May 22, 2003
You Snooze, You Lose
This is the opposite of hypnosis. I am going to write a word, and you are not going to fall asleep. The word is, Sacramento.
For most of us, state politics function as a kind of conversational snooze button. It's hard enough to get people involved in the police and pothole issues of municipal governance. It is somewhat easier to keep their interest when it comes to national and international news. Those meaty items play out on the front pages and CNN. But the state is neither milk nor meat, and when the governor strikes so many citizens as pareve -- the personification of all that is dull and bureaucratic somewhere to the right of San Francisco -- no wonder we tune out.
In the best of times, this arrangement serves both state politicians and their public well. We send them a chunk of money each April 15, then -- talk about a blank check -- let them do what they will.
But these are among the worst of times, and our ignorance is no longer so bliss.
The state budget is facing a projected $38.2 billion shortfall, and Gov. Gray Davis' plan to cut spending and increase revenue will have far-reaching effects on our state and our lives. Elementary and higher education, health care, senior services -- every neck is on the chopping block. And, conversely, every hand is looking for a pocket: sales tax increases, bond floats of dubious efficacy, car fee hikes.
"It's a mess," confirmed Assemblyman Keith Richman, the Jewish doctor-turned-Republican legislator. "But it certainly isn't dull."
I ran into Richman at the Sacramento airport this past Tuesday. He was returning to his district, which encompasses the North San Fernando Valley and most of Simi Valley. I was returning from a visit to the Jewish Public Affairs Committee's (JPAC) annual foray to the capital. Each year, JPAC organizes informed Jewish activists to converge on legislators and educate them on issues of communal concern.
This year, many participants noticed a drop-off in attendance. About one-third of the participants, who come from Jewish federations, Jewish Community Relations Committees and other Jewish organizations from across the state, were high school and college students. Many others were staff members of Jewish organizations. That left a dwindling number of what Democratic activist Howard Welinsky called, "the influentials," caring volunteer advocates with the money and/or clout to grab a politician's attention.
Welinsky maintained that the drop-off in participation doesn't lead legislators to think that Jews no longer care, but others claimed it did. The deeper question is why the trend toward disengagement.
One reason may be a sense that the die is cast, at least as far as this budget cycle is concerned.
"The governor told us there's no money," said one activist with convincing finality. "There's no money."
Another reason may be a sense that the capital is the Vegas of politics -- what happens in Sacramento stays in Sacramento -- and the arcane maneuverings of the Assembly and Senate don't touch our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth, Richman said. Deep cuts in public health care and public education may not affect all of us directly, but they will have enormous consequences on the larger society to which we belong.
Term limits and redistricting haven't exactly sparked citizen involvement either. The former makes it difficult to build and nurture relationships with representatives, while forcing out many experienced and effective legislators. The latter makes politicians more dependent on their respective party leadership for ensuring primary victories. The result is a deeply partisan legislative branch that rewards party loyalists and punishes centrists.
"You're always worried about being outflanked by your extremists," Richman said.
When the assemblyman even suggested the idea of supporting some kind of limited tax or fee increase as a way to offset the deficit, he received a hammering from more-Republican-than-thou talk radio hosts up and down the state. It's no wonder that, as the California Voter Foundation discovered, "The state's population is constantly growing while at the same time the percentage of voters who affiliate with the two major parties declines."
A pox on both their houses.
It's also no wonder that so many Jewish voters, who tend toward the pragmatic center, are turned off by Sacramento. That's even more of a shame, because, as California's ethnic populations increase, Jewish voting -- to the extent it happens in a bloc -- can be even more effective. A Los Angeles Times poll found that in the statewide 2002 elections, non-whites, whose registration numbers are increasing, voted in smaller numbers than in previous gubernatorial elections. White voter turnout increased, and Jews make up a disproportionate percentage of that bloc. What that means is that if Jewish activists choose to use their leverage, they can be effective now and in the foreseeable future.
At a meeting with a handful of Jewish community activists this past week, one assemblyman was openly disdainful.
"This crisis has been two years in the making," he said. "Where were you two years ago?"
More to the point, where are we now?