Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In California, Top Spot Is Prestigious but Punishing ; A Special Election This Fall May Mean a New Golden State Governor - Who Will Face a History of Political Dysfunction

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In California, Top Spot Is Prestigious but Punishing ; A Special Election This Fall May Mean a New Golden State Governor - Who Will Face a History of Political Dysfunction

Article excerpt

For all would-be leaders of the world's sixth-largest economy, the siren call of the California governorship just got a lot louder.

When the secretary of state certified the petition Wednesday to recall Gov. Gray Davis, he spurred California toward a special election this fall. What remains unclear is why anyone would want the job.

On the surface, there is the lure of the position Ronald Reagan used as a springboard to the presidency, as well as the prestige of heading the most influential state in the Union.

But underneath, a tangle of political reforms and demographic changes have turned California into a state of confusion. The Golden State, governors have quickly learned, is nearly ungovernable.

Not that Governor Davis has been merely a passenger on California's Implosion Express. But the real causes of the current crisis, experts suggest, run much deeper than the recall of one man.

"It's a tough state to govern," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who studies California politics. "California bites [governors] off and chews them up."

It is a political perfect storm that has been building for almost a century - encompassing a governor with relatively weak powers, a state with the population growth rate of a third-world nation, a populace unwilling to raise taxes to pay for the rising cost of services, and a ballot-initiative system with a mind of its own.

Yet to some, Davis's current problems can be distilled down to a single fraction: two-thirds. California is one of only three states that requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to pass a budget. Originally devised as a Depression- era cap on fiscal exuberance, the rule now almost ensures gridlock on every difficult budget decision.

"There is no such thing as a peaceful $38 billion deficit," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. "If you needed two-thirds in Congress, you couldn't do anything."

The drawbacks of democracy

In some ways, though, that is the point. California's political heritage has always been marbled by a lingering distrust of government.

If there is a father of California politics, it might not be Reagan or Pat Brown, but Hiram Johnson. The turn-of-the-century governor arose out of the Progressive matrix of Wisconsin Gov. Robert LaFollette and Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party, promising to rid the Capitol of special interests and return the government to the people.

"If we have to indict anyone for this, we have to indict Hiram Johnson," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. "There are a number of cases in which [his] direct democracy has led to the problems we have now."

Among his reforms: the ballot initiative and the recall. …

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