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July 2011 Archives

How low can Congress go?

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Until now, it seemed the California Legislature had set the bar about as low as it can get in terms of public approval of the performance of any branch of government. But it appears that the Legislature now has some competition for the distinction of ranking at the bottom of the public's esteem: the United States Congress.

In its just-released poll of Californians the Public Policy Institute of California found the approval rating for Congress among likely voters to be 17 percent -- just two points above that of the lowly Legislature, and within the poll's margin of error.

Apparently, it doesn't take long for voters to discover when a government institution becomes dysfunctional.

Brown's deft timing on nominee may deflect Latino complaints (updated)

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When former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno retired in February, it left the seven-member court with no Latino justices. The expectation, certainly within the Latino community, was that Gov. Jerry Brown would select another Latino to replace Moreno, preserving some ethnic diversity on the court.

But Brown announced today the bold choice of law professor Goodwin Liu as his pick for the court. Liu is widely respected among legal scholars, but had become the subject of political controversy after Republican senators blocked his appointment to the U.S. Court Appeals this spring, forcing President Barack Obama to withdraw his nomination.

Criticism from Latinos, however, is likely to be muted because of the timing of Brown's announcement -- it comes less than 24 hours after he signed Dream Act legislation that will allow undocumented students who graduated from California high schools to compete for privately funded scholarships to attend state universities. The Dream Act bill was a high priority in the Latino community, and by signing it on Monday, Brown may have created enough good will to deflect any criticism for on Tuesday deciding to leave the state's high court with no Latino presence.

(UPDATE: About 2 this afternoon, Latino Legislative Caucus Chairman Tony Mendoza issued this statement on the Liu appointment:

"I congratulate Goodwin Liu on his recent nomination by Governor Jerry Brown to replace Associate Justice Carlos Moreno, the only Latino Justice on the California Supreme Court. Professor Liu's credentials are exceptional and I, along with my fellow members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, am looking forward to getting to know him.

"Unfortunately, with this appointment Governor Brown has missed an opportunity to designate a candidate to the Supreme Court who would better reflect the diversity of California.

"The Latino Legislative Caucus has been working closely with the Governor's office submitting various recommendations of highly qualified Latino candidates to state boards, commissions, and judicial posts and will continue working with Governor Brown on future appointments and on issues of great importance to our community.")

If Brown gets another Supreme Court pick during his term, however, the pressure to select a Latino will now intensify. Two of the current six justices have now been on the court for more than 20 years.

Looks like Ventura will be an odd county again

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Based on a numbering proposal presented by staff to the Citizens Redistricting Commission last week, it appears all voters in Ventura County will be spared being represented by an absentee state senator for two years.

That would have been the result if any portion of the county, now divided among three odd-numbered Senate district, had been placed in an even-numbered district in the statewide redistricting plan. But the commission staff employed a "do the least harm" strategy and recommended that the proposed districts in which a majority of voters are now in odd-numbered districts should remain in an odd-numbered district. That means the Santa Barbara-West Ventura district, in which 100 percent of the voters are now in odd-numbered districts, would be assigned an odd number. Ditto for the East Ventura district, in which 79.8 percent of voters are now in odd-number districts.

If that numbering scheme holds, it means there will be two Senate elections in the county next year. Incumbent senators Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, both live In the proposed East Ventura district, which includes all of the county east of the Conejo Grade, plus portions of the west San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita. That could mean a showdown between the two next fall, or not.

Both have been vague about their future plans, saying they will have to wait until the maps are finalized. As it now stands, the district is essentially a political toss-up (the governor's race last fall was a cliffhanger, for instance, with Republican Meg Whitman carrying the district by 1 percentage point.

Some Democrats have been talking with Pavley about the possibility of running instead for a new congressional district in Ventura County that appears slightly more favorable to a Democrat. Although Pavley's home in Agoura Hills is just outside that district, she has abundant ties to the new district -- she represents a large chunk of it now in the Senate, she spent two decades teaching in the Moorpark schools and she and her husband own a beach condominium in Oxnard, where they spend many weekends.

The proposed Santa Barbara-West Ventura district has no incumbents living inside its borders and voter registration strongly favors a Democrat. If it becomes final, expect a great deal of interest among Democrats to seek the nomination. Among the possibilities: former Assembly members Pedro Nava and Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara and Oxnard Harbor District Commissioner Jason Hodge of Oxnard.

A failsafe political system that maybe wasn't

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The drafters of Proposition 11, the initiative that created the state's independent redistricting process, were no fans of how politicians typically operate. But they thought there was one thing about partisan elected legislators they could count on -- their ability to conduct thorough opposition research and exploit the information they found.

That's why they included a clever twist in the selection process for members of the Citizens Redistricting Commission. The plan called for 60 finalists to be selected through a painstakingly sterile, transparent process that including written essays, formal letters of recommendation and interviews with auditors that were webcast for the world to see. Then those 60 names were sent to the Legislature, where the partisan leaders of each house could each strike six names from the list, for a total of 24, or 40 percent of the finalists.

The reasoning, recalls Trudy Schafer of the California League of Women Voters, went like this: "Who better than than politicians to do some research and set aside anyone they suspected of having a bias?"

The legislators used all 24 of their strikes and explained their reasoning for none.

Yet now some Republicans are complaining that Gabino Aguirre of Santa Paula is too much of an activist and doesn't belong on the panel (see my story today in The Star).

They might lodge that grievance with the GOP legislative leadership, which had the chance to bounce any of the current commissioners late last year.

She's a girl who knows how to say no

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When you ask a politician whether he or she has any interest in running for a higher office, typically the response resembles the lyrics of that song from the musical "Oklahoma!" about the girl who "cain't say no."

They will be coy. They will say, "Never say never." They will hem. They will haw. They will issue a non-denial denial.

Here's a refreshing exception. Last week, while researching a story on potential Democratic candidates who might have an interest in running for Congress in a new, highly competitive district that appears to be on the verge of being drafted for Ventura County, I asked Supervisor Kathy Long of Camarillo whether she might have any interest in becoming a candidate.

Here was her response: "My big answer and firm answer is no, no, no!"

Not much ambiguity in that.

(NOTE: An earlier version of this post misidentified the musical from which the song "I Cain't Say No" appeared.)

Why don't we call him President Senator Barack Obama?

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The title "senator" -- not unlike "colonel" in Southern circles -- is one of those monikers that automatically bestows an air of importance on the holder. Those who have ever been elected senator are loath to give up the title.

In the term-limit era, in which some senators have been elected to the lower house after their allowable time as a senator has expired, it is not uncommon to hear members of the Assembly address some of their colleagues as "senator." And, going back a few decades, there was the case of former Ventura County Sen. Omer Rains, who after leaving office petitioned the court to legally change his name to "Senator Omer Rains."

All of which helps to explain the current letterhead of Board of Equalization Member George Runner. Although he currently holds a different -- and, arguably, higher-level -- elected position, Runner continues to use the name "Senator George Runner."

Spokesman David Duran said retaining the title "senator" is Runner's preference and that, "From my perspective, it's a whole lot easier than 'Board of Equalization member.'"

Duran noted that former senators and governors typically continue to use the title and that others typically use the title when referring to them.

While that is true, it is generally not used once the former senator is elected to a new elected office. No one calls the occupant of the White House, for instance, "President Senator Obama." And no one calls the current state treasuer by either or both of his former titles. If anyone did, it would be quite a mouthful: "Treasurer Attorney General Senator Bill Lockyer."

In Runner's case, the continued use of the title raises another issue, since his wife, Sharon, succeeded him in his former office. If you call the Runner household and ask to speak to "Senator Runner," which spouse comes on the line?

'What's the matter with Kansas,' California style

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In his 2005 book, "What's the matter with Kansas?", political analyst Thomas Frank made the argument that conservatives had ascended politically in this country because of their ability to persuade low- and middle-income working people in the heart of the country to vote against policies that are in their self-interests.

It's an interesting theory, and one that can be reframed for California now that Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone has proposed the creation of a State of South California -- one that would include a baker's dozen of inland, mostly politically conservative counties. Stone's argument is that the Democratic counties on the coast dominate state politics, and thus produce statewide policies that would be rejected in the State of South California.

The problem with this theory -- and a hat tip here to the Riverside Press Enterprise's Jim Miller for calling attention to the issue -- is that the most of the counties that would be in South California are huge users of state educational, healthcare and social welfare programs, while the counties on the coast are the major tax donors who support those programs.

Former Assembly Budget Committee Chairwoman Noren Evans, now a Democratic state senator representing Sonoma and Napa counties, produced an enlightening report a couple years ago detailing who gives and who receives among the state's counties.

Among the biggest recipients (based on per capita costs for various state services) are such Republican-dominated counties as Inyo, Madera, Mariposa, Mono, Fresno, Kings, Kern,Tulare and San Bernardino -- mostly poor, rural counties with high unemployment that are nine of the 13 counties included in Stone's secession idea.

Nearly all the biggest donors (based on per capita sales and income taxes) are along the coast, including all the largely Democratic counties touching the San Francisco Bay (Sonoma, Napa, Marin, San Francisco, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo) and the Southern California coastal counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego). Of those, only Orange and San Diego would be included in Stone's proposed new red state.

In other words, Stone's State of South California would be something like Mississippi East, while the rest of California would be able to afford a level of government services not seen on this side of the Atlantic.

95 percent accurate
Over the last 25 presidential elections, Ventura County voters have backed the winner 24 times, or over 95 percent of the time. It is one of only a handful of counties in the nation that has been such a predictable bellwether.
about Timm Herdt
Timm Herdt
The Ventura County Star's Sacramento Bureau Chief Timm Herdt on state issues and politics from Sacramento to Ventura County. He can be contacted at therdt@vcstar.com
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