Sunday, October 2, 2011

Buy It Now: Dianne Feinstein for Senate

According to syndicated columnist Tom Elias, Dianne Feinstein recently put an additional $5 million of her personal cash into her re-election campaign for the U.S. Senate. She had to. A Democratic Party crook, Kinde Durkee, showed sometimes there is not honor among thieves by embezzling untold sums from the many California political campaigns she served as treasurer for.

The candidates who lost money, or whose funds are frozen while the investigation continues, may have a difficult time in the 2012 elections, perhaps even in the June primaries. Not Ms. Feinstein, whose personal and family wealth is inconceivable to most Californians.

Despite her voting record in Congress, most notable for her desire to crush any remaining Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, to give unlimited funds to the U.S. military and homeland security, and to serve herself and her husband heaping helpings of the federal budget pie, there will be no serious reformist Democratic Party challenger to Dianne in the June primary. A Senate campaign requires reaching some 18,000,000 likely voters. If you can convince the media gatekeepers that you are a serious candidate, you might be in the debates, but not all that many voters actually watch or listen to debates. No, you would need to mail a flyer or two or ten to each voter and buy a good deal of television and radio spots to have a chance at winning. That is a daunting task unless you are a multi-millionaire or have a money machine left over from say, having already been governor of California.

Even Michael Reagan, talk show host and son of Ronald Reagan, apparently looked at the Feinstein money and decided even Reagan name recognition would not give him a shot at her Senate seat.

How did the Democratic Party end up with so wealthy of a Senator? That has always been the plan from the time when Andrew Jackson and his wealthy slave owning friends noticed that poorer white men, having been given the vote, had become a danger to the class system, and created the Democratic Party [See Andrew Jackson for President, Act I].

In particular, Dianne Feinstein was born to a wealthy doctor, then married money not once but three times (retaining her political last name, Feinstein, from her 2nd husband). Current husband Richard C. Blum is an investment banker (the kind people are protesting against on Wall Street right now) with very extensive real estate holding and close connections to the U.S. education, defense, and homeland security establishments. [See also DiFi and Blum: a Marriage Marinated in Money]

Most political offices in California cover a limited geography. Money is important in local elections and in elections to the California State Assembly and State Senate, but the magnitude of money needed to run for one of the two U.S. Senate seats, or for governor and other state-wide California offices, is staggering even to most successful, seasoned politicians. Since Republicans are hard pressed to win any state-level office anymore (the last was Arnold Schwarzenegger), the real action is in the Democratic party primaries.

Challenging a Democratic Party, state-wide, near-billionaire incumbent in a primary amounts to tilting at windmills. Perhaps we should take a lesson from Ebay. There should be a buy-it-now option. Then we would not have to wait to see who wins the auction. Instead of wasting money on lying to voters, Dianne could donate all that money to helping reduce the State budget deficit. [Yes, this last paragraph is satire, not an actual proposal.]

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Term Limits not Enough to Reform California

Voters of the State of California approved term limits (Proposition 140 in 1990). They hoped to break up a system where politicians treated seats in the California State Government, in the State Assembly and the State Senate, as permanent possessions. In the old system incumbents were able to acquire so much money from special interest groups that they simply outspent any opposition. The hope of the term limit reformers was that rotating politicians would be more responsible, less corrupt politicians. Politicians were limited to three two year terms in the California State Assembly and two four year terms in the State Senate.

Twenty years later it is fair to call the experiment a failure. It is not that term limits are bad in themselves, although they have some clear negative consequences. The problem is the special interest group money just flowed right into the new system and adapted to it.

The main negative consequence of term limits is that by the time a new Assembly person has learned the system, the three terms have been blown. Every election one-third of Assembly members are new. True, most have held office before, usually on city councils or county boards of supervisors, but being in a statewide Assembly with 80 members is a very different situation than being on a far-smaller board or council. To go for the full six years, members have to run two more elections, so they typically spend more time running for office than conducting public business. Confronted with so complex a situation, members typically just follow their party leadership on most issues. The legislative staff, which is more permanent and has more expertise on issues, ends up with more power to shape legislation than it should.

Term limits have not resulted in the ideal of citizen-elected officials doing their best to serve the general public. They have created a career path. After an initial period holding local office the next step is usually a bid for the State Assembly when the incumbent is termed out. Then, since there are only 40 state senators, two state assembly members go to war for the open seat when their state senator is termed out. If the timing requires waiting, an appointment to a highly-paid seat on a state board can fill the interval, or perhaps a year of highly paid lobbying. The pol lucky enough to get the state senate seat has an eight year career. Occasionally a pol does the senate seat first, then the assembly seat. After 14 years in the legislature few politicians go back to a local office, as the term-limit reformers had hoped. They may run for a seat in Congress, but there are no term limits on Congress, so those seats do not come up often. Instead there is a generous state pension and more consulting, legal, or lobbying work. For those who can stand or avoid the whining of constituents, it is a lucrative prestigious career.

The Center for Governmental Studies report, Citizen Legislatures or Political Musical Chairs, analyzes the detailed results of term limits. Term limits did accelerate the entry of Latinos into the state legislature, but seemed to be of minimal help in changing gender balance. Before term limits only 28% of members of the Assembly had served in local government before reaching the Assembly. In 2010 68% had. In 1990 68% of the State Senators had served in the Assembly; in 2010 92% had. After being termed out of the State Senate 30% of its members retired, 40% continued to work in the public sector, and 30% took work in the private sector.

Term limits exist within the context of a highly class-stratified society with a well-lubricated system of political donations supporting two major political parties that, between them, have crippled state government in the past decades.

If the goal is to prevent the entrenchment of individuals, term limits work well. But they offer no obstacles to organizations, whether they interest groups (ranging from public employee unions to business corporation trade groups) or political parties.

Proposition 14, which potentially makes political parties more important, will go through a similar test. It was designed to promote moderation, but that moderation is still likely to be trapped in the Democratic-Republican stranglehold.

California Democracy would like to see a modification of term limits, perhaps allowing for up to ten years service in the State Assembly. However, the main reform needed is cultural. As long as the vast majority of voters pay little or no attention to what their elected officials do after they assume office, those politicians will legislate for special interests, not the general good.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

June 2012 California Primary

Where to put the California Presidential Primary has long been a contentious issue. This year the state's politicians easily agreed that next-year's primary will be in June.

For local races (including Congress and the U.S. Senate) a June primary has always made good sense. For offices like the California State Assembly that come up every two years, having a February primary means there is only about a year in every 2 year cycle that the incumbent does not need to be campaigning. It also means a huge lull for the public between February and the runoff election in November. It also means low voter turnouts.

For Presidential nominees, the question is how much California will influence the nomination process. Because of the size of its population, California has a large proportion of votes at national nominating conventions. Because of its political culture, California tends to be more liberal than most other states both within the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. An early California primary in 2012 would have helped moderate contenders in the Republican Party. On the other hand having an early primary would not necessarily make California a king-maker. Having a late primary is a gamble if you care about such things. The contest may be all-but-over, making California votes seem irrelevant. Or the field will have narrowed to two viable candidates, and California voters would get to pick the nominee.

Usually it is the Democratic Party faithful who want an early primary, but this year they are mostly holding their steam (about Afghanistan, war spending, and compromises with the Republican) and hoping no serious left-of-Obama contender comes forward. Uniting behind the incumbent is their best bet at holding onto what national power they have.

The June 2012 election could be a groundbreaking election totally apart from the Presidential nomination aspect. The two big game changers are Proposition 14, which makes the primaries less partisan, and redistricting.

Redistricting occurs every ten years, after the results from the U.S. census are returned. In the past California political districts were designed by incumbents, for incumbents. In partisan political terms this meant district lines were drawn to maximize the percentage of either Republicans or Democrats (including independent (Decline To State) voters known to typically vote one way or the other). This actually reduced the number of Democrats in Congress, the State Assembly and State Senate from its theoretical maximum. More of the new districts will have less-than-landslide sized Democratic majorities. While in theory this could help the Republican cause in some elections, the most likely outcome is more Democrats will win these seats. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission will vote on adopting its final maps on August 15, 2011.

Proposition 14, which passed in June 2010, makes partisan primaries more like non-partisan local and school board elections. Candidates can still list a political party, but the winner in each political party does not proceed to the runoff election. The top two vote getters advance to the November runoff, even if they are in the same party.

This non-partisan reform measure could have a big impact, if entrenched interests can't eliminate it (they are suing to block it) or find ways to manipulate the new mechanics. It encourages challengers from within the dominant political party in a district, as well as serious independent and small party candidates. Take a district that is 60% Democrat and 40% Republican, not unusual in California. In the past typically a right-wing Republican and an incumbent Democrat would win their respective primaries. Then the Democrat would win the runoff. [Invert the scenario for Republican dominated districts in the Central Valley or San Diego]

Now a centrist candidate, Republican, Democrat, third party or even decline-to-state might pick up enough votes to become one of the top two vote getters. If they hold the center together, they can get elected.

If enough candidates see this new opportunity to take on incumbents, we might even see another scenario from time to time. Say three Democrats run and Two Republicans. Suddenly third parties like the Libertarians and Green Party could be viable. Taking 20% of the vote in the primary could make the third-party candidate one of the top two. In particular it would be interesting to see elections in left-leaning districts that pit a Green Party citizen against an incumbent Democrat.

Whatever the outcome, redistricting and non-partisan elections are good for democracy. Hopefully 2012 will just be the beginning of opening up our system to participation by citizens who do not already belong to powerful, entrenched lobbying groups.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

California Citizens Redistricting Commission releases draft distric maps

On Friday, June 10 the California Citizens Redistricting Commission released its first draft of the district boundaries for the California State Assembly, State Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives.

I want to congratulate the commission for doing what it was mandated to do: setting up compact districts with reasonable geographic boundaries. This is in contrast to past district redraws (they happen every 10 years, after each census), which aimed to give as many incumbent politicians safe districts as was possible.

The commissions maps are published here: California District Maps First Draft. In these low-resolution maps it is hard to tell where the exact boundaries are.

The LA Times put together an California Redistricting interactive map with far more detail. They also look at political consequences in District Maps Draw a New Political Landscape.

The Sacramento Bee offers Draft California congressional maps promise more competition.

Keep in mind that better districts may help, but without well-informed citizens participating in the process, no process can be said to be truly democratic.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Republican Party Aims to Control Primaries

Traditionally in California (as in most of the rest of the U.S.) most elections are really decided before the primaries take place. Donors and organizations that control volunteers make their choices, if there is any choice other than the incumbent. Primaries just show how well political machines have pushed their candidates. For the most part in California for the past couple of decades this has resulted in very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans being elected to the state legislature. None can afford to alienate the machines that elected them. As a result in good times creating California state budgets has been difficult; in recessions, it has been a disaster.

Proposition 14, passed by voters in 2010, is supposed to change that. The two highest vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, will proceed from the primary to the runoff election. This is the same system that has always been used in California for non-partisan offices like school boards and city councils. The framers of Prop 14 hoped that this would allow centrist candidates to emerge and even win. For instance, in a Republican majority districts (most districts are drawn to be heavily biased, a back-scratching agreement between the parties), usually a very conservative Republican candidate backed by the local machine would win the Republican primary under the old system. Even if the Democrats ran a centrist, that Republican would still win the main election. Under Prop 14 a centrist Republican might garner the number 2 spot in the primary, then go on to beat the conservative, machine-supported Republican in the runoff.

All the political parties in California opposed Prop 14, including the Green Party. Now all are working on reasserting their power under the new system. The Republican Party has a pretty good idea for doing that: holding its own internal elections before the primaries. They intend to mail ballots to all Republican voters, and let them decide on who will be the official Republican nominee. That is, who will be backed by party resources. Of course, this will mostly work out to be much like tthe old system because voters choose based on name recognition, and that is based on advertising or outreach by volunteers from the same old sources.

Still, it is better than allowing the party bosses to decide which candidates will be supported by the party.

Whoever the official Republican nominee is for an office, they will still have to run against all the other candidates in the primary, and if they don't place first or second, they will be out of the running.

In my opinion what we really need to give the voters real options is some strengthening of some of the smaller parties, like the Green Party and Libertarians, and a new, centrist party. Call it the California Center Party for now. There are a lot of people in the center, and they want a functioning California government that is not either overly indulgent of the anti-tax crowd or the tax-and-spend crowd.

But no such party has emerged yet.

See also:

The GOP Searches for relevance post Proposition 14
California Republican Party

Addenda: facts not so clear about Republican plans: Sparks Fly at California Republican Party [Sacramento Bee, March 19, 2011]

Sunday, January 23, 2011

California: Democracy in Form

After writing about Representative Mike Thompson's bill to allow commercial development of conservation easements, I was reflecting on how formal our democracy is when it comes to the elections in his California district. We have not had a meaningful election as long as I can remember. Every cycle the incumbent collects some $2 million in campaign funds mostly from the timber industry, the wine industry, the public-funded construction industry, and public-serice employee unions.

Mike Thompson is registered in the Democratic Party, as are a majority of the voters in the district. Republicans form a distinct minority; the second largest group in the district are unaffiliated ("decline to state" in California parlance). Mike (who is a likeable and shrewd guy) has never had meaninful opposition in a primary since his first election. This is despite there being lot of leftish Democrats in the district, including a number of Democrats in the hierarchy who are more in touch with voter sentiments in the district. As to the Republicans, they nominate someone to run every time (as do the Greens and Libertarians), but they aren't going to waste good money in a district where they will get clobbered on election day just the same.

Aside from the bias towards rich people's problems, in many ways Mike's voting record is reflective of an largly apathetic electorate. On abortion Mike is pro-choice. He is for the environment unless it gets in the way of a winery or development. He is againt the war when standing in front of Democrats, but always votes for funding the war. It is hard to imagine us getting a new Representative before he dies or voluntarilly retires.

In a dictatorship maintaining this poor of a standard of government would require silencing critics like me. But I can criticize Mike all I want. Worst case scenario, if a lot of people listen to me about a particular issue, Mike will back track, voters will calm down, and it would soon be business as usual.

From what I hear from around California, this scenario is the rule, not the exception. There are a smaller number of Republicans with safe seats than there are Democrats, which reflects the overall liberal culture of California. It can't even be said that the liberalism is entirely symbolic.

It is sad that a mere $2,000,000 can buy a seat in the House of Representatives that controls a multi-trillion dollar economy. I suspect the rich would give more if they could do it legally. A favorable estate tax rate, or capital gains rate, is worth a lot more to even a mid-level capitalist than a mere $2 million. At $2000 per person, it only takes 1000 donors to raise $2 million dollars.

In effect about 1000 people participate in running the California 1st congressional district. That is called an oligarchy, not a democracy. I would think that would be a ball park figure for the typical seat in Congress. With 435 seats in the House, that means there are less than one-half million people who get to meaningfully participate in the decision making at the national level.

But maybe what is wrong is that ordinary people don't give enough to the opposition. At a more affordable $100 giving level, 20,000 people should be able to band together to buy a seat in Congress. But they would have to band together and agree on what they want for their money. Which is harder than getting some agreement out of 1000 donors.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

California Budget Woes Show Flaws in Democracy

On November 2, 2010 California voters went to the polls. They chose Jerry Brown to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor. For the most part they sent the same gang back to the State Assembly and Senate, barring only those who were forced out by term limits. Well-greased political machines made sure that when their guys (or gals) were term-limited out, an indistinguishable candidate was selected to continue to represent their interests in exactly the same way.

After so many reforms being enacted in California, it is fair to ask: what is the point? Nothing stops The Blob of self-interest, it just oozes around what ever new barriers or weapons are used against it.

But there is a barrier The Blob cannot overcome: the limits on California state spending. Oh, it tries. It tries to increase taxes, and some times it succeeds. But there is only so much economy out there. Raise personal or business taxes and people only have so much they can spend, especially given they have to pay federal taxes in addition to state taxes. True, at the high end, rich Californians and giant corporations that operate in the state may still have some juice left to squeeze out. But then there is the major goal of the Blob: squeezing the juice out of the middle class, so that the rich need bleed out only token juice.

Now Jerry Brown is delivering the bad news: his budget is going to cut services, and public sector jobs and salaries, even further back than Arnold's did. This is not Jerry's fault. He is trying to deal with reality. Just like Arnold was.

The reality is that in good years the screaming Mimi's, from MediCal recipients to public service unions to corporations that profiteer on government contracts, always want more. They get it, too, then try to hold onto it during recessions.

California's economy will grow again, especially once housing starts to sell again and new housing construction resumes, but 2011 will be a tough year. Silicon Valley is already prospering and paid more taxes in 2010 than it did in 2009, but much of the tax base depends on real estate taxes and the construction industry. Real estate tax revenues may continue to decline in 2011 and even 2012 as people get their residences re-assessed.

People and businesses can take only so much squeezing. A wise government would find ways to encourage business activity in California without compromising the environment or exploiting workers. Democracy, unfortunately, works (to the extent it works) by allowing the dividing lines to be set by the pushing and pulling of interest groups. The rich are few in number, but can deploy a lot of money to choose the politicians they want. Generally speaking, only candidates backed by the rich, or by public sector unions, can win political primaries. Most of us are not rich and not in public sector unions, so we get shafted. In fact the current system means 90% of the voters are disenfranchised before the general election is held.

Public funding of campaigns could help break up this unfair scenario, but attempts to enact that have been consistently blocked.

Which leaves only remote possibilities to break the deadlock. A political party, currently a third party, could organize the 90% to vote for their interests. Organizing voters without already having political power to begin with, however, is no easy task. Or independent political machines could emerge in each Assembly district, led by individuals rather than political machines. Proposition 14 made that possible, at least in theory.