A Better Way: An informed electorate, a passion for good governance

I still remember Mrs. Frendt, my 4th and 5th grade teacher at Walt Disney Elementary in Burbank, talking about the Continental Army and how the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga was the first American victory in the Revolutionary War.  That bit of patriotism stuck with me and I would often fill out the scantron forms we had to use for tests with my “lucky” pencil. To this day, my favorite pencil for underlining passages in books is still the yellow Dixon Ticonderoga Soft #2 with the green trim.  I also recall the Schoolhouse Rock cartoons many of us Generation Xers grew up on and how those fun-yet-eccentric messages played a part in my making sure I voted at my first opportunity – in 1992 – and in nearly every election since. Despite going to Princeton and Harvard Business School, I guess this most basic of civic lessons was overlooked by the future Republican nominee, Meg Whitman.  Coupled with the blood and treasury we expend as a nation to promote our values and spread liberty around the world, I have serious reservations about her non-voting record.

Despite being one of the most essential of civic duties, voting can also be one of the most easily abandoned in our busy lives.  It is understandable that we miss elections from time to time, perhaps in off years or simply when suffering from voter fatigue.  To use a campaign term, not everyone is a coveted high-propensity voter.  That being said, however, should we not call for a higher standard when it comes to our elected officials?  If seeking national leadership or the highest office of the state, is it unreasonable to expect that s/he takes the time to vote?  Some may not be enthused about the youngest, and perhaps soon-to-be oldest, governor in the history of the Golden State, while others question whether he has the ganas, but at least Jerry Brown has a record to run on, casts his vote on a regular basis and does not shy away from taking a position.

There were some important elections in Meg Whitman’s 28 years of non-voting – questions about the direction of our country, the kind of state California aspired to be and perhaps most galvanizing in recent history, the Recall Election of 2003.  To be sure, we live in a capitalist society, or the free market enterprise system, as some like to say – and there is nothing wrong with being a captain of industry – but why would someone who clearly benefited from our economic policies not even bother to cast a vote for the system of government that provides such opportunities?

A favorite song of mine is Ben Harper’s “Better Way” because he asks “What good is a man/Who won’t take a stand/What good is a cynic/With no better plan/I believe in a better way.”  It makes me wonder what good are candidates who run for high office but never took a stand on anything along the way.  I am mindful of the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. refrain that Bobby Kennedy used in his public speeches: “…as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived”.  I do not know Whitman personally and applaud her success in business but her lack of passion and action suggest she has not really lived.

One of the must-read elder statesmen of Capitol columnists is Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters.  It used to be that his argument that California was essentially ungovernable was cynical.  And whether you follow the clips on Rough & Tumble or have read Joe Mathews and Mark Paul’s just-released California Crackup, it is now a growing consensus.  Labor Day weekend is still seven weeks away — the time when most campaigns kick into overdrive — but I expect the conventional wisdom to be, despite the validity of Walter’s claim, that it will take someone familiar with the levers of government to institute reform rather than another Republican first-time office holder.  The learning curve is simply too steep, the problems too challenging, for on-the-job training.

“I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction” are probably the two most popular Schoolhouse Rock episodes for kids that grew up in the ‘70’s.  But “Sufferin’ ‘til Suffrage,” which came out during Governor Jerry Brown’s first term, still has some poignancy:

Not a woman here could vote, no matter what age,
Then the 19th Amendment struck down that restrictive rule. (Oh yeah!)
And now we pull down on the lever,
Cast our ballots and we endeavor
To improve our country, state, county, town, and school.

The United States did not pass the 19th Amendment until 1920 but next year is the centennial of Proposition 4 — the measure Californians voted for to grant women’s suffrage.  We may not be able to use our Ticonderoga pencils to vote but all of us, regardless of gender, can “cast our ballots and endeavor to improve our state.”  One of the best movies about California politics is “The Candidate” starring Robert Redford using the slogan “For a better way: Bill McKay!”  Perhaps there’s a better way with the one who has taken a stand and “lived” all these years – the one whom the movie was supposedly based on: Jerry Brown.

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