California Exceptionalism

Posted on April 17, 2011 by

New to the state, I was astonished in 1982 when republican George Deukmejian defied polls to defeat then L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley to take the governor’s office.  That was followed by another surprise three years later when state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird and two of her liberal colleagues were ousted by voters. 

In 1990, in the midst of a conservative surge, the voters spoke again, imposing strict legislative term limits, which – it was assumed at the time – were surely going to seal republican rule in California for years to come. 

I was just getting used to the political shocks when, in 1992, I watched the city burn from my street corner in L.A.’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood in the civil unrest following the acquittal of four cops accused in the Rodney King beating. 

Then, within two years, the Northridge earthquake rumbled through my part of town, dislodging the wall from the floor of our upstairs “Spanish Revival” apartment and rendering the building officially “uninhabitable”. 

Thus ended the “initial phase” of my life in California; marked by political, civic and natural catastrophe. 

What would be next? 

By the early 1990s I had already cut my teeth in the L.A. Labor Movement and was able to watch close-up a remarkable transformation in regional and state politics and the beginning of the end of the conservative dream in California. 

Which started, paradoxically, with voter approval in November 1994 of Prop 187 – a punitive and ultimately unconstitutional initiative to deny services to undocumented residents.  Pushed hard by Gov. Pete Wilson, the anti-immigrant measure triggered an anti-republican reaction among the state’s Latino voters which has – ever since –  translated into big gains for state democrats. 

But that wouldn’t have happened without a critical choice by L.A. Labor to link its fate with the immigrant rights movement in a coalition which – to this day – has made Southern California unions big players in local, regional and state politics. 

Another irony, of course, is that those dreaded term limits – which passed despite intense liberal / left opposition – give unions and their allies a big edge.  With our capacity to mobilize voters in municipal, school board and other local elections, labor democrats now control the region’s electoral “feeder system” to the legislature. 

Yet even with large majorities in both legislative chambers and a monopoly on major statewide offices, democrats are still held hostage by those pesky republicans who won’t let their minority status stand in the way. 

Thwarting Jerry Brown’s plan to solve the state’s budget problems by giving voters the chance to extend temporary tax increases, California republicans are mimicking the filibuster strategy used by U.S. Senate conservatives which enables a small group of right-wingers to block even moderate measures. 

Gov. Brown has been unable, so far, to peel off two republicans each from the state assembly and senate needed to put the tax extensions on the ballot.  This frustrates and infuriates liberals who see their political agenda blocked by a handful of right-wing extremists. 

That said – and despite the fact that the state faces horrific budget and employee benefit cuts – California now has a dramatically different political climate than most other states. 

Though we’re not immune to right-wing demagoguery, we don’t hear many elected officials in our cities, counties and the capitol engaging in the toxic rhetoric being spewed out in those states under the influence of tea party conservatives. 

Because we’re not demonized, marginalized or disenfranchised, California labor activists may feel a little more mellow than our colleagues and comrades in the rest of the country. 

And unlike those regions, where union power has dropped steadily, L.A. Labor has absorbed the shocks, seized the opportunities and looks relatively strong going forward. 

I consider myself lucky to have been along for the ride.

And that made the second act of my 30-year run in Southern Californian as eventful as – but more hopeful than – the first.

Comments (3)


  1. Irene Fertik says:

    You oughta try blogging for the Huffington Post. Then you would really go viral… Sounds good to me..

  2. Fred Glass says:

    Good summary, Lou, with one caveat. I guess you assume your readers know why the “right wing extremists” are able to block forward movement in the Legislature, but you don’t spell it out. It’s because of the 2/3 vote requirement for raising taxes put in place by Prop 13. Without that undemocratic supermajority requirement, the Republicans would not be able to do the bidding of the billionaires and corporations. Time to repeal the 2/3.

  3. [...] (full disclosure: I’m friendly with Lou and have spoken at the class), is the latest to boast of this hollow union [...]

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