When the eastern span replacement of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opens the morning after Labor Day, California hopefully ends a sordid chapter in an otherwise rich history of engineering marvels – sordid in that the span took five times longer to build than the original Bay Bridge (two spans and a tunnel), cost six times its original $1.1 billion price tag, and remains plagued by questions as to its structural integrity.
The other chapter that could be closing: California’s era of big digs, what with high-speed rail in judicial limbo and Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed north-south water tunnels in political hot water. That’s not be confused with an end to the era of big government. When President Bill Clinton coined that phrase in January 1996, California’s state budget was $57.5 billion. California’s 2013-14 budget: $96.3 billion. That’s a 67.5 percent growth in government spending versus a 17.5 percent uptick in the state’s population.
If ribbon-cuttings and photo-ops atop steam shovels are soon to be a thing of the past, what’s a politician to do? To paraphrase our intrepid governor: “Less is more.” Politicians should look to neighborhoods and communities in despair – and offer solutions built on ties between the political class and the more fortunate segment of California’s society that, frankly, has the kind of money to burn that Sacramento and most counties and cities don’t.
Here’s an example. Three years ago, Los Angeles developers wanted to build mega-mansions on the hillside that’s home to the iconic “Hollywood” sign. The sign’s fate rested in the hands of a nonprofit land-conservation group, which was given the chance to buy the land for $12.5 million. Only, the group came up $1 million short. It would have been a perfect moment for an aspiring politician to make a few calls to his party’s donor elite, collect the dough, and then share in the credit for a “hooray for Hollywood” moment. Which is exactly what Hugh Hefner did when he wrote a check for the last $900,000.
Pick a season in California and the opportunity exists for politicians to burnish their reputation by connecting their well-heeled friends with very public needs. In springtime, it’s getting Little Leaguers bats and balls and gloves. In the summer, it’s keeping public swimming pools open. In the fall, helping teachers pay for the classroom supplies – a task complicated by AB 1575 and the requirement that California schools can’t charge parents to supplement classroom budgets. Any time of the year: “Christmas in April” for low-income homeowners.
For those who doubt such needs, simply do an Internet search of “California” and “donation,” and you’ll see where acts of individual kindness have stepped in where government can’t or won’t. As for the privileged class’s willingness to participate, voluntarily giving has to be more pleasant than being repeatedly shaken down via millionaire-tax ballot measures like Brown’s Proposition 30 and Darrel Steinberg’s Proposition 63.
Someone who understands how to go about this is Maria Shriver. As California’s first lady, she launched a Heroic Families initiative to support California military families through volunteer efforts. As a world-class networker, she persuaded California businesses to underwrite the effort – convincing AT&T, for one, to donate $50,000 worth of minutes enabling some 3,300 Californians serving in the Middle East to call home.
Shriver, of course, is long gone from Sacramento. But Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom isn’t. And as he plots his political future, maybe he should consider this public-private approach to problem-solving.
First, he’s in an office where reward is rare and respect just as elusive (John McDougall, California’s first lieutenant governor, said it best when offered the job: “I reckon I'll take that. I don't believe anyone else will have it.”). Since the office carries little power, “lite governors” seldom are difference-makers. For example, Newsom was one of several statewide officials who wrote a letter urging both sides to avoid a BART strike in San Francisco. But it was Brown, as governor, who reaped the headlines by ordering a 60-day cooling-off period.
Newsom’s other motivation: defying a tradition of an office that rarely is a steppingstone to bigger gigs.
Over the past century, only four of California’s second-in-commands have served two or more terms: Cruz Bustamante, Leo McCarthy, Glenn Anderson and Clement Calhoun Young. Bustamante finished a distant second in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election; in 2006, he failed in his bid for State Insurance Commissioner, thus becoming the only Democrat since 1998 to lose a statewide down-ticket race. McCarthy twice lost U.S. Senate campaigns. Anderson went on to serve in Congress – a lateral move. Only Young made it to the next tier – elected governor in 1926 and earning two distinctions: California’s first movie-star governor (he played the lead in 1930’s “Governor C.C. Young Hails Greater Talkie Season”); and setting up a commission to look into, ironically, the feasibility of a bridge linking San Francisco to the East Bay.
Gavin Newsom’s blessed with leading-man looks. He also has Maria Shriver’s political smarts. He may turn out to be a carbon copy of Governor C.C. But with few earth-shattering and earth-moving moments on the California horizon, let’s see if the lieutenant governor takes a less conventional approach to his office: less philosopher and more philanthropist, albeit with his wealthy friends’ money.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at firstname.lastname@example.org.