Ben Boychuk

Viewpoints: It's blue vs. blue for the future of California

Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 11A

Republicans always get rapped for obstructing progress, or blocking a vital piece of legislation, or standing athwart a brilliant nominee to a terribly important office and yelling, "Stop!"

No, no, not California Republicans. About the only thing they can obstruct these days is the entrance to the Capitol men's room, and that's often just by accident.

I refer, of course, to Republicans in Congress, where the GOP holds a solid majority in the House of Representatives and enough of a minority in the Senate to make plenty of mischief. It drives Democrats crazy – at least until they're in the minority again.

Until late last month, Senate Republicans had successfully filibustered several of President Barack Obama's nominees. One of them was Thomas Perez, the president's hard-left pick for secretary of labor.

Democrats were keen on confirming Perez, an activist who last ran the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid threatened to "go nuclear" and end the filibuster option for presidential nominations, Republicans relented, 54 Democrats duly voted to approve Perez's promotion, and off he went to the Department of Labor.

Once he got there, among Perez's first official acts – roughly some time between taking off his coat and ordering the new business cards – was to send Gov. Jerry Brown a sternly worded letter arguing that the pension reforms the governor approved last October violate federal law. If California doesn't carve out an exception for mass transit workers right away, Perez wrote, he would have no choice but to keep withholding as much as $1.6 billion in federal grants from California's regional transit agencies.

Never mind that the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 merely precludes state and local governments from renegotiating current benefits with transit workers under existing collective bargaining agreements, or that the reforms Brown signed were as modest as could be. Boosting employee contribution requirements and raising the retirement age are hardly radical reforms. But for California's transit workers, any reform would have been unacceptable.

Now it might seem strange that a Big Labor Democrat in a liberal administration would strong-arm another liberal Democrat known for his support of public employee unions. (Any column discussing Brown and labor politics mustn't fail to mention that he signed the 1978 Dill Act, which granted public employees collective bargaining rights. He helped create this monster!)

In reality, Perez's quarrel with Brown is just the latest blue-vs.-blue skirmish in an ongoing struggle to realign and reshape Democratic political power.

In military jargon, "red on red" means enemy combatants firing on each other. In California politics, the past two years have seen an eruption of "blue on blue" conflicts, with hard left and labor-aligned politicians and special interests increasingly taking on conventional liberal and business-friendly Democrats, and vice versa.

The phenomenon itself isn't exactly novel, but it's taken on new significance as Democrats have taken total control of statewide constitutional offices, gained and lost supermajorities in the state Legislature, and strengthened their hold on the cities as the state struggled to overcome the effects of the Great Recession.

Without a serious Republican opposition, the dilemma facing Democrats boils down to "how far, how fast?" Resolving that question is at the heart of every internecine Democratic squabble we've seen since 2010.

We've seen it in the fight to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act. We've seen it in arguments over this year's state budget.

We saw it with the California Teachers Association's successful effort to thwart then-state Sen. Gloria Romero's 2010 campaign for state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Romero, who now heads the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, authored legislation that liberalized charter schools, empowered parents to implement local reforms, and – most galling of all – would have required greater teacher accountability. The CTA backed Tom Torlakson in the primary and general elections. He won handily.

We saw it in San Jose last year, where leftists and public employee unions waged a bitter fight against a pension reform initiative sponsored by Mayor Chuck Reed and a majority of the City Council, all Democrats.

Unlike Brown's pension reforms, San Jose took aim at existing benefits for current employees. But, like Brown, Reed is an old liberal. He argues that absent fundamental reform, the city cannot provide the robust services that liberals so dearly love.

Republicans might be tempted to sit back and watch as these blue-on-blue fights rage throughout the state. But we're fast approaching day when a dwindling population of productive Californians will be expected to pay more to support government salaries and benefits they could never dream of enjoying in exchange for fewer and fewer services.

When the hour of reckoning arrives, it won't be Republicans obstructing progress and reform. The future of California depends on the least bad of blue factions winning the day.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and contributor to "The Beholden State: California's Lost Promise and How to Recapture It." Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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