Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: Steve Glazer, a man for this season?

Even as the BART strike in the Bay Area becomes fish-wrap, Steve Glazer is pressing on with his mission: to ban all strikes against public transit systems. “The issue,” he said in a handout when the trains started rolling again, “is not over.”

In a state where the Democrats who dominate government are so beholden to public-sector unions, that seems like a hopelessly quixotic mission, even a self-destructive one for a Democrat who’s running for the Assembly.

But it could also be a sign of a new era in California politics, the age of the “top-two primary” with its radical de-emphasis of political parties. Maybe Glazer, a man for all seasons, is dumb as a fox.

Glazer has been in California politics since, as a student at San Diego State not long out of Sacramento’s McClatchy High School, he first campaigned for Jerry Brown in the late 1970s. He’s managed initiative campaigns, worked in legislative offices, run (and runs) a political consulting firm and now serves as mayor of the East Bay city of Orinda.

Most famously, he was a major player in getting Brown elected to his third term as governor in 2010 and in the passage of Proposition 30, Brown’s long-shot tax increase, last year.

And like Brown, who in 1998 announced he was changing his registration from Democrat to independent, then flipped back, Glazer, may not have party loyalty first on his list of political priorities.

His timing on the strike ban couldn’t have been better. In the face of the decision of BART’s unions last month to walk out over a set of issues about work rules that virtually no one understood, he likely began with the votes of most of BART’s 400,000 angry, frustrated commuters, and a lot of others as well.

What Republican extremists did to the nation (and to themselves) with the government shutdown in Washington last month, the two striking BART unions did in the oh-so-liberal Bay Area.

That hardly assures victory in Glazer’s race for the Assembly, much less in getting a law banning public-transit strikes passed in Sacramento. He has the support of a gaggle of East Bay city officials, but with the possible exception of state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, who’s promised to “pursue every possible remedy to ensure this never happens again,” no Democrat in the Legislature has signed on.

“Where’s the leadership?” Glazer asked when we spoke during the week of the strike. Some legislators, not to mention Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, showed their leadership by lobbying the BART board on behalf of the unions.

Glazer’s no-strike proposal is glaringly open-ended. He knows enough about politics to leave out all the devilish details. He lists transit systems subject to no-strike laws – New York, Chicago, Massachusetts, Washington, San Francisco – and he has spoken elsewhere about how well workers are treated where cops, firefighters and other public-safety workers are prohibited from striking.

But he also acknowledges that in many of those jurisdictions the quid pro quo is binding arbitration, which is often dominated by the unions, leaving management with no control over their own budgets and easy excuses for the costs to taxpayers.

Yet as long as the unions can browbeat BART and other agencies into generous contracts, as they did in this strike, why shouldn’t they fiercely defend the system they’ve got?

Don’t mistake Glazer, with his sometimes low-key nerdy demeanor, for a soft-touch lefty. As a consultant, he’s working for the Chamber of Commerce’s JobsPAC to find sympathetic Democratic legislative candidates, and, according to reports in The Sacramento Bee, has “helped real estate developers overcome public opposition to their projects.” More fundamentally, he seems perfectly in sync with Brown’s political pragmatism. But don’t mistake him for a knee-jerk union-basher either.

All labor has been in a struggle to maintain its membership and some modicum of political influence at a time when hard-line right-wingers control more and more state legislatures. Even in California, conservatives have come close to passing so-called “paycheck protection” measures intended to starve unions of their funding.

Yet in California, as elsewhere, public-sector unions remain the most effective defenders of decent public services – in education, in health care, in welfare, in the maintenance of parks – and in speaking for civil rights, and like the SEIU in its Justice for Janitors campaign, in organizing immigrant workers.

Glazer says that despite the abuse and threats he was getting from BART workers for his no-strike proposal, funding for his Assembly campaign hasn’t been affected. He got nothing from the unions before he announced it, and he’s still getting nothing. But he says he’s getting more from individuals than anyone else.

Certainly a lot more people now know his name. And in a new system without party primaries, where the top two candidates in the “primary” election face off in November, even if they’re from the same party, a candidate like Glazer in a suburban district that’s 40 percent Democratic and 33 percent Republican may be a perfect fit.