The most-talked-about name in California governance hadn’t granted an interview. But a tipster in a small local hospital in California’s interior called, with directions to a little-known private wing.
The name on the hospital room door said, “Serrano Priest.” I opened it. “Mr. Priest?” I asked.
“Ah, hell. You found me,” came the reply from the mangled body that lay on the hospital. “I register under that name when I don’t want calls. It’s me – Realignment.”
He reluctantly agreed to an interview.
Q: What are you doing in the hospital, Realignment?
A: What do you think? I got bruises, torn ligaments and broken bones all over my body.
Q: Who did that to you?
A: Don’t you read the papers? Everyone did this to me! The whole state is talking about Realignment for the prisons, Realignment for foster care, Realignment for this and that. People have been throwing my name around like I’m some sort of the raggedy doll. I’m not. I’m a real living thing!
Q: But people love you. They say you’re real reform.
A: It’s a thin line between love and abuse. Just imagine what it’s like to have some Sacramento foundation goo-goo throw you against a prison wall one day to see if you break, and the next day a gang of legislators tosses you in the direction of a bunch of community health clinics. It friggin’ hurts. I’m not Superman.
Q: But why all the secrecy about your location?
A: I did that on the advice of my security and my public relations teams.
A: Well, the security thing should be obvious. You got cops and law enforcement folks across the state calling press conferences to announce they’re going to kill me. When the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department wants you dead, that’s not the moment to broadcast your whereabouts.
And on the public relations side, the six crisis PR firms I’ve hired all say the best thing I can do is lay low. I can’t control the story. Every do-gooder or would-be reformer is saying that his or her pet reform represents “Realignment.” And of course, none of these reforms really are me. So I’m keeping myself scarce. Yes, I’m an ongoing public relations disaster.
Q: What about Gov. Jerry Brown? He’s singing your praises, and the media are calling his realignment efforts bold and courageous.
A: C’mon. With friends like Jerry, who needs enemies?
The U.S. Supreme Court tells him he has to reduce the prison population. So he reduces the prison population – by sending everyone to the counties and calling it Realignment. That’s not courage. That’s blame-shifting. When things go wrong, he’s going to blame things on the courts, on the counties – and especially on me.
And that’s unfair because what he’s doing isn’t really Realignment.
Q: What is it then?
A: It’s really my right-wing cousin, Devolution. Remember him? He was big in the 90s – kind of the Nirvana of government reform.
Q: How is Devolution different than Realignment?
These days no one knows the difference, since Realignment has become a catch-all term for any time you juggle responsibility between state and local governments.
But since you asked: Realignment – the original article, me – is when you take the power and responsibility for an entire program – and I mean, everything, the raising of the revenues for a particular program, the spending for that program, the management of that program, accountability for results – and put it all at the same level of government.
Devolution is halfway. You send some responsibility and maybe some money down to the local government, but you keep the authority, and the ability to raise the revenues centralized at some higher level of government. It’s sort of Half-Realignment – the phony version that authoritarians prefer.
Q: So the prisons thing shouldn’t count as Realignment?
A: Yeah, that ain’t me. The state is sending the people and the problems to the locals. And some money too. But they’re setting the standards and making the regulations at the state level – and they’re not giving the locals the power to raise revenues to fund those programs. Because that would upend the Prop 13 system, which puts decisions about raising revenues at the state level, and makes that nearly impossible with supermajorities.
To be honest with you, for all the people who like to talk about me, I haven’t done any real work in California since the 70s.
Q: What were you up to all these years?
A: Suing the chiropractors for defamation. Bunch of jerks. I didn’t think anything could be worse than when the back doctors embraced me, but this latest reform wave is worse.
Q: Why worse?
A: Well, the worst is yet to come. The state of California is setting me up for murder.
A: Rape too. As soon as the counties start letting these state prisoners out of jail, you know a few of these guys are going to do bad stuff. And who do you think is going to get the blame? Me.
And unfortunately, that will discredit the whole idea of Realignment—and let me tell you something, I’m the kind of reform the state really needs.
Q: What are you going to do?
A: Hiring a team of criminal defense attorneys. I wanted to get Johnnie Cochran, since people talk about him all the time, but it turns out he’s dead.
I know the feeling.