A Letter from California

Against the Current, No. 106, September/October 2003

Frank Fried

ON OCTOBER 7, California in all likelihood will have a new governor through a recall process initiated by an anti-tax group in Sacramento. This campaign was marginal until Darrell Issa, a right-wing Republican congressman from San Diego, funded the movement for two million dollars, enabling it to hire professional signature-getters and giving it a credibility that it had previously lacked.

The campaign took off, tapping into a gusher of discontent against Gray Davis (who had just been reelected in November 2002). Davis’ lack of popularity flows from the energy crisis, the $8 billion budget deficit, and his blatant and ceaseless solicitation of funds.

The recall and initiative process was initiated by Governor Hiram Johnson, a Progressive, to give the people of the state some protection against the venality of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had corrupted the state legislative process.

Obviously, recall and initiative legislation written in 1911 needs to be upgraded. One: eliminate paid solicitors–no hired guns. Two: advertising pro or con on recalls or initiatives should be free and equally available. Three: require a minimum of 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Four: eliminate the financial requirement. Candidates with the requisite number of signatures qualify without having to pay fees.

The recall election is a two-ballot process. First is a yes/no vote on whether to recall. The second and simultaneous ballot is a vote to elect a new governor. The second only comes into play if Davis loses. There are over 130 candidates.

The right of recall is the only vehicle that gives the people a direct opportunity to participate in the political process, and this has been characterized as popular democracy, as counterposed to the legislative process (representative democracy).

While the media have described this as a circus, it is they who have fanned the flames and undermined its importance. In all likelihood, they will take the lead in a movement to repeal it. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who personifies establishment ideology and practice, has already announced that after this election she will take the lead in eliminating the recall.

Interestingly, the campaign was originally opposed by the power centers in the state. The California press, dominated by corporate interest, editorialized against it. The officialdom of the Democratic Party opposed it; no Republican leaders from its establishment wing endorsed it.

The trade union movement, which is no longer an influential player in the state’s politics (but still has pretenses), issued an ultimatum to the Democrats not to run a candidate against Davis. The very next day, the State Insurance Commissioner, John Garamendi, and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante announced their candidacies. Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader, then convened a phone conference of the Democratic Congressional Delegation to come to agreement on a candidate.

Bad news for trade unions: It is one thing to be incontinent, it is another to piss in your pants in public.

After Darrell Issa hijacked the recall, he himself was derailed by the Republican establishment, who forced him to tearfully withdraw from the gubernatorial ballot to make way for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There have since been a series of plots and subplots, which only prove the mendacity of the leading politicians of the Republican and Democratic Party. The sole Democrat in the race, Bustamante, is Joe Lieberman’s most prominent (and perhaps his only) California supporter.

There are two other bit players. The first is Arianna Huffington. She proposes to close the tax loopholes and to reinstate progressive taxation on commercial property (i.e. repeal aspects of Proposition 13). While this is a step in the right direction, it is not in itself the solution.

Huffington also stated that there is neither a left nor a right position on taxes, and whenever I hear that I put my hand on my wallet because I know my pocket is being picked. In reality, though, Huffington’s only significance is how she relates to the other bit player, Peter Camejo.

Camejo, a former socialist leader, received more than five percent of the vote last November as the Green candidate for governor. He received favorable press as a reasonable oppositionist. His large vote was neither personal nor political, but a reaction to the two personally and politically unpopular candidates, Davis and Republican Bill Simon.

This vote encouraged Camejo to jump into the recall election. However, Huffington tackled Peter before he could put on his recall uniform to rev up his campaign. She came to San Francisco, embracing Camejo in a photo op for the >San Francisco Chronicle, and got him to acknowledge that if she did better than he did in the polls, he would drop out and deliver his vote to her.

Two days after this summit meeting, it was revealed that Ms. Huffington, who lives in an 8,000-square foot manor in Brentwood (perhaps one of the tonier areas in the LA region), paid less than $800 in taxes in the past two years combined. Lo and behold, her campaign manager is Jesse Ventura’s ex-campaign manager and a lobbyist for the Minnesota cancer folk (the cigarette industry).

While I will probably still vote for Camejo because his vote will be perceived to be a reflection of left strength, I am sure that thousands of others will not, repelled by the shallowness and unprincipled nature of his campaign. If you enter the swamp of electoral politics with no popular base and without a platform that resonates with at least some section of the population, you are sure to sink and, in sinking, emphasize your obscurity.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in many bitter struggles in the radical and socialist movements. We may have had delusions of grandeur, but at bottom these struggles were over ideas. Those of us on the left, and we are marginal at best, are not going to be able to decide the outcome of conflicts in the California ruling class now or in the near future.

Therefore, we should concentrate our limited resources and energies on educating people through words and action to the true nature of the system in which we live. To understand it is to understand the necessity of getting rid of it.

It is still too early to definitively say whether there will be a recall or to project who the next governor will be. But it is obvious that whoever it is, the bonds will be paid, the machinery of government will continue to run, the regressive tax structure will remain in place, and the burden of paying for the deficit will fall on the poor, the young, the marginal, and the state employees.

State workers will be paid less and expected to work harder.State jobs will be privatized. Simultaneously, there will be a movement to repeal the recall from the state constitution. Progressive-minded people must mobilize to fight such a repeal at every level.

ATC 106, September-October 2003