John Diaz, Glass House

In his latest column, John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, bemoans the tendency of his readers to live in echo chambers of the like-minded, receiving information only from sources they agree with. Yes, political polarization is real and increasing. But as political scientist Brendan Nyhan recently pointed out in a more nuanced and better informed article, American expose themselves to a wider variety of media and information sources than hand-wringers like Diaz acknowledge.

But there does seem to be at least one group of Americans who live in a media echo chamber: Readers of California newspapers.

Look at this list, compiled by the irreplaceable Scott Lay for his daily Nooner report, of newspaper endorsements of statewide candidates and ballot measures for the November 4 election.

I read this list and can't help but marvel how, in a state as big as California, with the most complex economy and most diverse mix of people and cultures on the face of the planet, the state's newspapers manage to walk in virtual lockstep through the ballot.

Why? Partly because this is an election mostly about nothing in a state where one party, the Republicans, is moribund. But notice that in the only three statewide candidate elections where there is any real competition—controller, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction—the endorsements are virtually unanimous. And that's not because those races involve easy or obvious choices. There's a good, informed case to be made for any of the candidates in those contests. But in 26 flips of the coin, the state's newspapers ended up together on heads 23 times.

Diaz denies his newspaper has a "centrist bias." But the papers' very much nonrandom walk through this year's ballot seems a good piece of evidence for what I observed in a career working in journalism: there's no echo chamber louder, no herd more tightly clustered around conventional wisdom, than in a newspaper office.

Strong Mayor? Why? Part 4

The expensive push by out-of-town oligarchs to crown Kevin Johnson as “strong mayor” of Sacramento has spawned a lot of dubious arguments. But the most wrong-headed is the one being retailed by the mayor’s cheerleaders at the Sacramento Bee. Measure L is about Sacramento’s future, they tell us, “this decision should not be about Mayor Johnson.”

In fact, the strong mayor push has always been about Johnson. He and his allies started agitating to give him more power from the moment he was elected in 2008. When their first effort was ruled unconstitutional by the courts, they kept at it, until a city council majority finally agreed last year to put it on the ballot.

In other cities that have voted on strong-mayor measures, it’s been typical to have voters first decide whether they want a strong-mayor system, then separately elect a mayor fit to fill the newly expanded role. Not in Sacramento. Passage of Measure L would immediately give more power to Johnson.

And perhaps only to him. The strong-mayor powers in Measure L go away at the end of 2020 unless voters approve them a second time. Is there anybody who believes that the coalition backing Measure L—billionaire fat cats, developers, sports owners, cops, firefighters—will be ponying up another $1 million in campaign cash to extend the strong mayor if the likely mayor after 2020 were to be a liberal environmentalist, a pension reformer like San Jose’s Mayor Chuck Reed, or a fiscal conservative opposed to welfare for sports owners and other corporate rent-seekers?

No, forget the Bee’s silly argument. Measure L is about Johnson, and nothing else. The voters’ decision about the strong-mayor system is inseparable from the question of whether Kevin Johnson is qualified for promotion to chief executive officer of the city.


What do we know about Johnson’s executive skills? His only prior management experience was running St. HOPE, a small Sacramento non-profit organization. A federal investigation by the inspector general for the Corporation for National and Community Service found that Johnson, in that management role, diverted federal grant money to personal use; illegally forced AmeriCorps members to live in and pay rent on apartments owned by Johnson’s own development company; and illegally required AmeriCorps members to campaign for his favored candidates in a local election.

On one occasion he entered the apartment of an AmeriCorps member he supervised, climbed uninvited into her bed, and put his hand under her shirt. When the young woman reported the sexual harassment to St. HOPE personnel, Johnson sent his personal lawyer to ask her to change her story and later offered her $1,000 a month to keep quiet. In the midst of the federal investigation, a St. HOPE board member was sent to delete Kevin Johnson’s e-mails from the St. HOPE computers, e-mails then under federal subpoena. The superintendent of St. HOPE’s charter schools resigned in protest of these incidents and of other mismanagement and misappropriation of funds by Johnson, as did two widely respected members of the St. HOPE school board, Bernard Bowler, a businessman, and Robert Trigg, former superintendent of Elk Grove schools.

Johnson’s record of managing his current mayoral duties follows the same pattern. A top aide stole more the $19,000 from taxpayers by charging personal items to a city credit card. The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission has fined him twice for failing to report dozens of gifts from businesses and corporate foundations to his political machine’s front groups. In 2012, as the lead city council opponent of the Measure U tax increase to balance the city budget, he was designated to write the opposing ballot argument. He forgot to submit it. “As a result, no argument against Measure U was included on the ballot,” the Sacramento County Grand Jury found.

Over the course of my career, I’ve often been involved in hiring decisions. I think it’s fair to say that on none of those occasions, in either the private or the public sector, would a candidate with Kevin Johnson’s record have been considered an appropriate choice for even a minor supervisory position, let alone chief executive officer of a $900 million-a-year enterprise with more than 4,000 employees, the position he is seeking with Measure L. In fact, hiring a manager with that record would likely be seen in court as recklessly negligent, putting at risk both the property of shareholders and the safety of employees.

And it’s also fair to say, I think, that the same standards would apply to hiring at the companies of the oligarchs funding the Measure L campaign. Theft of public funds, political corruption, sexual harassment of employees, coverup, neglect of oversight and rules—that’s not the résumé you want to send when you apply for a management job at Apple, Disney, Bloomberg, or even the Sacramento Bee.

So here’s the question that hangs in the air, unasked by the media and unanswered by the oligarchs behind Measure L: If you would never hire someone with Kevin Johnson’s sleazy record to manage your own businesses, why do you insist he’s good enough to manage our city?

Assault Rifles and Ice Buckets

A lot of people have found it a bit jarring this week as the media, corporate and social, have alternately served up images of militarized police putting down citizen protest in Ferguson, Missouri, and super-rich CEOs dousing themselves with ice buckets for charity. The social distance between those sets of pictures, they suggest, is a measure of America’s second Gilded Age.

In fact, they underestimate that distance, as well as the differences between our time and the first Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

The titans of Gilded Age industry, who owned the national government, were not shy about the proper response to those Americans unhappy with great gaps in wealth and power. In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Railway World, the voice of the industry, declared that it was “one of the imperative duties of all governments” to break the strike “even if the drums must beat, the glittering bayonets advance, the breech-loading rifles pour forth death-dealing volleys…the Gatling guns mow down crowds…, and if heavy artillery must batter down whole towns that become citadels of folly and crime.” Governments obliged: militias killed at least 69 people and wounded many more.

The railroad strike and continuing labor protest set off an armory-building and police-militarization boom.

New York City’s government, its finances crippled by the 1870s depression, couldn’t pay for a new armory for the New York militia’s Seventh Regiment, a unit so dominated by the wealthy that historian Sven Beckert writes “it might be better characterized as an armed version of the Union Club than as an institution of state.” So the business elite—Astors, Dodges, Singers, Vanderbilts—raised the money to build it themselves.

For tactical reasons, the building was relocated from working-class downtown to the upper East Side. “A majority of the men live above Thirty-Fifth Street, and their rallying-point must be readily accessible in case of sudden calls,” the New York Times explained. The exterior was constructed as a fortress, with iron-shuttered rifle loopholes, from which, as one newspaper explained, shooters could “pick off advancing crowds,” and a tower where “two or three Gatling guns could be mounted…and sweep (Park) avenue.” True to its funders' social pedigree and tastes, the interior of the building, financed through a three-week fair on the grounds kicked off by President Rutherford B. Hayes himself, was designed and furnished by Louis C. Tiffany, complete with a library in old mahogany and a colonel’s room finished in “polished French black walnut.”

Seventh Regiment Armory, New York City

In Chicago, Marshall Field, the department store magnate, underwrote a similar militarization. He donated land three blocks from his home on the city’s “Millionaire’s Row,” an address he shared with fellow grandees like George Pullman and Phillip Armour, for the construction of the First Regiment Armory: “The two upper stories, on top of the massive masonry of the first floor, are crowned at the angles by great bastions, from which an enfilade fire may be directed against any side of the walls,” as a contemporary observer described it. Field and his associates then furnished the police with four twelve-pound cannons, a Gatling gun, 296 breech-loading rifles and 60,000 bullets.

First Regiment Armory, Chicago

In other words, in the late 19th century, when the Robber Barons wanted a militarized police force to defend their wealth and power from those left behind, they often had to reach into their own pockets to supply the guns and even carry a gun themselves as a militiaman.

In our time, the super-rich are under no such obligation. They and their offspring leave the carrying guns to others. Their taxes having been slashed by George Bush, they did not even have to pay for the military weapons originally purchased on the national credit card for the wars of the last decade, the surplus weapons now being handed down to police departments to brandish at the discontented.

No, in our time, it is the people of places like Ferguson, the people left behind in an increasingly unequal nation, who will have to pay, as taxpayers and inheritors of the national debt, for the rifles and armored vehicles pointed at them when they grow restless with the status quo.

In such places in our America, every day is an ice bucket over the head.

The Scent of the City

A year ago, when Sacramento's city staff presented the council with an analysis of the proposed giveaway to the new owners of the Kings, I wondered why it paled, in economic sophistication and concern for the public interest, beside a similar analysis performed for the Maloof family. We now know the answer: Corruption.

In a deposition given in the lawsuit that citizens have filed against the giveaway, James Rinehart, the city's economic development director, testified that the city's staff has made no effort to analyze the economic effect of the subsidy or weigh it against the potential benefits of alternative uses of the money. In fact, Rinehart admitted he had never seen the giveaway term sheet and was unaware of any effort by the city to place a value on the non-cash assets—land, parking spaces, digital signage rights—it proposes to throw into the deal.

Hiram Johnson

Hiram Johnson

So how did the city staff report come to conclude that the giveaway "would have multiple benefits to the City"? Documents discovered in the lawsuit show that those claims of benefits were invented by the subsidy seekers themselves, e-mailed to the city, and, by the magic of cut and paste, placed into the staff report, where the city's elected leaders and the public were defrauded into believing they were reading the considered judgment of the professionals of government. When the city staff spoke, the welfare seekers' lips moved.

If you think this kind of thing is par for the course in government, you're wrong. As a deputy treasurer for the state of California, sitting on boards and financing authorities and overseeing staff work on behalf of the treasurer, I watched professional public servants test the claims of organizations seeking state financing and tax credits and analyze the potential risks and benefits to the public. Their scrutiny was applied routinely and across the board, even to projects and financings three or four orders of magnitude smaller than the proposed Kings giveaway, which at over $300 million, is roughly equivalent to an entire year's worth of pay and benefits for Sacramento's city workforce. For the past three decades I've often seen Sacramento's city council bend to the wishes of the developers, downtown property owners, and unions whose dollars dominate city politics. But until now, the city staff, under honest professionals like former city manager Bill Edgar, usually played things straight.

But the evidence collected thus far in the lawsuit shows that the city management's sins go beyond playing ventriloquist dummy to those looking to boost $300 million out of taxpayer pockets. Staff is also actively obstructing the public's right to know. Councilmember Kevin McCarty testified that he repeatedly asked staff for a valuation of the "sweeteners" the city was throwing at the Kings' superrich owners but was consistently rebuffed. "You're not going to vote for it anyway," McCarty said the staff told him.

This, too, is misconduct. In my time at the State Treasurer's Office, many of California's financing authority boards comprised three officials running for governor: Phil Angelides, Steve Westly, Arnold Schwarzenegger. But in their frequent jockeying and disputes, I can't remember a single instance of the professional staff's withholding requested information from an elected official, even when doing so might result in a different policy result than they or their boss sought. When such things happen in state government, as when parks officials failed to report all their revenue to the governor's finance department, it was rightly considered a scandal.


A century ago Progressives successfully pushed many American cities to adopt the city-manager form of government as an antidote to corruption. The idea was that professional civil servants, disinterested and armed with the social science and economic knowledge coming out of the newly burgeoning universities, would be a source of honest, efficient government. Cities would be freed from the handouts and special deals for politically connected businesses that bribed politicians and financed their campaigns and political organizations. Reform would protect the many against the few.

But Progressives did not imagine what is unfolding in Sacramento: professional managers marching in lockstep with wealthy boodle seekers; ignoring principles of sound public finance; rejecting expert knowledge showing the economic infectiveness of sports subsidies; putting special-interest spin into official reports to masquerade as professional analysis; depriving the public and elected officials of a full accounting of their sweetheart deals; even going so far as to try to frustrate Sacramento citizens' use of the very tools of direct democracy that the Progressive created as the bulwark against special interest giveaways and corrupt government.

The state of the city is fragile: Public services and budgets not recovered five years after the end of the recession. High levels of debt and unfunded liabilities, of violent crime and poverty. Low levels of job growth and the college-educated workers vital to future growth.

But the scent of the city? Ripe with a stench that Hiram Johnson, the reformer, and Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist, would have smelled in their youth in Sacramento—so ripe that maybe the people paid to report on and police these things might even begin to notice again.

NBA Handout? Let Voters Decide

It now looks like there’s a chance that the decision about whether to pay extortion to the billionaires of the National Basketball Association could be made by the people of Sacramento themselves. Two lawyers representing opponents of the subsidy to the Kings franchise have sent a letter to the city’s leaders asking for a public vote on the question and suggesting that a referendum is likely if the city council does not itself seek voter approval.

A public vote is a good idea. As we pointed out in California Crackup, the referendum is the underused tool in the kit of California direct democracy. Unlike the state’s inflexible initiative, which is used for getting around elected lawmakers and tying their hands, the referendum is about holding a conversation: Our representatives make decisions and through the referendum we voters tell them whether they got it right, or should go back and try again.

The people’s right to pass judgment on legislative action through the referendum is guaranteed in the California constitution and Sacramento’s city charter. “The powers of the initiative, referendum and the recall of elected municipal officers are hereby reserved to the electors of the city,” the charter states, echoing the language of the state constitution. “All ordinances which may be passed by the city council shall be subject to referendum, whenever the use of the initiative or referendum is permitted by state law applicable to cities,” the charter provides. Qualifying a referendum against the issuance of revenue bonds for the arena would require signatures of 10 percent of the number of people voting for governor at the 2010 general election, or about 12,000 people.

If the past is truly prologue, though, expect Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his allies on the council to do everything they can to avoid making voters part of the conversation.

As the lawyers’ letter notes, “Last year, the City Council expressly voted not to allow the residents of Sacramento an opportunity to vote on the prior version of the proposed subsidy,” and put off taking any legislative act that might have triggered a referendum vote. It is the standard tactic of these sports extortion games to use a combination of delay and made-up deadlines to turn subsidy decisions into moments of crisis, where drama reigns and emotion defeats evidence and logic.

Expect Johnson and the friends of the billionaires to tell citizens that there can’t be a public vote because the deadline is too near—even though the deadline is too near because they wanted it that way. Expect them to follow the same path as the city of Santa Clara, which blocked a voter referendum on the subsidy for the new 49er stadium. Sacramento City Attorney Jim Sanchez has already claimed to reporters that the council’s upcoming March 28 vote on a “term sheet” for an arena handout isn’t subject to voter review because it isn’t a “final” act.

But California courts have found that the referendum right applies broadly to all legislative acts by city councils, and state law explicitly recognizes the referendum can be used, for example, to test voter approval of issuing revenue bonds, which would likely be used in any arena subsidy scheme. A time will come, perhaps many of them, when the council will have take a legislative action to make an arena subsidy real, and thereby trigger a referendum opportunity.

As divisive as the sports corporate welfare issue is, any attempt by Sacramento’s leaders to deny the city’s citizens their final say in such a critical decision would be more explosive still. Wouldn’t it be better to have the civic conversation upfront, before voices get raised and lawsuits filed?

Will Sacramento Be a Sucker For the Kings?

Your city is plagued with high unemployment, rising crime, declining public services, and unfunded liabilities that now amount to $2 billion, or about $5,000 per resident. What do you do?

Well, if you are the Sacramento City Council, you vote, 7-2, to signal your willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars you don’t have to subsidize a billionaire by building a basketball arena. “Every great city has a coliseum,” said Steve Hansen, a council member.

But the question for Sacramento is not what great cities have but what measures a failing city should take to make itself great. Paying corporate welfare to the rich doesn’t even make the list (something that Hansen, a corporate lobbyist himself, may be professionally forbidden to recognize.) At Zócalo Public Square today I explain how the dark side of sports loyalty blinds those whom the gods wish to destroy.

The Wages of Primary 'Reform'

Darrell Issa
Darrell Issa

The promise of primary reform, including California’s new jungle primary law, was that it would lead to more moderation in politics. Widen the electorate in primary elections beyond all those nasty partisans, the reformers told us, and those elected would be more responsive to a broader range of views.

Richard Winger at Ballot Access News uses the House Republican vote on the fiscal cliff bargain to test that promise. His conclusion? “When one breaks down the list of Republicans who had been re-elected in November 2012, one finds that Republican members from closed primary states were far more likely to vote for the bill than Republicans from states with more open primaries,” including California’s undemocratic new system.

That doesn’t count as definitive evidence, but it’s a reminder that we are still waiting for the reformers to show us any evidence that the changes they pimped have had any benefit at all.

Joel Fox's Secret Money

While I’m on the subject of Jerry Brown’s whining, let me point out that one of his whines is entirely justified: It’s outrageous and beyond the pale that Joel Fox and the campaign against Props 30 and for 32 are polluting the election with an anonymous $11 million laundered through an Arizona “non-profit,” Americans for Responsible Leadership, which lists among its public purposes — you can’t make this stuff up — “educating the public about concepts that advance government accountability, transparency, ethics….”

For years right wingers have been opposing restrictions on campaign contributions. All that’s needed, they told us, is sunshine. Early in the George W. Bush years, when Congress was considering and then passing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, conservatives offered as an alternative the bill called DeLay-Doolittle—as I say, you can’t make this stuff up. It called for deregulating campaign finance and leaving only a robust requirement for electronic disclosure of all campaign contributions.

But as Mark Schmitt recently observed, the right wingers didn’t really mean it. They have now turned into full-throated opponents of disclosure as well, a position Joel Fox echoes in his limp defense of secret contributions.

Read More

'Orwellian,' Jerry? Look in the Mirror

Jerry Brown has hit the Prop 30 campaign trail this week, in full whine. With poll numbers like this and this, his bad mood is easy to understand. But is his whining justified?

The governor calls the opponents “Orwellian” for their recent TV ad saying that Prop 30 will raise the tax on gasoline. But the fact of the matter is that the issue is cloudy.

Prop 30’s opponents make a plausible legal argument that the provisions of Brown’s measure, written to be a constitutional amendment, will yield a higher tax on gasoline and diesel because of the way they interact with the contortions the Legislature has gone through in recent years on swapping sales taxes on fuels for fuel excise taxes. The Legislative Analyst disagrees, but that office brings no legal expertise to the table on the issue. This would not be the first time an initiative created unintended effects because of poor drafting. Given the complex tangle of fiscal knots with which California has bound itself in its laws and constitution, differing interpretations of how the law works are inevitable, and hardly the stuff of Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm.

When Brown invoked Orwell, perhaps he was thinking about his own ads for Prop 30. In this television spot, state Controller John Chiang looks into the camera and says, with a straight face, that Prop 30 “means no more school cuts, with strict accountability. Sacramento politicians can’t touch the money….”

None of that is true, of course. Prop 30 temporarily raises taxes and state revenue, thereby reducing the state’s deficit and avoiding the trigger cuts to schools Brown and legislative Democrats enacted to threaten voters. But it doesn’t guarantee that schools won’t be cut more in the future, either when the next recession arrives (as it surely will) or when the tax increase expires, some of it in four years and the rest in seven.

Nor does it put the money off limits to “Sacramento politicians.” The extra revenue created by Prop 30 will free up an equal amount of money that can be budgeted for any purpose. That budgetary flexibility is the great advantage Prop 30 holds over Molly Munger’s Prop 38, which is mostly earmarked only for schools and pre-school. It’s why Brown’s measure has attracted support from health advocates, hospitals, social services providers, prison guards, universities, and the like. The extra revenue protects programs they care about, and that many voters care about too. (Has anybody bothered to tell all those aging baby boomers opposing Prop 30 that they are voting against funding the Medi-Cal program that will pay for their nursing homes?) Giving the people we elect more authority and discretion in raising and spending money is essential to making California governable.

But Brown and his hired liars are afraid to say so. Instead, the Prop 30 campaign puts out ads in which a Sacramento politician tells us untruths about what Sacramento politicians can or can’t do with the money the measure raises. It’s easy to understand why they do that. But understanding why someone might say “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” doesn’t stop it from being Orwellian.

Welcome to the Top-Two Bloodbath

California is now in the middle of the second round of its reformy new two-round general election system.

The first round, what I call the clusterfuck, finished in June. That was when voters tried to sort through long lists of candidates they had often never heard of to narrow down the field to two for the November runoff.

The second round is what I call the bloodbath. It is the moment when some districts will conduct an election between two candidates of the same party.

Read More

Prop 31 Crashes and Burns

The California Budget Project, long the gold standard for intellectual honesty and rigor in California policy analysis, has published its overview of Proposition 31 on the November ballot.

The analysis is long and detailed. (How could it be otherwise for a ponderous jumbo-jet of a ballot measure, which weighs in at over 8,000 words, longer than the original U.S. Constitution plus its subsequent 225 years of amendments?) But it’s worth the time. The CPB doesn’t take positions on measures, but as you read, you will feel the damning details add up, like ice glazing the wings, until the plane stalls under the accumulated weight, falls out of the sky, crashes, and burns.

Read More

Will Kyle Palmer Ride Again in San Diego?

“[Kyle] Palmer was nothing if not consistent. He had been the kingmaker of Republican politics in California since the 1930s. Short, cynical, curly haired, bow tied, and pushing sixty in 1950, he was known by friends and enemies alike as Mr. Republican or the Little Governor. When candidates came by… to pay him a visit, it was known as 'going to kiss Kyle’s ring.’ He felt that telling candidates what to do was improper, but he expected them to follow his 'advice.’ Asked what happened when they didn’t, he replied, 'they got into trouble… political trouble.’ Palmer once advised Richard Nixon to smile when he clobbered an opponent—and apparently Nixon took the instruction to heart.”

So writes Greg Mitchell in his fine book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas—Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950. If your hair has not yet turned gray, you have likely guessed Kyle Palmer was a paid political consultant or strategist. Your guess would be only half right. Palmer was indeed paid but his employer was the Los Angeles Times. As political editor there, he wrote articles, columns, and editorials to make or break candidates according to the dictates of the Times’ GOP political agenda.

California has not seen Palmer’s like in journalism for many years, but in San Diego the clock is being turned back.

The paper that used to be the Union-Tribune but that now is brutally called U-T San Diego will be hosting a September 11 invitation-only event to advise Republican candidates how to present themselves to the media and secure the paper’s endorsement. (A spokesman for U-T San Diego told Politico a more sparsely attended event will later be held for Democrats.)

Democrats may be excused wondering whether they have been invited to lunch or to be lunch, because it is clear that Doug Manchester, the developer who bought the declining paper last year (to which he has now added the North County Times), is taking it boldly into the past. He uses its pages to tout his development plans with front-page editorials, bully local officials who don’t support his efforts to grab taxpayer dollars for himself and the local pro football franchise, and trumpet far-right views and candidates. On the U-T website you will find a page, Seeing Red, of right-wing commentary, including a U-T editorial predicting a second Obama term will lead to U.S. abandonment of Israel, Medicare death panels, and removal of “In God We Trust” from coins. A search for a comparable See Blue page yields the following image:

How U-T sees blue

Nonetheless, by the standards of Palmer and the newspapers publishers of the last century, including Joseph Knowland of the Oakland Tribune and George Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle, Manchester and his rag are still minor league.

Palmer recruited candidates, taught them what positions to take and how to take them, wrote their speeches and radio scripts, and tore down their opponents. The publishers in Oakland and San Francisco were GOP kingmakers in the north state. I was made editorial page editor of the Oakland Tribune shortly after it had passed from the Knowland family to the Gannett chain. During my long march of conducting endorsements interviews of local candidates, old-timers would tease me that I was doing it all wrong. In the Knowland days, they explained to me, the publisher would pick the candidates he wanted to run for each local office. The paper would then forget to cover their rivals. This procedure saddened reporters and editors wishing to do serious journalism but gave them much more time to drown their sorrow at the bar next door.

Palmer, according to Mitchell, was more generous with the unanointed. In the 1950 U.S. Senate campaign between Nixon and Douglas “Palmer’s idea of balanced coverage was reflected in his public explanation that even though his newspaper opposed Helen Douglas 'from time to time, as space allows, news accounts of what she has to say and what she is doing will be published.’”

Many people will have no problem with a form of journalism that returns from professional to partisan—just look at the rise of Fox News. Those in San Diego who want to look at the world through open eyes are lucky to have an online alternative, Voice of San Diego, which has already replaced the self-destructing U-T as that city's most reliable and interesting source of local news and commentary. If you don't want to see the return of Kyle Palmer, you might consider sending some dollars their way.

The Bee Drops the Veil

In a September 9 editorial the Sacramento Bee announced it is abandoning the newspaper’s long support for the death penalty.

“For most of its 162 years as a state, California has had laws on the books authorizing the death penalty. And for nearly all of its 155 years as a newspaper, The Bee has lent its support to those laws and use of capital punishment to deter violence and punish those convicted of the most horrible of crimes,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.

“That changes today. The death penalty in California has become an illusion, and we need to end the fiction.”

You will note the ambiguity of that “we.” Is it the editorial “we?” Or is it “we, the people of California?” The editorial promiscuously mingles the two. A careful reader will conclude it is most likely the latter; a reader who served a long tenure writing editorials for the Bee — someone like, well, me — will understand that the ambiguity is real and (possibly) quite deliberate.

“We need to end the fiction.” Memory can’t provide an exact count of how often that phrase was spoken at the Bee’s editorial board during the nineteen years, from 1985 to 2004, I spent there. But a good approximation would be this: those words or something like them were uttered every time some ballot measure or court decision obligated the paper to speak on the death penalty.

Because the fact of the matter is that the “Bee” that supported the death penalty wasn’t the Bee of the people who wrote in its voice. I think it’s fair to say that at no time while I worked at the Bee would the death penalty have won the support of the majority of the editorial board. Simply put, the Bee that supported the death penalty was the McClatchy family that owned the paper.

Acting as mouthpiece for the deeply held but lightly considered views of newspaper owners is part of the editorial writer’s job description. Those of us who worked for McClatchy were lucky on that score. C.K. McClatchy, the editor who hired me and a prince of a man, liked his views well thought out, and went out of his way to hire people capable of putting such views into his newspapers. The list of things about which he was both adamant and wrong was short and always subject to trimming through the proper application of logic and evidence. Only the death penalty was untouchable. No arguments or logic from editorial board writers could shake its hold.

But that hardly mattered. As the Bee’s editorial makes clear, California has had the death penalty in name only; the state has conducted more statewide elections than executions in the last two decades. It wasn’t a great moral hardship for us to support a policy that rarely occasioned sitting down at the keyboard to say so. And when readers complained that the Bee was unthinkingly liberal in all things, we could point to the paper’s support of the death penalty as evidence that we could be unthinkingly conservative too.

I have no idea how the family’s heart was changed or even if the family cares any more what the papers it owns write on their editorial pages. But I congratulate Stuart Leavenworth and the other members of the current editorial board. Change is hard, but they have ended the fiction.

I ask them to consider only one thing. The next time they sit down to write an editorial to berate the Legislature or Congress for not doing this or that, let them take a moment first to reflect on the Bee’s own experience.

By their own account, it has been blindingly clear forever that the death penalty is expensive, unjust, and ineffective. Yet it has taken the Bee, as an institution, a whole 155 years to figure that out.

If it takes so long for a simple institution, in which a decision rests with a handful of writers and executives, to get a big and emotional issue right, imagine what it takes for a legislative body or government to do the same. If those who have completed a long journey to the light will not appreciate the difficulties others face in moving complex institutions, and if they will not offer respect for their successes, who in our culture of instant gratification will?

The Shadow Government of Kevin Johnson

In 2008 I ran into Kevin Johnson, the former NBA basketball star, at a restaurant near his condo in midtown Sacramento. I congratulated him on advancing into the runoff in his campaign to oust then-Mayor Heather Fargo. He thanked me, and then asked if I had any advice.

I replied that the most important skill in politics was being able to say “no” to the people funding his campaign. As I spoke, Johnson winced, as if having gas pains. “But they all want something,” he moaned. “Sure they do,” I said. “But remember what the great Jesse Unruh said. ‘If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and then vote against them, you have no business being up here.’”

In a terrific bit of reporting at Sacramento News & Review, Cosmo Garvin makes clears that my playfully offered advice was not heeded.

As Sacramento’s mayor, Johnson has built a shadow machine of nonprofit front groups funded through large and often undisclosed contributions. Although figures at Sacramento City Hall have long had ties to state government and the Legislature—former mayor Phil Isenberg was a legislative staffer, Fargo was a parks bureaucrat—Johnson is the first to tap so heavily into the assembled hordes of lobbyists, consultants, liars for hire, and fund-raisers who have infested the capital city as a result of the Prop 13 centralization of power in California. In fact, it is hard to know for certain whether Johnson formed what Garvin calls KJ Inc. to advance his political fortunes and whether KJ Inc. has latched on to him as a way to generate fat paydays for themselves.

Whichever may be the case, the strategy has worked. The four years of Johnson’s tenure as mayor has been the worst of times for Sacramento. Its economy is among the worst performing in the nation, public safety is being cut in the face of one of the highest big-city crime rates in the country, foreclosures have been rife, and the city budget, burdened with outsize pay and pensions for cops and firefighters, faces a large structural gap. Yet Johnson has done little to nothing on the housing front and has declined to pursue the full-court press for pension reform such as that pushed by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. Instead he devoted his attentions to a clownish pursuit of building an arena for the equally clownish NBA Kings franchise. A failure in every respect, he nonetheless had built so formidable a money and institutional machine around him that no serious candidate was willing to challenge him for reelection.

So I’m changing my political advice. To wannabe politicians: Don’t worry about being good, just try to look good.

Another Bad Day for California Haters

Apparently the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics hasn’t gotten the word that California is a terrible, no good, rotten place doomed to sink into economic decrepitude. It has reported again that California led the nation in job growth last month and over the last year. As economist Stephen Levy notes, California accounted for half of all the jobs added in the country in May and June.

Let’s be clear. None of this means the economy is fully recovered. An unemployment rate of 10.7 percent statewide is reason to cheer only because the rate was so much higher two years ago. California, like the rest of the nation and the world, still suffers from the fallout from the collapse of the housing bubble, the resulting recession and budget crisis, and huge losses of jobs in construction, government, and education. California, like everyone else, is being held back by the political paralysis of decision makers in the Federal Reserve and Congress. There’s lot of work to do.

But what the numbers do show is that the California haters are full of hooey, and always have been.

As always, the numbers show that there is no such thing as a “California economy.” What people call the California economy is an umbrella term for a collection of regional economies, each with its own mix of industries.

Under the California umbrella fall both the San Joaquin Valley, with its deep poverty and low-wage businesses, and Silicon Valley, with booming companies like Apple and Facebook. The differences in economic performance between regions in California are far larger than the differences between California and the nation as a whole. The jobless rates in the San Joaquin Valley regions are the highest in the nation; the rates in San Francisco, San Jose, and the central coast are now lower than in New York City, Miami, Atlanta, and Chicago, and are falling faster.

If there is something uniquely debilitating about California, as the California haters keep telling us, apparently it’s not strong enough to keep the state’s most vibrant regions from outperforming some of the world’s best cities.

High-speed rail: A green light for Molly Munger

The morning after the California Senate approved funding for high-speed rail, the Sacramento Bee carried a front-page photo of Senate president Darrell Steinberg giving a double fist pump of victory. As glad as Steinberg appeared to be, though, it’s hard to imagine that Molly Munger, the Pasadena civil rights attorney, wasn’t even happier. By approving high-speed rail, legislative Democrats and Jerry Brown have just given away their best argument against her school-funding measure on the November ballot.

To understand why, you have to get beyond the media’s careless habit of lumping Munger’s proposal with Jerry Brown’s rival budget measure as competing “tax measures.”

Yes, both measures do temporarily raise taxes — Brown’s on everyone, Munger’s on households in the upper half of incomes, both with the heaviest increase put on the very wealthy. But the measures differ sharply in purpose and aspiration.

Brown’s measure is about eating your spinach. It raises taxes temporarily in the hopes of stabilizing the budget at the current austerity levels of state spending. It aims at keeping things from getting worse.

Munger’s measure, on the other hand, injects only a part of the revenue it raises into Sacramento — to help pay down debt and relieve some of the pressure of interest payments on the state budget. Mostly it aims to work a revolution in school funding for the purpose of closing the achievement and opportunity gap that is California’s most pressing challenge.

Munger’s measure would route the new money around state and district bureaucracies, keeping it off the bargaining table, and give it directly to schools, where parents would be given a larger role in deciding how to spend it to benefit their own children. Munger is inviting California, after years of austerity and muddling, to think big.

For months Brown and his union allies have been bashing Munger for irresponsibility. California needed to put first things first, they said. New tax dollars should go to putting the state’s budget house in order, not tackling problems in big and bold ways. Munger’s measure came at the wrong time, they charged, threatening confusion and the defeat of Brown’s more responsible approach.

And now, after the high-speed rail vote, Californians understand they didn’t mean a word of it.

By any reasonable reckoning, the high-speed rail plan approved by the Legislature is not ready for prime time. As both the Legislative Analyst and independent observers have pointed out, the state doesn’t have a clue about how to finance the project. High-speed rail, which will raise greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades, will compete for funding with the urban transit projects of greater economic and environmental value that California so badly needs to deal both with congestion and its climate goals. It tells you all you need to know about the viability of the plan that the senators most knowledgeable about high speed rail (and among its biggest boosters for years) voted against it.

But reasonable reckoning did not win out. Nor did Brown’s previous call for “a modicum of stoicism.” What carried the day, at least rhetorically, was the injunction to think big.

“I think what we did today,” Steinberg declaimed, “is going to be seen over many years, and many decades, as a turning point in California, a time when we decided to say ’yes’ to hope, ’yes’ to progress, ’yes’ to the future.”

If California can put aside caution and budget restraint to pursue a big and expensive frill like high-speed rail, can there be any doubt about the message the state’s leaders are implicitly sending when it comes to dealing with schools, the state’s (and voters’) highest priority, and to Munger’s call to revitalize them?

To the future! they are saying. Go, Molly, go.

Richie Ross Spills the Beans on Top Two

It’s not every day you hear a political consultant complain about election rules that stuff money into his pocket. But that’s just what Richie Ross, the veteran Democratic political consultant, did in a recent op-ed criticizing California’s new top-two election system.

The big story of the new system, Ross writes, “is that these latest ’reforms’ resulted in outcomes that don’t change much but cost a lot more.”

Read More

Bad News for California Haters

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that California led the nation in job growth in May, creating 33,900 jobs. Over the last year, California added 221,500 jobs, continuing the recovery that began in earnest last year, when the state’s real growth outpaced the country’s as a whole. California’s performance is even more notable because it has been achieved against major headwinds, particularly the continuing depression in housing construction (housing starts are projected this year to be only about a quarter of the housing bubble peak) and the shrinking of government employment due to budget cuts.

This is, of course, very bad news. A whole industry has grown up around the meme that California is an economic cesspool, bound to fester in the sun for the rest of eternity because of — take your pick — hostility to business, environmental extremism, rampant spending, “imperial” public employee unions, exorbitant taxes, illegal immigrants.

Read More