It’s a difficult year to pick a Black Bart, at least among the living in California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom made a good start against homelessness and COVID-19, only to strike a deadly blow to his own career with one wine-fueled dinner in the Napa Valley.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein lost her way, and appeared on her last political legs as this was written.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was supposed to gain seats, but lost them; the end is near. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy both failed to win back the House—and ended up going over the deep end, embracing anti-democratic conspiracy theories and Qanon candidates in his caucus. He deserves every ounce of our scorn.

You might say that Kamala Harris had a good year, getting elected vice president. But that job has been compared to death, and warm spit. And in lifestyle, she loses big, having to leave Brentwood for the official v.p. residence at the Naval Observatory.

The pandemic killed more than 250,000 Americans, more than 20,000 of them Californians. COVID-19’s spread cried out for heroes, and many essential workers and healthcare providers stepped up. But it wasn’t enough. Too many Californians failed to meet the moment. We didn’t wear our masks often enough, or keep our distance as much as we should have.

Public health officials suffered awful attacks and unfair criticism—but they also gave us confounding and shifting advice that was often too complicated to understand, much less follow. Some teachers did their best in distance learning, but their unions, and many school districts, took actions that left many students on their own, or cut off from school all together.  Some business owners struggled responsibly through the pandemic, while others behaved in ways that spread the disease and disinformation about it.

Since no one living is worthy of the Black Bart Award, this is a year we must consider the dead. And among the departed, one candidate stood above all others, smoking a pipe.

He has been dead for 34 years now (that’s so long ago that his L.A. home is now the Tibetan Buddhist Center). And he never held elected office. But still, he dominates California politics. 

One of our most hotly contested ballot measures this year, Prop 15, was a debate about the California tax and budget system that this dead man effectively established back in 1978 with Prop 13. Prop 19 was also about this same legacy. Indeed, our biggest political fights—over not just taxes and spending, but around housing and school funding and health funding and the future of governance—often end up mentioning him.

That’s why, this year, the Black Bart award should go to the ghost that haunts California more than any other.  The ghost of Howard Jarvis.