Dan Walters

Opinion: California’s leadership structure is weak

Civic leadership is one of those intangibles whose existence is difficult to define, much less prove.

When a city, a county or a state is functioning well – providing vital public services at reasonable cost, educating its children, balancing its budgets with prudent reserves, prospering economically and culturally – one can infer that it has a effective cadre of civic leadership.

Politics is, after all, a reactive business, and the efficacy of those whom we elect is largely determined by the civic leadership standing behind them.

Call it a “power structure,” if you must, or even more ominously, a “shadow government.” It may not fit our high school civics notion of democracy and can be, of course, corrupt and oppressive.

But it needn’t be. It can be progressive and positive, looking after the longer-term interests of the larger community as it serves its members’ enlightened self-interests – a Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce writ large.

Like those groups, it generally draws members from the dominant economic activities of the community who are invested in its civic well-being.

The vital role played by civic leadership is implied by its absence.

California as a whole has a weak civic leadership structure, vis-à-vis those of other states.

The state has no dominant economic sector, is very large and populous, and has a very diverse, constantly evolving, cultural and demographic matrix.

We Californians tend to see ourselves as residents of a particular region or even city, rather than of the larger state, and our regional rivalries are countless and immutable.

It explains, at least partially, why we have such a difficult time confronting our fundamental statewide issues – why, for instance, we never truly completed, nor enhanced, the magnificent water system that our forebears began, thus leaving us vulnerable when drought struck.

This musing over civic leadership was sparked by what happened in Los Angeles recently. A group of potential civic leaders gathered in a private home, as local media later reported, to explore how they could re-create an effective power structure for a city that once had one but lost it sometime in the last quarter-century as it underwent wrenching economic and cultural change.

The need for such a renaissance is inescapable. Los Angeles has become a drag on the state with its large and growing underclass, a housing crisis and a self-serving, vision-deficient political class.

As UCLA economist William Yu writes, with irrefutable data, “When it comes to economic vitality over the last quarter-century, Los Angeles is in the same league as Cleveland and Detroit, lagging far behind the nation as a whole, and other major metro areas.”

Its contrast with rival San Francisco, which can be wacky but has always had a strong leadership structure, is palpable. Even closer, San Diego also has had a continuity of strong civic engagement.

San Jose and the rest of Silicon Valley are slowly building a civic leadership structure as their high-tech wunderkinds mature.

Meanwhile, Sacramento is struggling to establish one for a government-dominated community that’s not naturally amenable to having one.

Fresno has always had one, but its dominance by one low-paying industry, agriculture, makes civic action difficult.

These communities, and the state as a whole, will rise or fall on their ability to nurture civic engagement.