For a week he walked the streets of Fresno, a homeless man looking for work. At night he slept on park benches, during the day he tried to ward off hunger, sometimes with the bananas a grocer sold him at five for a dollar. At the end of the week, still unemployed, Neel Kashkari, Republican candidate for governor, caught a bus for Los Angeles and home.
Trailing incumbent Governor Jerry Brown, who is seeking his fourth term, by 20 points in opinion polls, some observers dismissed Kashkari’s week on the streets as nothing more than a political stunt. They see Kashkari’s entire campaign as no more plausible than Don Quixote’s crusade against the windmills.
Call it political theater, or not, Kashkari has illuminated a very important defect in the California governing class. That is that most Sacramento politicians are physically and psychologically removed from the severe problems faced by millions of Californians. California unemployment ranks fourth highest among all 50 states. Millions more, counted as working, are barely getting by on part-time, low wage, service and retail jobs. They could be a lost paycheck or two away from joining Mr. Kashkari in using a park bench as a bed. A quarter of the state’s residents are living in poverty, and with 12 percent of the of our nation’s population, California can lay claim to one third of the welfare cases.
While Californians suffer under oppressive economic conditions, the majority of lawmakers and the governor remain oblivious. They ignore the plight of regular folks, while passing out tax subsidies to glamorous industries like film-making, high tech and space exploration. More conventional industries and the jobs they provide are allowed to leave the state without protest. The political class, taking direction from the upscale liberal elite associated with the high tech industries concentrated along the coast, and Hollywood, continue to push, full speed ahead, to impose carbon taxes, that will likely result in a 15 to 70 cent increase in the price of a gallon of gas after the first of the year. Inland areas of the state, where those lucky enough to find employment, work at more mundane jobs, are treated as if they labor in an occupied country, where the fruits of their productivity are taken and squandered by the coastal conquerors. This helps explain why the ruling political class is turning a deaf ear to the minority of legislators, including both Democrats and Republicans, asking for delay in implementation of the new taxes, to spare working Californians the additional burden of higher gas prices at a time when they can least afford it. And then there is the pet train on which the governor and many lawmakers are content to spend close to 100 billion dollars. If completed, it too will serve the coastal elite while the expense will be borne by all.
If some of these politicians were to spend a week walking in the shoes of the less fortunate, as did Neel Kashkari, would we see a change in their attitude? Would they show more compassion for low and moderate income individuals and families? Considering the self-absorbed nature of most of those now in office, it is doubtful. But there is a change to state government that might guarantee that our Legislature is made up of more individuals familiar with what it is like to live under the conditions their laws create.
The change is simple. Move to a part-time Legislature — one needs look no further than Texas for a successful model — that meets for several months, every other year. Lawmakers pay would be reduced accordingly with the result that that the career politicians would be flushed from the state system – they would scramble to run for Congress where the pay is excellent, they can get out of town away from their constituents and there are no term limits. Under the part-time system, when the state Senate and Assembly are in session, its members would be more likely to identify with the folks back home who elected them, rather than with the special interests and high priced lobbyists who hold the attention of current lawmakers.
So Neel, whether or not you are elected California’s next governor, you have already made a positive contribution to political debate by drawing attention to the importance of electing representatives who truly understand the problems facing the people they represent.