By PETE GOLIS
As California winds down another lackluster campaign season, you can sense the mood of voters in the angry letters to the editor, the guarded promises of candidates and even the lack of political talk at your favorite coffee place.
Californians are worried about the future and discouraged about state government’s inability to make it better.
Among likely voters, 68 percent believe the state is headed in the wrong direction, according to a poll published last week. Sixty-five percent believe the state is headed for bad times, and only 20 percent approve of the work of the state Legislature.
It’s no fun reciting these findings, but they speak to a larger issue: California isn’t just suffering an economic recession, it’s suffering a crisis in leadership.
When you travel to other locales, people still view California as a magical place, but Californians seem to be missing that same appreciation, that sense of home state pride.
Don’t be afraid to think big, Jerry Brown admonished Californians last week in remarks that almost no one noticed. At the 75th birthday party for the Golden Gate Bridge, the governor praised the pioneers who built the bridge and sought to rally support for his own projects, including a bullet train that stretches from San Francisco to Los Angeles and a tunnel system to transport water from the Sacramento River Delta.
“Suck it in,” he declared, “we got to do it right, we got to build. And this bridge I think really expresses that sense.”
Suck it in? Brown may not be the most eloquent of politicians, but we should value his willingness to testify for big ideas. Big ideas, after all, engage the need to find common ground and to invest in a better future.
Those were the impulses that made California great.
Over the past decade, legislative politics in California has been defined by other things — by pettiness and self-interest, by corrosive partisanship and shortsightedness.
The trouble began when the state was flush with revenue and lawmakers decided that there was more money where that came from.
It was as if the state inherited a windfall from a third cousin in Dubuque, and then assumed another unlikely benefactor would turn up next year and the year after. No need for savings. No need for a rainy-day fund.
Even before the economy tanked, the state was cranking out deficits
Along the way, people who seemed to be well-meaning steered California into the ditch and then kept on stepping on the gas pedal.
No need here to recite the damage being caused. In one way or another, the hardships turn up in the newspaper every day.
The reforms that take effect with Tuesday’s election are designed to put an end to this run of bad government. Together, redistricting reform and the so-called top-two primary are supposed to generate a more representative and responsive Legislature — a Legislature less polarized by ideologues on the left and right.
In Sonoma County, the cast of candidates this year features many of the usual insiders, but Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters reported last week that races in many state districts are challenging the political status quo.
Of course, more than new laws will be required to get California moving again.
In February, I wrote about the coming anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge and about the courage and optimism required to build it.
In the middle of the Great Depression, taxpayers in six counties voted to underwrite the debt, fight back against critics and confront wind, rain, fog, tides and dangerous conditions to build the most beautiful bridge in the world.
The task required leadership and people with faith in the future.
Better late than never, the reforms that take effect with this year’s elections promise California a more representative, responsive and contemporary Legislature — and a state government actually capable of doing things.
Along the way, maybe the rest of us will find new resolve as well.
We still live in a place like nowhere else on earth. We are still surrounded by smart people. We still have great wealth.
In other places, folks would be astonished that we would waste so much time bickering and feeling sorry for ourselves. We live in California, for crying out loud.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.