Every time I check on the campaign for governor, I’m struck by the same thought: Can’t we do better than this?
Our choice is between a very successful businesswoman who did not bother to vote until a few years ago, and a very successful politician who has run out of new offices to seek.
I don’t usually write about politics for A News Café. But as something of a public policy nerd and a native Californian frustrated with our state’s downhill slide, I can’t help weighing in on the 2010 governor’s race.
It’s easy to overlook the public enthusiasm for this contest, because there is so little. My friends in Sacramento who eat, drink and breathe politics tell me that not even many of the party faithful are heavily involved. Republicans are wary of Meg Whitman because she has absolutely no record in public office or with the GOP. Even Republicans see her as a very wealthy person trying to buy her way to the top, and as unwilling to gain the experience necessary to lead the party and the state. Meanwhile, Democrats are frustrated with Jerry Brown because he won’t go away. He’s already had his chance as governor (and attorney general and secretary of state and mayor of Oakland and chairman of the state Democratic party), and Democrats are eager for fresh faces.
If the party loyalists are not fired up about this race, it’s no surprise the rest of us are either watching quietly from the sidelines or ignoring the whole thing. The campaign itself sure has not helped the situation.
It’s no secret that California is in desperate straits. The unemployment rate is stuck at more than 12%, and the underemployment rate is significant. The poverty rate of 15.3% is the highest since 1992. One in five California residents lacks health insurance. The real estate meltdown continues to rack up new victims. The state budget is a train wreck in need of structural reform. California’s public infrastructure is consistently rated among the worst in the country. Our natural resources are severely strained.
Forty years ago, California was the envy of the world. The state was an economic and education powerhouse without limits. Today, we can’t keep parks and libraries open, and school music and art programs depend on bake sales.
With that backdrop, you would like to think the campaign would center on real issues and well-defined policy proposals.
Nope. The focus of the campaign for governor is on someone calling Whitman a “whore,” and on Whitman’s employment and subsequent treatment of an undocumented worker.
Let me be blunt: I don’t care what name Jerry Brown or his wife called Meg Whitman. I don’t care if Meg Whitman employed an illegal immigrant and then turned her back on the woman. Even assuming these unfortunate things are true, they barely rise to the level of trivia.
Rather, I care about California’s public education system, especially the community colleges and universities. I care about California’s economy and getting people back to work inventing, making and growing things the world needs. As someone fascinated with land use and development, I care about strategies for ensuring our roads, transit lines, airports, water delivery systems, hospitals, power plants, energy grid and telecommunications facilities are adequate for future generations. I care about the vitality of our cities and the integrity of our rural areas. I care about people getting enough to eat and having access to medical care.
I bet you have your own list of serious concerns. So why can’t Californians have a sober, adult conversation about this stuff? Do the candidates refuse to engage on real topics because we won’t let them? Do we lack the knowledge and attention span to have a direct but polite discussion about real issues? Is it just easier for us to titter (and Twitter) about who called whom a name than to spend time analyzing genuine public policy platforms?
Our state has people who are knowledgeable enough and creative enough to improve California’s lot, as well as people with honed leadership and decision-making skills. These are the people we need running for office, especially for governor. Is it possible that we – that’s you and I, my friend – have abetted an electoral system that chases away people with useful ideas and skills? Maybe we have two uninspiring candidates and an insipid campaign for governor because that’s exactly what we’ve asked for.
I’m going to suggest that we – voters, candidates, the media – need to halt the game of political gotcha. Instead, we should pledge our time, energy, money and votes to candidates who are willing to express complex, nuanced thoughts and who don’t simply recite slogans. We need a civic – and civil – dialogue. Name-calling and hysterics are not helpful.
I’m not an idealist by any stretch. I recognize that people disagree on things. Politics has winners and losers. All of that is fine. But it doesn’t excuse us from behaving as adults with responsibilities to future generations who will live with the decisions we make today.
Meg Whitman or Jerry Brown? Really, California could do better.
Paul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and will hold his nose in the voting booth. Paul Shigley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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