A Nation All its Own

RICHARD REEVES

February 28, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. The telephone system in California is overloaded again, so two new area codes will be created later this year -- 310 in western Los Angeles and 510 in the counties east of San Francisco. The more things stay the same out here -- which means people just keep coming in -- the more they change.

Among the changes coming next year will be seven new congressional seats to match the population growth of the Golden State between the censuses of 1980 and 1990. There are now, officially, just about 30 million people who can call themselves Californians. That's 5 million more than there were in 1980, 10 million more than there were in 1970.

And there are hundreds of politicians who would like to call themselves congressman or congresswoman when congressional districts are reapportioned around the country next year to move seats from New York and Pennsylvania and other Eastern states to California and other Western and Southern states. There are also dozens who would like to be called senator. With the election of Sen. Pete Wilson as governor last year and the retirement of Sen. Alan Cranston next year, there will be two new senators elected from California, along with 52 members of the House of Representatives. There will be a feeding frenzy of politicians and would-be politicians.

The lieutenant governor of the state, Leo McCarthy, announced last Thursday, 52 days after taking his oath of office, that he planned to run for one of the two new Senate seats. His announcement, as reported in 19 paragraphs in the Los Angeles Times, was an essential commentary on the state of politics today in our greatest state: There was no mention of why Mr. McCarthy wanted to be a senator or what he planned to do if he became one.

It was assumed that everyone knew that the lieutenant governor was a professional -- politics is how he makes his living -- and this was just a career move, the next rung on a professional ladder. The key qualification as articulated by Mr. McCarthy was: ''a very solid core base of major donors and 50,000 small donors.''

The politics of the state -- democracy in California -- has been totally corrupted over the past 20 years or so. I do not mean that all the politicians are stealing money, though some surely are. I mean that except for money -- the campaign contributions of big and small donors -- there is almost no connection between voters and those who want their votes, except for the kind of anger and suspicion that lead to referenda on tax and term limits.

This was once a state of ''political activists,'' men and women of the left and right, sometimes of the sun-baked kooky left and right, who could be counted on to throw their bodies into any fray threatening fewer seals and whales or more taxes and state employees. No more. ''Political activist'' is now a euphemism for ''major donor.''

Politicians don't need people as individuals in a place this big; they just want their money. Asking around about who might win the Senate and congressional races, and the state Senate and Assembly contests in districts that may have as many as 700,000 constituents, I heard the same short answer again and again. Five words: ''Whoever raises the most money.''

There are 29 candidates running now for a vacant Los Angeles City Council seat, and there could be 10 Democratic candidates for the Senate seat Mr. McCarthy wants. A former governor, Jerry Brown, and three incumbent members of Congress -- Robert Matsui, Barbara Boxer and Mel Levine -- have already indicated they are running. In a race like that, in districts bigger than some states, and a state bigger than many countries, the only two things that will count are television commercials and direct-mail brochures -- the buying of name recognition.

These will be among the most frenzied and frantic elections in American history. Not only is there political opportunity at stake in the new federal offices, but state offices will be opened up as state senators and assembly members try to scramble over each other on the way up their career ladders. Besides, the state officeholders have another career incentive: the relative job security and longevity of tenure. Last year California's angry voters approved an initiative limiting senators to two four-year terms (eight years) and assembly members to three two-year terms (six years).

The anger and apathy in California, where almost 6 million adults are not registered to vote, have something to do with the state's seemingly endless growth. Representative democracy is being strained to the limit. It's questionable whether one assemblyman can effectively represent three-quarters of a million people thrown together geographically but tied together by nothing much more than wanting to live in this sunny and golden landscape.

And it is close to impossible for two senators adequately to represent 30 million very diverse people. It is a cliche to say that California is a separate country -- the world's fifth- or sixth-largest economy -- but it is not a nation. There is such a thing as an American, one among many with shared values and experience, but there is no such thing as a Californian. The word describes someone who happens only to be here at the moment, someone who yesterday may have been a Pennsylvanian, a Nebraskan, a Mexican or a Korean.

Too many people coming too fast, too much money, politicians who almost by necessity relate only to major donors and big interests -- they are crushing democracy in California.

Richard Reeves is a national political writer.

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