Gavin vs. Kevin, and California Dysfunction

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)

It’s not just a tempest in a teapot. It’s more telling than that.

The back-and-forth over state Senate Pro Tem Kevin De Leon’s pulling back two employee positions from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has become a statewide story, with lots of speculation about what’s behind the move and what it may mean.

Politically, I’d say the winner is Newsom, as a sign that he’s got enough momentum in his gubernatorial campaign that newspapers care to spend any time or resources publishing stories about staffing at the lieutenant governor’s office. Indeed, making any news at all when you’re lieutenant governor is an achievement.

Of course, the heart of the story has little to do with the two politicians involved, and everything to do with California dysfunction.

Reporting has suggested De Leon may have been reacting to Newsom’s inclusion of a policy pursued by De Leon in a new ballot initiative he’s pursuing on gun control. (De Leon’s chief of staff has denied this, but unconvincingly). The speculation has focused on whether De Leon is sending a message, retaliating for this legislative plagiarism. But so what? This form of plagiarism is not a crime – politicians should copy each other’s ideas.

The real import is this: why on earth is an elected official have his own ballot initiative? And why is he doing that on an issue where a majority of legislators are likely with him? And why is he bothering when his own party controls the government?

Those are all reasonable questions, but they are not questions Californians ask because we have become accustomed to our initiative-heavy politics. If you want to do anything permanent in policy in California, you want the initiative process—because of its inflexibility. And it’s so hard to get attention given California’s weak political and civic media culture, of course an ambitious public official is going to use a measure to build his career.

This is yet another consequence of our failures to enact real reforms to our initiative system and to make our direct democracy an integrated part of our governing system. We go to the ballot too easily. And we set a bad example when public officials use the ballot; it’s perfectly understandable, given that interests pressure them on the ballot. But when an official uses a ballot, that’s not real direct democracy – it’s a plebiscite.

But if De Leon is punishing Newsom for the ballot initiative, he’s picked the wrong target. The California system makes it natural for Newsom to do something like this. Fortunately, De Leon is a leader of the majority party; he could lead real reform of the initiative process if he wanted to.

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