News & Views from 465 California Street

Reform Fever

Clint Reilly
Oct
20
2009

Before the progressive movement swept through California in the early 20th century, there was a growing sense throughout the state that Sacramento had ceased working for regular Californians.

Shackled by special interests and rife with corruption, the capitol had become a playground for corporate lobbyists who exerted unfettered control over the legislative agenda.

Over time, public displeasure with the system became public disgust. Reformers of every stripe began to speak out against the corruption and graft in Sacramento.

Once relegated to the political periphery, suffragists, environmentalists, labor activists and good government groups began to coalesce under the banner of “progressivism,” which aimed to take back the state from the party bosses and corporations that were perceived to be running it into the ground.

What a difference 100 years makes.

Today, Californians are similarly disgusted with the state of affairs in Sacramento. Last week’s Field Poll on voter attitudes painted a comically bad picture for the state legislature, with only 13 percent of those polled registering approval. And although he doubled the legislature’s score, Governor Schwarzenegger can hardly brag about his own 27 percent approval rating.

A second poll released by Field indicated significant voter support to overhaul state government from the ground up. Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo stressed the importance of the numbers, noting that “a majority sees the need for making fundamental changes to the state constitution and would support calling a constitutional convention to develop the reform proposals.”

In short, people are fed up.

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown likes to say that the system is not the problem; the problem is the people who run the system.

Of course, Brown just meant to say that when he was Speaker, the system worked. And while that may be true to some degree, just about everybody in California and around the globe believes that the Golden State’s problems run deeper than personnel.

There is a growing feeling that California has reached a tipping point. Most agree that we need both – new leadership and a reformed, renewed system – to effectively right the ship. If history is any indication, a new age of reform may be around the corner.

In 1910, California progressives were led by gubernatorial candidate Hiram Johnson. Johnson was a reluctant candidate but he embodied the progressives’ overwhelming desire to give Sacramento back to the people. His candidacy was infused with a spirit of renewal that helped galvanize the disparate agendas within the progressive bloc. Upon taking office, the fiery reformer began to deliver on his promises.

Johnson’s governorship represented a sea change in Sacramento politics.

In addition to rooting out corruption and graft, he also built a civil service system based on merit rather than political patronage. He broke the backs of the party bosses and special interests by building innovative direct democracy tools into the constitution such as the recall, the referendum and the public initiative.

Ironically, California State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George recently gave a speech in which he assailed the initiative process for “rendering our state government dysfunctional,” proving again that 20th century reforms may themselves need to be reformed for the 21st century.

Just like 100 years ago, reform fever is breaking out across California.

Labor groups, corporations, non profits, city and county governments, newspaper editorial boards and a host of reformers on both the right and the left seem to recognize that California now teeters on the edge of its own destruction.

Regardless of ideology or agenda, the new reformers are united in their determination to make California work again, to wrest the levers of power from the special interests and to eliminate the structural failures that have rendered the state dysfunctional.

One hundred years ago, Hiram Johnson led a citizens’ revolt. Will a new reformer emerge to galvanize today’s movement?

Memo to Democrats: Hiram Johnson was a moderate Republican.

Comments (3)

  • With all due respect to Mr Riley: can it be denied that anything is more responsible for the decline of California than the large number of poor, uneducated, social service demanding illegal aliens; and, large public employee labor unions that have benefits and salaries that would lead any public company to go broke, in short order? Empirical evidence indicates of course the above is true. Dogma, on the other hand, leads to the denial of this truth.

    Posted by: jim rule | October 20th, 2009 at 8:54 am

  • RE: Memo, There aren’t any moderate Republicans left! Our current governor was supposed to be one but he’s all over the place and has been instrumental in making matters worse.

    Posted by: WASanford | October 20th, 2009 at 12:51 pm

  • We seem to have fallen into the “Dictatorship of the Majority”. It doesn’t seem to matter who leads, they all are focused on “their” wants and desires, at the exclusion of the rights or needs of anyone else. I was taught in school that this was a Republic, not a democracy, by choice. Now, Republic seems to be a bad word, to be ridiculed by the power brokers who want a “Pure Democracy”, because they believe they can control that 51%. Look at those who want to abolish the Electoral College system and replace it by direct, national elections. There were reasons the Electoral College system was created and I see no indication that those reasons no longer exist.

    Posted by: Bob Van Cleef | October 24th, 2009 at 2:54 pm

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