The Age of Steinberg

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)

Darrell Steinberg got good notices and buzz (California Supreme Court justice!?) as he headed out the legislative door, and rightfully so.

Because Darrell Steinberg might well be the finest janitor in the history of California politics.

That is an unabashed compliment, forehanded not backhanded, even if it doesn’t sound that way. In this era, with a constitution and budget system and politics that deeply constrain our elected leaders, our state legislators are essentially janitors. They pick up after the messes created by the broken system.

And has there been anyone better than picking up messes than Steinberg?

Great Recession. Bad budget after bad budget. A tightwad centrist Republican governor fixated on his legacy. A tightwad centrist Democratic governor fixated on his legacy. Angry interest groups. A declining media that doesn’t pay much attention (and gets things wrong when it does pay attention). California, during Steinberg’s time in leadership of the State Senate, has been an unholy ungovernable mess. And he has been faced again and again with predicaments in which there were no good options.

So what do you do?

In the Steinberg era, you can’t fix the structural problems of governance—that’s considered way too big by media, politicians and all people who consider themselves wise.

In the Steinberg era, you can’t really deal with the state’s needs. There isn’t enough money – at least enough produced by the tax system – to do that.

And you don’t dare offer big visions of the future – because people will tell you you’re unrealistic. And because the governor will start speaking in Latin.

No, what you do is look for any way you possibly can to keep things from getting worse.

That’s hard, thankless work. And Steinberg has done it. He’s been willing to cut programs, even dear ones, that it made no sense to cut (except for the fact that there were no other less worse options). He’s raised taxes. He’s made ballot deals. And throughout, he – more than anyone – has persistently made the case that things shouldn’t be this way, that the state needs broader changes in its governance, that California must make much bigger investments in the future, via programs in workforce training, early childhood, and mental health.

It’s not his fault that we’ve ignored his pleas. It’s ours. But it’s about time we acknowledged his contribution.

He didn’t save us from ourselves – no one can do that. But he made the landing as soft as he could. They won’t throw up any statues of him. But make no mistake: this has been the Age of Steinberg.

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