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Stumble and Fall


The journey from business person to politician is seeded with landmines and this week’s column over at eWeek takes a look at one that’s of real importance for California.
The $3 billion stem cell initiative passed in November by a healthy 59 percent and backers of the measure, the crowd I call Progressive libertarians, are taking the margin of victory as a sign they can do no wrong.
The California legislature isn’t as convinced.
Like good politicians – see the post below about the Bush family – the state legislature is looking forward to the next election. Not back at the last campaign. What’s going to happen is what counts. And the next election here – remember, we Californians like democracy so much, we vote seasonally – may well include a ballot measure clipping the wings of the folks running the stem cell bond issue. This is a real threat and it would make a mockery – on a national level – of efforts to create a safe haven for embryonic stem cell research. Democrats like to carry this effort in front of their party as proof of their open-mindedness. The way things are going, that’s not going to last.

As it now stands, the measure proposed for the fall would require members of three key advisory committees on funding for grants and research to issue full financial disclosure statements and hold open meetings, both in compliance with state law. For a business person this sounds like a needless complication; one that could drive away people who want to participate but don’t want to lay bare the details of their business affairs. That’s one reason why these committees were exempt in the first place (why no one noticed before the election is a question we’ll just let be for now, okay?)
But for politicians – and the stem cell initiative isn’t without its critics, and they are determined – these rules are important. And even the measure’s backers – foremost among them Sen. Deborah Ortiz – are now wondering why the stem cell backers are being so recalcitrant about complying. And they’re not just recalcitrant. They’re bordering on being arrogant.
Robert Klein, the real estate developer who pushed through the measure and raised money for its funding now leads the committee overseeing these efforts as a salaried director. Although he’s technically a state employee – Klein declined to appear for a recent hearing in Sacramento. Since he and others are being sued, his representative told the legislature, it would be a bad idea for him to testify. So he sent a deputy instead. Hmmmm. Do you think Ken Lay tried that trick?
When asked about compliance, Klein has said the oversight committee he chairs will take the matter up with other business. When pressed, he says that the measure’s critics are responsible; he’s just doing what the people of the state want him to do.
Yes, well, I’ll bet Gray Davis had similar thoughts.
Clearly Klein needs a few lessons in political legerdemain. Or at least good manners. It’s not just that the $3 billion he’s managed to get approved is at stake. And it is – that ballot measure hasn’t been written yet. There’s lots of ways this thing can break. Remember the election hasn’t been held yet.
What’s really in danger here is the political authority that comes with these sorts of projects; authority Democrats are trying to claim and it’s in serious danger of being undermined. That’s bad for this bond measure but it’s bad for others that might come along. A failure here – even if it is a failure at the hands of politicians as Klein and others will surely claim – isn’t going to help Silicon Valley’s political causes. It may, in fact, set efforts back a good long way. Religious conservatives are indeed some of those working the hardest against state and federal funding for stem cell research but – as Terri Schiavo has demonstrated – they wield a big political stick. One election clearly hasn’t stopped them. Does Klein or his committee want to get in the way of this? Because that’s where we are now.
One solution: Get California Contoller Steve Westly to step in. He wants to be governor; make him work for it.
Westly, a creature of Silicon Valley, understands how guys like Klein think; he was an early and eager backer of the stem cell proposition because he correctly saw it as a jobs measure. He’s also been friendly with Gov. Schwarzenegger who, it seems, taught Westly a few things about political grace while the pair went campaigning together last year. Westly’s got financial oversight responsibility for Klein’s committee; he’s perfectly positioned to take some irons out of the fire here. And he ought to do it. This could very quickly become a intra-mural Democratic party fight. Or worse.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 10:42 AM | Permalink

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