Recalling the Future

I. Hiram Johnson's Mess

The land may have been ours before we were the land's, as Robert Frost wrote, but not in California. The Progressives saw to that. When people arrived in my home state, there were no political institutions to reach out to them or provide an orientation; there was nothing they could join. Whether they came from the Midwest in the years before World War II, enticed by the glossy brochures with the pictures of orange groves that the chambers of commerce put out, or in desperation from Mexico during the past two decades, in flight from an economy in collapse, they found themselves in a peculiar vacuum: Politically, at least, there was no one around to welcome them.

Most particularly, there were no parties. The Progressives may have liked direct democracy, and they instituted the initiative, the referendum and the recall when their leader, Hiram Johnson, became governor and they took control of the legislature in 1911. But what really got them going was their hatred of political parties. They didn't content themselves, like their East Coast counterparts, simply with substituting civil service for patronage jobs; they killed the parties that had proffered those jobs. The Southern Pacific Railroad had controlled the parties in California, and the Progressives couldn't kill the railroad, but they could make the parties go away. And it wasn't just corporate power that vexed them: At the other end of the spectrum of Progressive fears, the Debsian socialists were close to winning control of a number of California cities -- Socialist Party candidate Job Harriman was almost elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1911 -- and one way to ensure that the working men of California would resist the socialist temptation was to take the party labels off the ballot.

The Progressives kept parties at the federal level (they had to), but they made all local elective offices -- cities and counties both -- nonpartisan, and they made it possible for state officials to "cross-file," that is, to run in more than one party's primary (a practice that endured until midcentury). Some of California's most enduringly successful political leaders -- Govs. Earl Warren and Pat Brown among them -- did just that as they worked their way up the political ladder in the 1930s and '40s. And there was something to be said for a system that produced leaders like Warren and Brown. But that wasn't all it produced.

For all their myriad flaws, parties remain indispensable to a functioning politics. It's parties that channel popular desires and discontents into realizable and sustainable political change. In California, however, and in their absence, a different tradition arose. At least as far back as the 1920s, political movements have arisen in California that have taken those discontents more directly to the public. From the Townsend movement of the '30s, with its crackpot plan for old-age pensions; to right-wing crank Howard Jarvis and his Proposition 13, which froze property taxes on both aged widows and Chevron; to the Orange County nativists who devised Proposition 187 in 1994 in order to have the children of the state's several million illegal immigrants thrown out of public schools -- California has long been home to an array of conservative activists able to exploit white, middle-class fears.

Perhaps direct democracy is better suited to mobilizing fears than hopes. There have been a few successful California initiatives that have come from the left -- protecting the coastline, lowering auto-insurance rates, raising the state minimum wage -- but they are the exceptions to a long right-wing rule. In general, direct democracy in California has meant the white middle class running amok to its right -- repealing fair housing legislation, enacting three-strikes laws for nonviolent felons, imposing on legislators term limits so abbreviated that they're still learning how a bill becomes a law as they're being shown the door.

Precisely because they set the state's white middle class on a rightward tack, some of California's most famous initiative campaigns have aided or portended a Republican resurgence. The anti-housing desegregation initiative of 1964 (Proposition 14) laid some of the groundwork for Ronald Reagan's election as governor two years later; Howard Jarvis' Proposition 13 in 1978 paved the way for Reagan's "government is the problem" presidential campaign two years hence; and Pete Wilson's embrace of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 shored up what until then had been a lagging gubernatorial re-election campaign.

Which brings us to this strangest of all eruptions of California's direct democracy: the recall of '03. A recall, of course, is not an initiative; it doesn't portend or assist a political transformation; it is a political transformation. More precisely, the recall of 2003 is a counter-transformation intended to halt a deep and ongoing political transformation -- that of once conservative California, homeland of Richard Nixon, the John Birchers, Jarvis and Reagan into the most liberal state in the land. It is one of only two states under wall-to-wall Democratic control, with its governor, its senators and its other statewide officials all Democrats, and with heavy Democratic majorities in its legislature and congressional delegation.

Transformations this profound don't occur because soccer moms have switched their allegiance. Overwhelmingly, the most important reason why California has changed its politics is that it has been racially remade: In the 2000 census, it became the second state (after Hawaii) where whites no longer constituted a majority. And so there is to the recall a kind of Republican desperation: Can enough middle-class whites be mobilized to the right one more time to stop the state's leftward march? Can Republicans exploit Arnold Schwarzenegger's celebrity and Gray Davis' unpopularity to bring back conservative California? Or is this just the present-day version of the Plains Indians performing the Ghost Dance in the hope that it will bring back the buffalo?

II. Schwarzenegger's Shot

One thing is certain: If the Republicans can't win the recall, it's hard to imagine a California election in which they could prevail for the foreseeable future. This should be their moment -- or, more precisely, their electorate.

For on the matter of Davis, the Democrats lack all conviction while the Republicans are full of passionate intensity. Democrats constitute 45 percent of the state's registered voters while Republicans make up just 35 percent of the electorate -- but that's not how the recall electorate is shaping up. In a Los Angeles Times poll taken in late August, Republicans constituted 43 percent of the likely turnout, with the Democrats logging in at 45 percent. That kind of intensity gap is specific to the moment -- and to Gray Davis.

Indeed, the reason that Davis defeated Republican Bill Simon last November by just a scant 5 percent was that he lost the support of the Democratic base. More particularly, nonwhite turnout collapsed. In 1998, when Davis won the governorship and beat Republican Dan Lungren by a stunning 20 percent margin, blacks constituted 13 percent of the voter turnout and Latinos another 13 percent. Last fall, however, the black share of the electorate declined to 4 percent, and the Latino slice to 10 percent, according to the Times exit polls.

It was hard to look at these results and see portents of a Republican renaissance. In a state growing steadily less white, with an electorate evolving on a similar trajectory, Republican prospects seemed linked to the whitening of California voters. And what were the odds of that happening?

In October's upcoming recall, not all that bad. If Schwarzenegger can consolidate his Republican base -- no easy task so long as state Sen. Tom McClintock, a right-wing zealot beloved of other right-wing zealots, remains in the race -- win some independents and mobilize the kind of apolitical young men who were the key to Jesse Ventura's success, the Republicans might just retake the state house.

That's still a lot of "ifs," even if McClintock does eventually drop from the field. To begin with, California doesn't have Minnesota's election-day registration, which made it easy for Ventura's unregistered acolytes to cast their votes for him.

Perhaps just as injurious to Schwarzenegger is the absence of a moderate wing within the California Republican Party. The right has dominated the party since the Goldwaterites swept the state in 1964. Pete Wilson was the closest thing to a moderate that state Republicans have produced since the '60s, but Wilson was indulged by his fellow Republicans only because he won elections. When he consigned himself, and his party, to the political wilderness by enraging Latinos via his campaign for Prop. 187, he and his tendency sunk without a trace. In Los Angeles, a genuinely moderate Republican, Richard Riordan, served as a nonpartisan mayor for the better part of the '90s, but most of his key supporters and staffers were Democrats.

So when Schwarzenegger assembled a staff, he could do no better than pick up Wilson's old entourage -- an able group, but with baggage that greatly diminished his appeal to Latino voters. More seriously still, no California Republicans have the flexibility on economic issues that enabled New York Republican Gov. George Pataki to pick up the kind of Latino support that Schwarzenegger badly needs (much less the union support that Schwarzenegger can't even conceive of).

Indeed, Schwarzenegger is about to hit a wall: There is almost nothing in California Republican economics, Schwarzenegger's included, that's appealing to Latinos. In a major poll conducted last fall by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos parted company from both whites and blacks in favoring (by a 55 percent to 38 percent margin) a bigger government that taxes more to provide a high level of services over a smaller government that taxes less and provides fewer services. Even Latino Republicans backed a high-taxing big government. Similarly, we know from exit polling on a 1998 ballot measure that California Latinos are the most staunchly pro-union group in the California electorate (slightly more so, in fact, than union members themselves).

Contrast, then, Schwarzenegger's insistence that Californians are overtaxed and that unions are special interests with the positions of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the leading Democrat on the second half of the recall ballot. The lieutenant governor's call for higher taxes on the wealthy to close the state's deficit is precisely attuned to rallying Latino voters to his column.

And rallying Latino, and black, support is the only way Bustamante beats Schwarzenegger -- and the only way Davis beats the recall.

III. Davis Despite Himself

For their separate and not entirely compatible campaigns, both Davis and Bustamante -- who loathe each other -- are working to energize the Democratic base. In early August, Davis announced he'd support a bill enabling illegal immigrants to get drivers' licenses, something he'd long opposed on security grounds. In its current form, the bill he's committed to sign actually makes it easier for immigrants to get licenses than the measure he vetoed last year. One prominent state Latino leader recounts Davis asking him shortly after the recall qualified, "How do I justify signing this?" To which the leader replied, "How do you win the recall without it? And beyond that, what does it matter?"

Indeed, if Davis is defeated this October, the last 60 days of his administration may feature a flurry of progressive legislation comparable to the first hundred days of other, more liberal administrations. In late August, for example, he signed a landmark statute giving California consumers far more control over their financial records than federal law, or that of any other state, allows.

There's a considerable irony here, and it is that Davis has signed a great deal of groundbreaking liberal legislation -- and worked mightily to keep it a secret from the party base he now so desperately needs. Presiding over a legislature far more liberal than he, Davis, in his four-plus years as governor, has signed laws creating the first paid family-leave program in the United States, creating binding arbitration for state farm workers, creating far stricter fuel-efficiency standards than those the federal government imposes, requiring utilities to derive 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by the middle of the next decade, funding stem-cell research, enabling Californians to sue gun manufacturers for the effects of gun violence -- all this at a time when the federal government has been moving rapidly to the right.

But Davis mentioned none of this in his campaign last year against Simon. Damaged by his slow and timorous response to the energy crisis, he determined to wage a negative campaign solely. On a deeper level, it's not clear that he took much pleasure in even the most notable of his accomplishments. The most unhappy warrior I've ever encountered on the political battlefield, Davis seems always more worried about the support he'll estrange by backing a bill than gratified by whatever good that bill may do. Seeking to mollify Latinos for his veto of the drivers' license bill last year, he said he looked forward to the day when "we'll get this all behind us." I know of no other political leader who in a public speech would discuss a piece of civil-rights legislation chiefly as a personal political ordeal.

Now, for the first time since he's been governor, he's touting his achievements. This will help him turn out some of the party base. So will Cruz Bustamante.

IV. Cruz Without Illusions

The lieutenant governor's challenge is less daunting than governor's. Davis needs 50 percent of the vote while Bustamante needs only a plurality in a field of 135 candidates. That probably means somewhere between 40 percent and 45 percent, and Bustamante's waging the kind of rally-the-troops campaign that's sure to bring in 40 percent.

It's a good thing that Bustamante's bar is lower, because unlike Davis, he has no real achievements to which he can point. Affable and unpretentious, Bustamante is a career political staffer propelled by term limits and ambition -- both his and that of his political consultant, Richie Ross -- into the California Assembly, where he served an 18-month term as speaker and moved on to the largely powerless office of lieutenant governor. His career has been a triumph of persistence -- and just plain, dumb luck -- over brilliance. "He is not the sharpest tool in the shed," says one veteran Sacramento Democrat in a comment that pretty much sums up the sentiment on Cruz.

Before the recall, Democrats looking ahead to the gubernatorial contest of 2006 increasingly overlooked Bustamante. Both Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides had impressed state Democrats as stellar progressives. Bustamante, by contrast, had no notable supporters outside the tribal casinos whose interests he routinely championed. Indeed, the word in Sacramento was that he had determined to forgo a run for governor and seek instead the treasurer's slot, from which Angelides was term-limited out. When the recall qualified, then, Bustamante and Ross looked at the new landscape and concluded, in the words of one former colleague, that "there was no reason for Cruz not to do this, no downside at all." If he lost, he'd still get a leg up in the 2006 gubernatorial primary he hadn't planned on entering at all. If he beat Schwarzenegger and Davis prevailed, he might be the favorite in '06. And if he beat Schwarzenegger and Davis didn't pull through, he'd not only be governor but the savior of California Democrats.

And yet, for all that they want to avoid a Republican resurgence, California Democratic and liberal leaders express a profound depth of misgivings toward Bustamante. "It's very hard to get invested in Cruz's candidacy," says one leading Democrat. "Cruz is not Antonio [Villaraigosa, the progressive Los Angeles City Council member almost elected mayor in 2001]. He was a real agribusiness Democrat -- no progressive. His speakership [in 1997-98] was not very good for workers. That's when the legislature voted to take drivers' licenses away from immigrant workers. The deals he made were against his own community."

Unlike Villaraigosa, who came out of the political ferment of the east L.A. barrio, Bustamante hails from the farm towns on the outskirts of Fresno, one of the most conservative areas of the state. His first political job, at age 19, was as a summer intern for Fresno Congressman B.F. Sisk, a Democrat whose voting record was closer to those of southern Dixiecrats than those of any of his California colleagues.

Once Bustamante became an assemblyman, he frequently represented business interests even when they clashed with those of core Democratic constituencies. A major recipient of tobacco money, he worked unsuccessfully to block the legislation that banned smoking in the workplace. He was also known as a Democrat who'd carry the insurance industry's water in fights against consumers and trial lawyers. One assembly colleague recalls how, after Pete Wilson eliminated overtime pay for workers who put in more than an eight-hour day, Bustamante carried a bill for the California Mining Association that would eliminate overtime for mine workers, who were statutorily exempted from Wilson's new policy. Bustamante then negotiated a compromise with the affected unions. It was the kind of both-ends-against-the-middle strategy that helped him expand his funding base, and at which Ross -- notorious in Sacramento for lobbying on behalf of interests frequently opposed to one another -- excels.

There's a reason, then, why state labor leaders, as they gear up to wage the most extensive get-out-the-vote operation they've ever run, plan to emphasize the "No-on-the-Recall" message much more than their support for Bustamante: They're not at all keen on the thought of Cruz as governor. "Davis is nothing great, and Cruz isn't going to be even that good," says one. "He's not a caveman, like the Republicans; he's just a very moderate Democrat, a business Democrat." Ideally, union leaders want Bustamante to defeat Schwarzenegger -- but with Davis hanging on to his job, so that Lockyer or Angelides could campaign to succeed him in '06.

V. Whose California?

If anything, labor leaders have deliberately downplayed the extent of the operation they're preparing to mount. Even so, they come to the race with a stellar reputation. Since 1996, when Miguel Contreras took the helm at the L.A. County Federation of Labor, the state's labor movement has become the most adept operation in the country for turning out both the labor and the Latino votes. In 2000, union members constituted 34 percent of the California electorate, and Latino voters made up 15 percent of the voting public, up from 9 percent in 1992. But labor has done more than turn out the vote; it's turned it around. In the summer of 1998, polling showed that roughly seven in 10 union voters backed Proposition 226, which would have curtailed labor's ability to engage in elections. By election day, nearly 70 percent of union voters opposed that measure. A similar turnaround is now required to boost Davis' support among union members, labor political operatives readily concede.

Since its birth in the mid-1990s, the labor-Latino operation has been largely confined to the Los Angeles metropolitan area. This time around, however, the program is being expanded to cover all of southern California and much of the Central Valley (Bustamante country). Campaigning for Davis and Bustamante is all well and good, but the unions will clearly -- perhaps, primarily -- be campaigning against a third term for Wilson as well.

For all that Schwarzenegger represents a new and unheralded departure in California politics, a victory for Arnold would ultimately mean a restoration of the ancient regime -- a provisional restoration unless a Gov. Schwarzenegger proves far more adept than candidate Schwarzenegger has shown himself to be. For their part, campaigning for two candidates about whom they feel ambivalent at best, Democrats in general and the labor-Latino alliance most particularly are determined to demonstrate that California's white, middle-class uprisings can no longer knock the state off its new political axis.

You may also like