Big Daddy

Big Daddy

Dear Big Daddy,
I always thought California had the best politics, but no way: New York has us beat. What do you think?
–Bemused in Burlingame

Hey B.B.,
I agree. If you think the Rent is Too Damn High here, you should try Manhattan. You can get 3,000 square feet and four bedrooms in Mendocino for the cost of a crackerbox in Hell’s Kitchen.

But I digress.

Where but in New York would you get a seven-way gubernatorial debate with a former madam, a colorful goofball – he’s obsessed that the Rent is Too Damn High – the state’s top law enforcement officer and assorted politicos? It’s true that on California’s 2003 recall election ballot, we had scores of odd folks wanting to replace Gray Davis. In the end, one of them actually did.

But California, for all its reputation as a bastion of hedonists, cults and screwballs, is pretty straight-laced. Look at the Legislature. Not exactly a cauldron of charisma – another problem with term limits.

Not so when I was in the Assembly or when I served as speaker. We were all colorful. We were brimming with color. I’m still colorful. The people around me were colorful except for Jim Mills and Tom Bane, but they were smart and that made up for it.

How about Randy Collier, “the silver-haired fox of the Siskiyous who almost single-handedly pushed through California’s freeway system?” Or Ralph Dills, the saxophone-playing judge who served decades in the Legislature, and became best known for his purple hair? Or Chet Wray, known as “Chet Wray Chet,” because he used cue cards when delivering speeches and once started over from the beginning? Or Willie Brown, who when asked by a student what he liked most about being speaker, said it was “being in charge of spending billions of dollars of white people’s money.” Or David Roberti, who scuttled along Capitol corridors as close to the wall as possible? Or Quentin Kopp, who sounded like Walter Mathau after a tough night? Or Dick Floyd, the shrewd, cigar-smoking party animal who seemed in the middle of every big deal? Or Paul Carpenter, the elegant psychologist and Senate caucus leader, who later went to prison in a federal corruption probe?  Or Tom Hayden, the student firebrand, co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society and then-husband of Jane Fonda who would end up representing Santa Monica in the Legislature?

Dullness has hurt the Legislature because the Rent is Too Damn High. It costs too much to get to the Capitol, it costs even more to stay here and in the end it’s not worth it. As I mentioned earlier, this is all the fault of term limits.

Politicians should be allowed to spread their wings, build empires and stay in power for decades without the threat of arbitrary removal. Long-term politicians are good on policy and good on politics. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The Golden Era of California was pre-1990 – in other words, pre-term limits – and it’s not a coincidence. The great infrastructure and education systems sprang from the brows of political lifers, like me.

Can’t do it now though: The Rent is Too Damn High.

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