Sunday, October 25, 2009

Exit Stage Right for Schwarzenegger

Often times, the public views lame-duck executives with a good deal of skepticism and brusqueness. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is no exception. With a 27% approval rating to boot, some political pundits are already beginning to speak of the Schwarzenegger administration as if it were already over. This blog posting will explore whether the Governator’s ability to be effective in this state has truly eroded, and what he can do to make a lasting legacy a reality in coming terms.

One of the least popular governors in California’s history, Schwarzenegger has had a rough time making friends. His relationships with the majority party Democrats have been blighted from their inception, and his ability to construct meaningful connections with Republicans is becoming worse by the day. He is under constant attack from PACs and special interests on both sides of the aisle. The governor’s power to pass important legislation is compromised by a dislike and distrust of the administration by stakeholders across the state.

With 14 months left in his term, prospects are grim for Schwarzenegger’s political capital, but his ability to improve his image and leave a meaningful mark on California history is all but lost. The Governor has no shortage of opportunities to make lasting changes in his policy agenda, especially in areas such as public infrastructure, prison reform, the environment and education. Politically, his naturalized citizen status presents no threat to other state legislators seeking an eventual Presidential bid. There is no reason why Schwarzenegger should accept the classic implications that lame duck status means relinquishing all power in the months prior to the official transition of power.

Known for his commitment to investing in public infrastructure, a bipartisan consensus on the massive investment in the state’s water supply infrastructure would be among the most substantial feathers in Schwarzenegger’s cap. Schwarzenegger says that his office and the legislature are on the cusp of approving a historic water deal that would ensure the state's water supply into the next century while both restoring and preserving the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Two-thirds majorities will be needed in both houses of the Legislature to place bond measures on the ballot to finance the plan. A water deal would also erase some of the bitterness over this year's budget battles and lay the groundwork for more bipartisan work next year. But if the water deal falls apart, it could be the exact writing on the wall that suggests rocky waters for the legislative year in 2010.

Schwarzenegger has also made significant inroads in reaching a consensus in the area of prison reform. Although a bill that was supported by both Schwarzenegger and the State Senate was ultimately rejected by the house, Schwarzenegger is still trying to meet a court order to reduce the state's prison population, and this is an issue which will require him to meet the opposition halfway.

With the state budget still in disarray, and his tendency to spend time with his family in Santa Monica, many in the Capitol are speculating that the governor will lose interest in the job and let his priorities drift. Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, is convinced her boss will remain committed until the end. Kennedy speculates, "He's the only politician I would ever consider staying for until the very end," Kennedy told me last week. "He's genetically incapable of slowing down."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Midterm Review

Since I was young, October has conjured up memories of Halloween, the World Series, and the respective births of my dear sister and mother (whose October 9th and 11th birthdays, I have just learned, sandwich Gavin Newsom’s 42nd birthday on October 10th).

Alas, now enduring my second-year foray in the wildly exciting world of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, mid-October means one thing to me: midterms loom large. Since there have been many new developments in California state politics over the past week, I would be remiss not to cover these items in this blog. In the spirit of reviewing the work of this fall semester, this post will be dedicated to re-examining the topics of previous postings and providing new updates on issues past.

Endorsements: After weeks of build-up and speculation, on October 5, former President Clinton joined Gavin Newsom in Los Angeles at a series of highly anticipated campaign events. Clinton began his Los Angeles tour at an appearance at a closed-to-the-press, Newsom-for-governor fundraiser at the Biltmore Hotel. The pair then toured the LEED-certified Science and Technology Building at Los Angeles City College, and then spoke to a few dozen students, faculty and trustees in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. At the press event, Clinton spoke about the green economy, health care policy and the number of foreclosures in California – but his remarks said little about the Mayor’s bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, and reflected more about his own support for energy efficiency than his support for the gubernatorial candidate. The closest he came was when he said Newsom doesn’t “just talk it, he walks the walk” on energy and environmental issues.

Although there were more than a dozen reporters on hand, neither Clinton nor Newsom took questions after the hour-long event. According to one report, the mood was surprisingly sedated. There was little reaction from the audience, except for brief applause when Newsom mentioned San Francisco’s universal health care plan.

Newsom advisors hope that Clinton's high standing among Democrats will play well with primary voters who are more familiar with Brown, a former Governor and Oakland Mayor who is now the State Attorney General. It is, after all, highly unusual for a former President to throw his weight behind a primary candidate in a gubernatorial race. Dan Schnur, Director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, noted to City News Service that with the possible exception of President Barack Obama, "there's no more valuable endorsement in Democratic politics than Bill Clinton." However, given the low amounts of energy and excitement seen at the LA campaign stops, many begin to question Clinton’s real impact.

Many speculate that Clinton’s endorsement of Newsom had more to do with the former President seeking revenge on Jerry Brown, his rival in the 1992 Presidential elections. In an attempt to rebuff the critics, both Clinton and Newsom showed restraint toward their mutual adversary at the LA events. However, little subtleties – such as the fact that neither Clinton nor Newsom took questions at the end of the events – showed that both may be unprepared to address such criticism.

Initiative Reform - In a speech prepared for his induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, California Chief Justice Ronald M. George scathingly criticized the State’s reliance on the referendum process, arguing that it has “rendered our state government dysfunctional.”

In a rare public censure of state government and policies delivered by a sitting judge, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court used the occasion of his induction to criticize the initiative process and call for reform. George, a moderate Republican, has been critical of the initiative process in the past, but his remarks to the national group indicated a sense of urgency as well as the state’s willingness to begin real conversations about reform.

George’s speech represented an outcry by the State’s judicial branch trying only to perform their obligations to the legal system. He said the court’s hands were tied by precedent and California laws that gave voters wide freedom to amend the state constitution. At the time, opponents of same-sex marriage were threatening to oust justices at the ballot if they voted to overturn Proposition 8.

George noted that in November, voters passed initiatives to regulate the confinement of fowl in coops and passed Proposition 8, which overturned part of a California Supreme Court ruling that gave gays and lesbians the right to marry. “Chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them,” George said.

According to George, much of the California Constitution and many state laws “have been brought about not by legislative fact-gathering and deliberation, but rather by the approval of voter initiative measures, often funded by special interests,” George observed. The Chief Justice did not suggest a specific measure to be taken in coming months as legislators and other stakeholders decide the fate of a state Constitutional Convention. George speculated, “At a minimum, in order to avoid such a loss, Californians may need to consider some fundamental reform of the voter initiative process.”

Boxer’s prospects: According to a new Field Poll, Barbara Boxer remains comfortably ahead of Republican rivals Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore. According to the poll released today on voter preferences in the 2010 Senate race, Boxer leads Fiorina, who still has yet to declare her candidacy, 49 to 35 percent. Boxer is also well preferred to the other serious Republican contender, state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine. Boxer leads DeVore 50 to 33 percent. Among Republican primary voters, Fiorina was preferred by 21 percent (down from 31 percent in a March Field Poll), to DeVore's 20 percent. Fifty-nine percent of GOP voters were undecided.

Boxer’s current lead could be the result of many factors. First, both Fiorina and DeVore have yet to brand themselves with broad statewide name recognition. Once the two become better known, their numbers should improve. Secondly, Fiorina has not enjoyed a high level of positive public perception. The netroots have begun making fun of Fiorina’s campaign website's simplicity, by releasing this video titled, "Worst Political Website Ever." The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also recently released a web video targeting Fiorina's record. Since Fiorina is currently undergoing a medical procedure, she has been making fewer appearances than earlier in the year when she made campaign stops with John McCain.

However, Boxer was viewed unfavorably by 70 percent of the Republicans in the survey of 1,005 registered voters between Sept. 18 and Oct. 6, showing that the three-term Senator does not have an easy path to re-election. The support of barely half the voters "is not great" for an incumbent, Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said.

Known for her outspoken nature on liberal issues as well as her electoral resiliency, Boxer has never enjoyed the type of electoral cushion common to other incumbents. Boxer’s future numbers will be largely impacted by her ability to pass her climate change legislation through committee, and also the formal announcements of her Republican rivals. "Should Carly decide to run, you'll see these numbers change dramatically," said Beth Miller, a spokeswoman for Fiorina.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Doing Good, and Doing Well

On Wednesday, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) unveiled ambitious legislation to drive down the nation's use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil. With the help of Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Senator Boxer used her stature as the Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee to release the long-awaited Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. An even more aggressive version of the historic American Clean Energy and Security Act that was passed by the House in June, this legislation proposes a cap-and-trade system that would place strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions from large polluters such as factories and power plants while rewarding the most efficient companies.

Boxer’s groundbreaking legislation holds important implications for stakeholders far and wide. This post will explore what this bill means for Boxer, California, and the future of climate-change legislation.

Surrounded by placard-waving environmentalists and supportive Democratic Senators, Boxer, alongside Kerry, introduced the bill at a campaign-style rally on the Capitol grounds on Wednesday. As expected, the value of the photo-op was diminished by the signs of the legislation’s stormy waters ahead: no Republican Senators were present.

As Chair of the legislation’s designated committee and lead sponsor of the bill, Boxer will be charged with much of the duty of garnering support throughout the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) threw the first pitch by releasing a statement Thursday: “The last thing American families need right now is to be hit with a new energy tax every time they flip on a light switch or fill up their car.” Unable to count on the support of all 60 Democrats, Boxer will need to find friendship from moderate Republicans if this bill is to succeed – a tall order given both Boxer and Kerry’s combined history of progressive causes and ideological approaches. As the target of decades’ worth of GOP campaign funds to unseat her, Boxer faces an uphill battle in acquiring support from Republican colleagues.

Despite hostility from the other side of the aisle, Boxer remains hopeful that she can gain the support she needs from friends on left. “We're gaining ground, but at this point I can't count to 60,” the Senator speculated in an interview with C-SPAN. “But you just do your job and move forward.” The language of the legislation – which according to an aide to Senator Boxer has yet to be finalized – must acknowledge the complexities of the industries from the home states of key Democrats. Democrats from oil-producing, coal-producing and agriculturally centered states will want to keep those constituencies at bay (and at pay) in the 2010 cycle. Boxer wisely left blank the portion allocation credits section of the bill for this purpose – this will not only bribe industry support for her own campaign, but also that of future co-sponsors in a jam to raise money for their own election cycles.

All things considered, this was a smart move for Boxer. A nationwide push toward advances in renewable energy could be a major boon for the burgeoning Green Tech companies headquartered in California (as well as Massachusetts). It certainly does not hurt that this sector attracted the largest share of venture capital in the third quarter. The real test will be whether Boxer can push the bill through committee – she can delegate the rest of the Democrats to Majority Leader Harry Reid, should he throw his support behind the dynamic duo. In the meantime, this bill does good by environment, and well by the campaign.

Good luck, Babs. Way to put yourself out there.