Maldonado and the Murphy Memo

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)

Two seemingly unconnected political items from last week should be considered together.

The first is the political debate over the nomination of Abel Maldonado for lieutenant governor. The second is the release of political strategist Mike Murphy’s July 2008 memo for the Poizner campaign.

What do these two unimportant events have in common? They say something important about the problematic structure of California’s executive branch of government.

The job for which Maldonado has been nominated means almost nothing to the daily lives of Californians. But his nomination sparked debate among insiders because they see it as a political plum – and a potential launching pad for higher offices. Lieutenant governors typically use the title and the few duties of the position to improve their fundraising and profiles for future runs.

In this way, the lieutenant governorship is like other executive posts in the state: attorney general, treasurer, controller, superintendent of public instruction – and insurance commissioner, as Murphy’s memo makes clear.

Writing when he was advising Poizner (he’s now advising Meg Whitman, which is why the Poizner campaign released the memo), Murphy makes several points, including a few suggestions for how to beat Whitman and how to court Latinos.

But here’s what got me thinking about Maldonado: throughout the memo, Murphy raises the issue of how to use Poizner’s current office, insurance commissioner, in service of a gubernatorial campaign.

“We need to maximize Steve’s current job to write our history of successful government problem solving and experience,” he writes. And then later: “State Office. Within SP’s high standards for proper use of official staff, how do we liaison with campaign effort. Comm shop utilization.” (The memo-style English here seems to suggest utilizing the communications office of the department of insurance to serve Poizner’s ambitions).

This is all good, solid political advice from one of the smartest strategists in the country. And it’s worth noting that Murphy, to his credit, did not suggest using the job to help with fundraising, as previous insurance commissioners and other elected executive branch officials have done.

But Murphy’s advice unintentionally raises this question for California: why do we need elected officials serving as insurance commissioner and in these other posts?

The answer: we don’t. The usual argument against these offices is about accountability: Having multiple executive officers makes it unclear who is responsible when the executive branch makes mistakes. But Maldonado’s nomination and the Murphy memo offer another argument: why bother with holding elections for these jobs when their main value is political, not governmental?

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