At his inauguration on Friday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to push the Golden State beyond the era of partisanship, or even bipartisanship, to a new era of “post partisanship.” By taking the best ideas from both sides of the aisle, California’s elected leaders could move the State forward, not as Republicans and Democrats, but as Californians. Unfortunately when it came to political reform—the Achilles heel of the Schwarzenegger administration—the Governor could only reassert the same, tired proposals.
When Schwarzenegger delivered his State of the State address four days later, he took exactly the approach he promised. The Governor took “good ideas” from Democrats, such as broad healthcare insurance for all Californians and emissions controls at the same time he took ideas from the Republican agenda, such as building more prisons and surface water storage to control flooding and bank water as climate change affects snow levels in the Sierra Nevada.
On its surface, “post-partisanship” is as attractive and impractical. Introducing the notion, Schwarzenegger noted, ” The question is not what are the needs of Republicans or Democrats? The real question is what are the needs of our people? We don’t need Republican roads or Democratic roads. We need roads. We don’t need Republican health care or Democratic health care. We need health care. We don’t need Republican clean air or Democratic clean air. We all breathe the same air.”
It’s hard to argue with the fact that California needs leaders whose interests are that of Californians—not their respective political parties. But getting everyone on board is next to impossible, especially with the way California elects its Legislature.
Governor Schwarzenegger has correctly identified the greatest hurdle to facing California’s future. Political reform is needed to break the back of the political extremes, who through gerrymandering and closed primaries, have hijacked the State government from the people of California.
Schwarzenegger, however, continues to focus on reapportionment reform as the answer. Redistricting reform has been tried before in California, and as unappealing as the thought of letting our elected officials choose their constituents instead of the other way around, voters have never mustered the courage to turn the process over to an unelected body.
California’s partisan divide is exacerbated by the closed primary system forced on the people by the courts. Although voters approved an open primary system, whereby voters could choose their preferred candidate, regardless of party, the political establishment opposed the process and got the courts to agree. As a result, candidates appeal to the few voters who will turn out in a partisan primary, knowing that, without reapportionment, the general election is meaningless.
Instead of chasing these tired, and failed political reforms, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger should consider proposing the creation of a “post-partisan” legislature.
That is to say, candidates for the State Senate and State Assembly should run neither as Republicans or Democrats, but as Californians. Voters should pick their candidates—not their parties. Too often, most voters I talk to vote for someone based on the letter after their name—knowing nothing of the candidates or their ideals. That’s not good for democracy and it is not good for California.
Californians are already familiar with non-partisan elections. As part of the original progressive movement led by Republican Governor Hiram Johnson, political parties were removed from all local elections. When we go to the ballot to elect a City Councilman or County Supervisor, we’re not choosing between Democrat and Republican, we’re picking between Jeff Prang or Mike Antonovich.
Look no further than the 2005 race for Mayor of Los Angeles to see the power of a non-partisan election in promoting a discussion of ideas. Although the top five candidates were all Democrats, they distinguished their campaigns with a discussion of public policy. As a result, the winning candidate, Antonio Villaraigosa, took the best ideas for school reform, transportation and more from his opponents and has become a better Mayor as a result.
When Villaraigosa goes to Sacramento for the next Gubernatorial inauguration in 2011, we should have a legislature that looks like California—not fractured between red and blue, but a plush purple reflection of this great Golden State.