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Black Bart Nominees: Joshua Pechthalt and Rick Jacobs

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Editor’s note: Joshua Pechthalt and Rick Jacobs are Joe Mathew’s nominees for the Fox & Hounds Black Bart Award. This annual award goes to the Californian of the year in the world of politics – decided by Joel Fox, John Wildermuth & Joe Mathews.

The momentum to hand this award to Gov. Jerry Brown is overwhelming. But he doesn’t really deserve it. Prop 30, after all, wasn’t entirely his.

It’s been forgotten, but Prop 30 was a shotgun marriage between an earlier Brown tax initiative and a bolder, more progressive tax-hike sought by progressives. Ultimately, Brown adopted many of their provisions – most notably higher income tax rates on the wealthy than were in Brown’s original initiative. (Unfortunately, the tax rates in Prop 30 were temporary as Brown wanted and not permanent, as the progressive alternative initiative outlined. But you can’t win them all).

Polling suggests that these changes helped the measure to overwhelming passage. And while coalitions of unions and progressive organizations were involved in pushing the alternative initiative that was combined with Brown’s to produce Prop 30, the Black Bart award must go to human beings, not groups. And so I nominate two pillars of the California progressive movement and of the Prop 30 push: Joshua Pechthalt and Rick Jacobs.

Why these two above all others? I plead the personal and provincial: I know and like both, and they both live in Los Angeles – which, as a reminder to Sacramentans who seem to need such reminders, remains the largest and most important city. They are also people who combine strong belief and advocacy with personal decency, openness to all kinds of people and ideas, and strategic sense. (And both are very quotable and have a knack for getting under the skin of just the right people – which makes them good copy).

Joshua is a teacher who was part of a group of dissidents within United Teachers Los Angeles – until those dissidents suddenly and quite unexpectedly got themselves elected to union office nearly a decade ago. (Here’s a profile I wrote about him and his fellow dissidents for the LA Times). He’s now the president of the California Federation of Teachers, which is generally and accurately seen as weak sister to the California Teachers Assn. Except that this year, and in the context of the initiative battle that begat Prop 30, CFT proved to have the better political instincts than its big brother, which had been backing less bold tax ideas.

Rick’s story is a long and complicated one. But over the past decade, he’s become one of the state’s most important progressive activists. Via dinners he hosts at his home (full disclosure: I’ve been a guest), he’s also a force for putting people together, a real public service in Los Angeles where geography and traffic conspire against human-to-human contact. And he’s built the Courage Campaign, a progressive network, into a real force, making a difference this year not only on taxation but also on marriage equality and issues around housing and foreclosures. One reason to respect Courage, even if you’re not progressive: the members of the network make decisions about what it will do, which means that Courage not only encourages democratic governance, it practices it.

I’m also picking Joshua and Rick because they’ve been open to the kind of broader, systemic reform the state needs. As a mushy moderate, I don’t always agree with their particulars – but they are thinking big, and will continue to push for rebuilding California. That commitment is important now, with so many in Sacramento behaving as though Prop 30 had solved the state’s problems, and as though the real threat to the state was overreach by the party in power.

These two guys helped put together Prop 30, and they know well that much more needs to be done.

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