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August 15, 2013
Guest Opinion: What next after state's aging leaders retire?

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(Aug. 15 -- By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

Pete Wilson turns 80 a week from today, California's 36th governor celebrating a milestone that's become less of a novelty for the Golden State's political elites.

Dianne Feinstein is the charter member of California's "I-80" club (as in: "incumbents, age 80"), having reached the landmark in June. Barbara Boxer will get there in 2020, presumably the fourth year of her fifth Senate term and eight months after Nancy Pelosi also turns 80 - though Pelosi may not stick around the House of Representatives that long unless she can get her hands on the speaker's gavel.

And then there's Jerry Brown, at present America's gubernatorial eminence grise (only five of the 50 governors are septuagenarians). Assuming he doesn't overdo it on the pull-ups, Brown will turn 80 in 2018, his 16th and final year as California's governor.

There are two ways to look at this recent phenomenon of golden agers dominating Golden State politics. On the one hand, California benefits from seniority. Feinstein, for example, is quite good at steering infrastructure money back to Northern California, as was Pelosi when she ran the House.

And with age comes wisdom. Brown, in his second go-round as governor, is far more grounded and focused than his previous incarnation. Besides, consider what life would be like if, in 2010, the job had gone to Gavin Newsom. Instead of a governor who goes off the media grid for days at a time, as Brown recently has, Newsom would have been a nonstop one-man power surge - scads of idealistic rhetoric and navel-gazing, but maybe not as adept as Brown at pulling the levers.

Now, the argument against seniority. In simplest terms, it's kicking the can down the road.

One reason why Brown's re-election seems so likely is the simplicity of his message: I delivered on my promise to fix the budget (never mind that he broke his promise not to raise taxes and didn't live up to his vow of eschewing budget gimmicks). It's what incumbents do amid an improving economy: run on the record; make the campaign a referendum on the last four years.

In other words, the 2014 gubernatorial race will be as much a look back as it will be forward. If so, Californians will be shortchanged on two matters vital to the Golden State's future.

The first would be the budget - not how to tame it, but how to free it from the grip of special interests.

Arnold Schwarzenegger had an opening to go after this when he took office in November 2003 and had the Legislature on the run. Two years later, Arnold was routed in a special election. So much for the non-prison version of "realignment" - easing unions' and other lobbies' undue influence over the spending process.

A responsible governor understands there's no escaping this conversation, as pension obligations aren't going away. Maybe Brown proves to be the ultimate contrarian and takes on the very structure that nurtures the California Democratic supermajority. Then again, Don Quixote was but middle-aged when he tilted at windmills.

The other unmet challenge: closing the great California divide.

It's a topic that Hollywood has broached ("Grand Canyon," "Falling Down"), but not Sacramento. The California of 2013 - as it probably will be in 2014 and 2018 - is a nation-state of disparities. We have both dizzying wealth and a poverty rate that hit a 16-year high last September. The per-capita income gap between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Inland Empire is double what it was 45 years ago. Speaking of the Bay Area, there are fewer starker contrasts than the 30-minute East Bay drive from Fremont, which has experienced more than five homicides only once in the past decade, to Oakland, a town so ravaged by senseless gun violence that it has its own homicide victims' page on Facebook.

Assuming there's a final term to be had, Brown should consider something that all politicians do - which is, a lot of talk - but do so in a different way. Instead of spinning his wheels in the sanctimonious likes of Davos and Aspen, Brown should take the conversation straight to the state's worst affected communities and address what Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley calls a "crisis of confidence" - the public's nagging sense that the political ruling class can't handle society's most vexing problems.

But make it a citizen-leader dialogue with a twist: the governor bringing along at least three younger Democrats who could be next in line for the job. And that would be Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. All three were born between 1964 and 1971, a previous age of California unrest and uncertainty. Should any reach higher office, it would represent a generational passing of the torch the likes of which California hasn't seen since 1974, when Jerry Brown, age 36, replaced Ronald Reagan, 27 years his senior.

Eventually, even at the top of the California pyramid, youth must be served. Let's just hope it's ready to serve, when the golden agers finally retire.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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