California is “ungovernable.” Or so goes the popular meme. To describe the depth of the hole in which the Golden State now finds itself, our state’s political class postures, pleads, blames those wonderfully bromidic phrases—“ballot-box budgeting,” “gerrymandered partisanship,” and “supermajority-gridlock.” But in the end, that political class seems to do nothing to stop its excesses. Government in California tends to prefer possessing authority to taking responsibility.
This state is the current and often future home of Stanford students. It is the place in which many of us will seek employment, pay taxes, and build a future—right here in Silicon Valley or perhaps another part of California. And this state, with the seventh largest economy in the world, faces a harsh reality. It boasts unemployment at 1 in 8 people, a projected $14.4 billion budget shortfall, overcrowded prisons, failing schools, decaying infrastructure, and maddening political stalemate over the fiscal course we must chart.
It also faces a choice, between former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and former Governor Jerry Brown, for the governorship. Californians are looking for someone who will restore a sense of perspective, of normalcy, of a general assumption of progress, to state government. We want a governor who campaigns to govern, instead of one who governs to campaign for the next office—attorney general, senior lobbyist, senator, president. And we want a governor who can sacrifice clout with a political base to accomplish some good for the state.
We want a governor who is not completely beholden to party interests because gubernatorial power, particularly in California, faces limitations. In order to enact a budget and to cut or raise taxes, a 2/3 supermajority in the state legislature, essentially a majority with veto power, must give its approval. California employs direct democracy through ballot initiatives with greater license and frequency than almost any other state. More than 7000 overlapping jurisdictions, at the county and city levels, with their own elected officials, entrenched interests, and frequently overpaid bureaucracies, dominate the political scene.
Together, these characteristics of California’s government system may go a long way towards explaining why California’s governor’s race, despite historic spending and widespread coverage, still lacks a sense of clarity. Apart from trying to win over swing voters, both candidates need to work within the rest of the political system, which will wield power regardless of the outcome of the election. For instance, Whitman assures Latinos that “clearly, when examining our positions on immigration, there is very little over which Jerry Brown and I disagree.” Brown waxes eloquently about how the American Conservative thought he was a “stauncher fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan.” Brown opposes overturning the 2006 global warming law. Whitman also opposes overturning it, but she is considering suspending it for a year.
So in light of the purported policy overlap between Whitman and Brown, we must consider each candidate’s personality. Regardless of who is elected, he or she will be forced to exercise severely limited power. Policy priorities and positions will shift and morph. It happened to Governor Schwarzenegger. It will happen to his successor as well. Thus what we need is a governor with a personality that allows for leadership within a stifling system, a governor who does not add to the state’s drama with personal drama.
It is clear that Whitman has the instinctive sympathy for the small business owner, the longtime California storeowner wondering whether he should close shop and move to North Carolina to avoid the sixth highest tax burden and highest income tax rate in the country. She understands the medical services consultant forced to pay fines for implementing an alternative overtime policy supported by her employees but at odds with state regulation. And she understands those who chafe under what the Tax Foundation deemed the second worst business climate in the country. Her campaign focuses on these kinds of problems that are only deepening the economic struggles for the state and for its residents.
On the other hand, Brown was well known as “Governor Moonbeam” during his two terms as governor. The public knew Brown as a startlingly self-absorbed man with far-fetched plans for a state space academy and a thin-skinned political persona. He frantically tries to convince the public that he “would never lie” and speaks incessantly about himself, his virtues, and his prescient vision for California. Furthermore, he is beholden to entrenched special interests. His plans for increasing employment in California revolve around an “eight point plan for investing in the renewable energy industry and green jobs,” which is a commendable goal, but seems somehow incomplete, unsatisfactory when confronting a 12 % unemployment rate. He is a man who, by his alignment with the dominant political party, will allow the Democratic majority free rein. And he will raise taxes, as he did in 1978, sparking the famous Proposition 13 tax revolt. With a runaway Democratic state legislature accustomed to power and a distracted, self-centered governor who only implements palliative policy if it is interesting to him, we will not make progress.
When it comes to personality, the choice is clear. Whitman has nothing left to prove of her own right—she is beholden to no special interests, unions, or corporations for her campaign. She is a self-made billionaire with no reason to do anything other than govern once she is elected. As indicated by her tenure as a successful CEO at eBay, where party affiliations do not excuse a failure to reach a consensus or to reach fiscal solvency, she compromises when necessary and fights ruthlessly when she must. And importantly, she is simple in her policy recommendation: go back to the conditions that produced the Golden State and kept it golden.
Vasant Ramachandran ’11 is majoring in Electrical Engineering. His interests include skiing and classical languages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.