Obama's California: Angst and Irony for Winning Democrats

President Barack Obama, appearing with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, discussed budget crises and other matters in this California town hall last month.

It's a great time in many ways for California Democrats, who just had their annual convention in Sacramento. Barack Obama carried the state with 61% of the vote and the party has a big registration edge over Republicans, as well as a much better handle on the large and growing number of independent voters.

No wonder House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime acquaintance, was so ebullient when I spoke with her over the weekend. But it's also a time of angst and irony.

Former Governor Gray Davis, the only Democratic governor since World War II not named Brown, told me: "California may be at a tipping point." And Democratic delegates were in disarray on what to do about it, even as they enjoyed speeches from their two most likely gubernatorial contenders.

The state's chronic budget crisis got a lot worse with the national economic meltdown, and the state Legislature barely managed to pass a budget. With its unusual two-thirds requirement on legislative votes for the budget and and revenues -- only two other, much smaller states, have the same set-up -- the big Democratic majorities are held back by a diehard Republican minority.

Former Governor Gray Davis tried to deal with California's chronic budget crisis.

It's a problem Davis tried to deal with, which helped lead to his recall in 2003 and replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom he's now friendly.

Without actually liking it, Davis favors the state budget compromise Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders negotiated and barely got through the Legislature -- a combination of cuts, temporary tax hikes, "securitization" of future lottery proceeds, and a new state spending limit and rainy day fund -- as well as the initiatives on a May 19th special election ballot needed to keep the deal intact.

In 1999, not long after he was elected, Davis told me that, even though he was the first Democratic governor in 16 years, he would hold the line on using a gusher of revenue from the dot-com boom for a lot of new program spending. But he ultimately did go along with much of it.

As Democratic interest groups pushed for spending, Republican interest groups pushed for tax cuts. And the dot-com boom went bust. Democrats pushed for tax hikes to make up the shortfall, but couldn't get the handful of Republican votes needed to expand their big legislative majorities to the required two-thirds.

When Schwarzenegger came in, he cut the car tax, a highly popular move that also cost billions in revenue. When I asked him the other day during a live video webcast if that was a mistake, he told me he thought then that he would be able to change the budget process. Which didn't happen.

California's Republican Party, dominated by the far right, voted to oppose all the state budget compromise-related initiatives on the May 19th special election ballot. The Democrats were more mixed, with most regretfully agreeing that -- with the two-thirds vote requirement in place in the Legislature -- this was the best deal they could get, and that state spending limits were necessary. And that if the initiatives fail in a few weeks, as well they may, big cuts are likely.

Although all five of the key state budget compromise-related initiatives on the May 19th special election ballot received majority votes to sustain the recommendation of the party's resolutions committee during a floor fight at the California Democratic Party convention, only two were endorsed.

That's because the floor vote required a super-majority for endorsement, 60% of those delegates voting. Ironically, the opponents to the initiatives all oppose the super-majority requirement in the Legislature on budget and revenue votes.

Prop 1A, the state spending limits and rainy day fund measure which also extends temporary tax hikes, looked at first like it won in a show of delegate cards on the convention floor. But it fell just short, with 58% in favor. Props 1D, shift of tobacco tax revenues from special purpose early childhood development, and 1E, shift of high-income taxpayer revenues from special mental health programs, both redirected for general fund uses, received smaller majority votes, also falling short of the party endorsement.

The delegates, in their wisdom, voted by big supermajority margins to endorse Prop 1B, which carves out big bucks for the education budget, and Prop 1C, which would "securitize" future lottery earnings to provide billions more in revenue. But Prop 1B doesn't work without Prop 1A. So angst, understandable or not, trumped logic.

The party also endorsed Prop 1F, a totally symbolic measure which would block legislative pay increases during budget deficit years.

The Democratic legislative leaders, both pushing for the initiatives, Darrell Steinberg in the Senate and Karen Bass (first African American female speaker in the country) are prominent Obama backers. Former state Controller Steve Westly, who headed Obama's California contingent at the Democratic National Convention, is co-chairing the campaign for the initiatives.

Obama himself spoke supportively of the hard-fought state budget deal during his two-day trip last month to California, without formally endorsing it.

The most likely gubernatorial contenders, favored former Governor-turned-Attorney General Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom all back the key initiative causing Democratic angst, Prop 1A, which couples a new state spending limit with an extension of temporary tax hikes.

But labor is split, with the biggest teachers union and the building trades in favor and some of the public employee unions, which oppose any spending limit, opposed.

And that was enough, with a core of liberal activists at a convention comprised almost entirely of liberal activists, to keep the party neutral on half the initiatives.

What's the solution offered by opponents? Change the two-thirds legislative vote requirement on budgets and revenues. But that, which requires passage of an initiative which has failed before, can't happen soon, if at all. The alternative? Pass a budget on a majority vote which casts tax hikes as fee increases. But that may be ruled unconstitutional.

Democrats did have more fun with their gubernatorial contenders. Villaraigosa, who is not certain to run, stayed back in LA, ostensibly to work on his city's budget crisis. Newsom, whose San Francisco budget deficit is proportionately larger than Villaraigosa's, took the opposite tack, going all out to make a big splash and breakthrough against frontrunner Jerry Brown.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, best known for his advocacy of same sex marriage, is running for governor.

Newsom, a national co-chair of the Hillary Clinton campaign, sought nonetheless to cast himself as a California version of Obama in a campaign of the future vs. the past, change vs. status quo. Against the famously iconoclastic Brown.

Newsom's aides have also been spinning, with a constant string of gibes, that Brown, who is 71 to Newsom's 41, is too old to be governor again. Most delegates don't seem to agree with that. Ironically, Newsom says he won't run if Dianne Feinstein does -- she won't -- and she's five years older than Brown and, by most anyone's measure, far more establishmentarian.

While Newsom made a splash, he didn't make a breakthrough, as Brown fended him off with a minimal effort. Newsom, who formally announced his candidacy last week via Twitter, rolled with a large entourage of aides, and Brown strolled around the convention mostly on his own.

Newsom and his team worked for months to organize a strong convention presence. And some would have it that this kept Villaraigosa home for the weekend. Ostensibly to work on his city's big budget crisis. But, while Newsom's operation impressed in the context of a start-up operation, if Villaraigosa stayed away because of that it was probably a mistake.

Newsom had a loud cheering claque, brought onto the floor for the purpose, at the very front. But I roamed across the convention hall filming while he spoke, and the reaction in most of the crowd was tepid at best. Newsom, perhaps coincident with his name, emphasized the "new."

Looking over his prepared text here, I recall that Newsom called for "a new direction for California," which happens to be the title of the speech. A new direction in ... health care, education, government (extolling his city's fiscal health, though actually San Francisco has a larger budget deficit for its size than LA has for its size), and economy.

Newsom is running on his record in San Francisco, brandishing the City by the Bay as a sort of paradise. He's also running as NEWsom, in contrast to the old ways of doing business. Taking some shots at, presumably, Brown, Newsom closed by asking if Democrats will "take a stroll down memory lane, or a sprint into the future? ... Will we choose the past, or will we embrace the future? ... We're not a state of memories, we're a state of dreams. We're not content to re-live history, we're going to keep making it."

On Earth Day, President Barack Obama presented California as a national model on energy, for policies put in place by former Governor-turned-Attorney General Jerry Brown.

When that famed avatar of the past and champion of the status quo, the aforementioned Brown, got around to taking the stage some time later, he ignored Newsom. Speaking off-the-cuff, he talked about the new day under Barack Obama without torture as national policy.

He noted that Obama, in his Earth Day address, praised California as the model for the rest of America on energy, for policies that Brown put into place and that other governors have since followed. He talked about his work as attorney general on greenhouse gas reduction around the state and in suing the Bush/Cheney Administration. He talked about the corruption of the economy, and moves he is making as attorney general to bring corporate wrongdoers to heel. And he spoke philosophically about education, decrying the one-size-fits-all mentality. He also said some other stuff the delegates liked.

Later on, Brown and Newsom hosted very different parties.

Newsom got a small stretch of road blocked off for a late night concert by Grammy-winning hip hop star Wyclef Jean. Perhaps a thousand enthusiastic fans crowded into a cramped space to enjoy the high-energy performance.

Gavin and his guys held court in a bar next to the stage during the concert, greeting various well-wishers and party-goers. It was a nice show, with Wyclef Jean having moved beyond rap per se, thankfully, as I got my fill circa Bulworth.

Jerry Brown on Saturday at the old Governor's Mansion, last used by his father, the late Governor Pat Brown.

Brown's scene earlier at the historic Governor's Mansion was rather different. An operation magically appeared, as always happens with the Browns even when they're not officially running, to move the crowd lined up on the sidewalk onto the historic grounds and keep the delegates adequately lubricated with beer and white wine. There were about 800 people there, with many repeatedly enjoying the Brown trademark chips and salsa. Brown, who wasn't sure if he'd give another speech, having just given a mostly off-the-cuff address to the same people earlier at the convention, did end up giving one of his typically ironic, teasing impromptu talks.

Anne Gust Brown, the attorney general's wife and top advisor, who managed his 2006 landslide win, showed off the infamous "blue Plymouth," the cheapskate official gubernatorial car during Brown's first two terms as governor, which was towed over for the occasion from the California Automotive Museum. For his part, Brown, who hadn't known his old state car would be there, seemed more engaged by a typewriter upstairs, which he said served him in good stead studying for the bar exam, which the Yale Law grad took glee in reminding that he'd flunked the first time out.

But what about the car? Brown told me he is going to get it tuned up. "So it'll be fired up and ready to go!"

Brown has a good lead over the likely Republican candidates. Villaraigosa and Newsom also show well, though Newsom has some problematic internals in his polling.

Which means that California Democrats are a lot happier about the elections next year than the one in a few weeks.