When the Democratic electoral tsunami washed across the United States last week, California failed to go with the flow.
Despite talk of a watershed election and an estimated $400 million in campaign spending, the state’s electoral balance remains virtually unchanged.
While the rest of the country threw a rip-roaring revolutionary election last week, California sat by the wayside like a wallflower at the prom, then engaged in retail therapy on an unprecedented scale, piling up $43 billion in new credit charges from the approval of five bond issues.
Closer examination, however, reveals a more interesting picture: The Assembly’s partisan balance may be unchanged, but it has 36 new members. Several moderate Democrats have moved to the Senate, making it likely the Assembly will move slightly to the left while the Senate will shift toward the center.
While Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cruised to re-election, Democrats continue to control the Assembly by a 48 to 32 margin and hold at least 24 seats in the 40-member state Senate. Divided government can be a recipe for gridlock, but it can also force both parties to work together to find constructive solutions.
That was the case in 2006, when Schwarzenegger worked with Democrats to develop the infrastructure-bond package. The governor also signed a long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, prescription-drug reforms, and a landmark bill to combat global warming.
In 2005, when Schwarzenegger sought to prohibit traditional pensions for future public employees, I called it the worst script he’d been handed since Conan the Barbarian. This year, he appears to have found better writers. As pollsters Mark Baldassare and Mark DiCamillo noted, it was as though the evil cyborg of The Terminator had been replaced by the good one of Terminator 2.
Never mind that most of the bills Schwarzenegger was praised for signing this year were ideas that originated with legislative Democrats and were virtually identical to bills he had vetoed in 2005.
Most voters don’t care who came up with a good idea first. When government achieves good things, there’s plenty of credit for both parties to share.
The big question as we look ahead is which Schwarzenegger we’ll see in 2007. The governor’s re-election campaign was so far ahead so early that he never had to make specific promises or define his vision for the second term, other than his vague pledge to keep moving the state forward.
Legislative leaders have outlined an ambitious agenda, with access to health care for the six million uninsured Californians at the top of their list. School, prison and electoral reforms also are needed, as is oversight of the newly approved bonds.
My best guess is that the governor’s second-term policies will fall somewhere between those of 2005 and 2006. On one hand, he can see how working with legislative leaders this year brought more success than his “my way or the highway” stance of the year before. On the other, some of his moves to the center may have originated more from a desire to outflank his electoral opponent than from a change in his core beliefs.
His options may be limited. This year’s achievements were made possible by a booming economy and the ability to balance the budget fairly easily with one-time funds. Next year will be more difficult, with a structural deficit estimated at $6 billion. The state may finally have to make the tough choices between cutting services and raising revenues
So the stage is set. After a disastrous second-year act and a well-reviewed third, the governor has the opportunity to build toward a rousing finale. Stay tuned to see whether 2007’s sequel draws boffo box office or goes straight to video.
Sam Delson, a principal consultant for Assembly member Alberto
Torrico, served as
communications director for the Proposition 1C affordable-housing and emergency-shelter bond in this year’s election.