaded the legislature to deregulate the industry in 1996. But since the crisis first erupted, Davis has engaged in truly world-class dithering. At times wooing the utilities and then opposing them, negotiating with the power companies and ignoring them, calling for public power but refusing to seize any assets, he has been a cumulative marvel of self-negation. His State of the State address last January was a performance painful to behold. Prompted by State Treasurer Philip Angelides and Senate President John Burton, both staunch and canny progressives, Davis vowed to establish a public power authority. As he approached the dread suggestion, however, his speech grew halting, his body swayed; plainly, he was dizzied and breathless from his own display of decisiveness. Forced to choose between his donor base and the demands of the public, Davis brought to mind nothing so much as the old Jack Benny routine in which Benny, whose character was a notorious skinflint, is accosted by a holdup man who threatens, "Your money or your life." A long silence follows, until finally, the bandit is obliged to repeat his demand. "I'm thinking it over!" Benny replies. And so was Gray.
He had a lot to think about. A report by Peter Asmus for California Common Cause has revealed that Davis received $345,000 from Southern California Edison and $196,000 from Pacific Gas and Electric over the past two election cycles; and that in the 19992000 time frame, he collected at least $260,000 from power generators, including $83,000 or more from the southern energy cartel.
So Davis dithered, and the Republicans--who have nowhere to go but up in California--saw an opportunity. "My guess is that this energy thing has given them new hope," says Howard Berman, a longtime Democratic congressman from California. "Remember, it wasn't that their candidates in 1980 were so sterling; they were just swept in with Reagan."
Indeed, for a number of offices, California Republican candidates aren't just weak, they're barely visible. After Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren, the presumptive favorite, lost the governor's office to Davis by 20 percentage points in 1998, and after Congressman Tom Campbell, who was as moderate as Lungren was conservative, lost the senate race to Dianne Feinstein by 19 points last November, finding a Republican who wants to run statewide remains a difficult task. Arnold Schwarzenegger has opted to film another Terminator sequel. California Secretary of State Bill Jones has declared against Davis, but his decision last spring to jump from the Bush to the McCain campaign made him something of a pariah in GOP circles. Banker William Simon, Jr., son of former Secretary of the Treasury William Simon, Sr., has let his minions announce that he may run, though he is invisible not just to state voters but to Republican activists.
And once Republicans get past the frisson of Gray's troubles, they run up against the fact that the energy crisis offers the least hospitable climate imaginable for their core freemarket, deregulation nostrums. They routinely argue that governmental intervention in the energy business will only lead to disaster, even while it's increasingly apparent to Californians that only the state's municipally owned utilities provide reliable and affordable power to their customers.
Four members of the state's GOP congressional delegation have broken ranks and implored President Bush to make the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission impose price caps on the power companies. But three GOP House members from California recently voted in committee against those caps. We'll see how this let-'em-eat-ideology approach plays at election time next year.
Among Democrats, however, a nervousness persists that Davis is sleepwalking his way toward calamity. Just how extensive that calamity could be is anybody's guess. No one I've spoken to believes that the Democrats could lose control of any of the state's legislative delegations: The state has simply become much too Democratic for that. But the Gov's nonperformance does have a number of Democrats casting wistful glances at State Treasurer Phil Angelides--the first figure when the crisis broke out to call for a state public power authority, and an administrator widely hailed for his programs to redirect public-pension-fund investments into inner-city and inner-ring-suburban developments. It had been widely assumed that Angelides would be a compelling, progressive candidate for governor when Davis was term-limited out of office in 2006. Now, talk of Angelides in 2002 is bubbling up across the state.
The most likely political consequence of the energy crisis, however, will be a status-quo reapportionment. With incumbents increasingly nervous about the politics of 2002, districts are likely to be carved with an eye more toward incumbent protection than toward creating the maximal number of Democratic seats. Then again, Democrats made all their gains over the past decade in districts created by the old conservative order--by technicians overseen by Republican-appointed judges. Republican legislators have already been relegated to the most distant suburbs. Just how secure a base exurbia proves to be--with constituents who have the longest commutes in the state, while gas prices soar and W. naps--remains to be seen.
My hunch is that California's newfound identity as a laboratory of both Democracy and democracy will survive the energy crisis and the Davis doldrums. The demographic changes, the economic needs, the attitudinal shifts, and the institutional strengths are all too deep to be negated by the current idiocy. Like New York before the New Deal--like the New York that inspired the New Deal--California has responded to the economic travails and political opportunities that have come with its immigrant workers by getting out in front of much of the nation, by creating a model of social equity, of worker and public power, at a time of capital supremacy. A full continent off-Broadway, the next New Deal is in tryouts.
See the related Sounding Board California's Progressive Transformation: What Made California Work? And Is It Replicable?