Politicians, Beware! Citizens Are Mad as Hell

RICHARD REEVES

October 21, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- Once again there is political revolution in the warm and yeasty air of California, a new rising that will create a politics of new faces and no parties -- or of too many parties. It could be called citizen politics: It is a revolt of citizens against politicians, a class war as the politicians of this great state-nation are more and more seen as a separate class serving only their own interests.

It might also be called chaos.

Whatever it becomes, the new California politics will change all American politics by the end of the century. That's only nine years from now. The timing of the new revolt owes something to coincidence. The new census, a new term-limits law, a more complicated ethnic mix, old scandals and older legislative arrogance have created an explosive brew.

In its simplest form, like Proposition 13, the California tax revolt led by Howard Jarvis in 1978, what is happening now is another anti-government crusade by people who see themselves as helpless against the distant aristocracy of the political class.

Citizens, probably enough of them, are determined to destroy career politicians. The careerists here, as in Washington and other American capitals, have never worked for anything but government and themselves. Many of the self-selected and perpetually elected are public servants who have forgotten who is supposed to do the serving. They are or become men, mostly, who see elections and the public, in general, as complications threatening their idea of a secure and interesting lifestyle. It's the same way some teachers see their students, or some doctors view patients.

It was 13 years ago that the people of California signaled the beginning of the new politics first called the Tax Revolt, then the Reagan Revolution, and now the Bush Regency. Californians, at least those who voted in 1978, used the state's initiative and referendum laws to create and pass Proposition 13, a statewide initiative limiting the taxes on their own property -- and then passed a series of caps on state spending and taxing. The nation followed.

This is the next step. The '78ers were accused of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There was a great deal of truth in that charge. California public services are short of cash and enthusiasm -- not a mile of new freeway has been built since Prop 13 became law -- and now putter along in sad imitation of what was once a gleaming engine of democratic government. Prop 13 was a revolt against politics and government; what's happening now is a war against politicians and governors. Many Californians prefer the bathwater to the babies who come to office young and stay forever.

Proposition 140 was the magic number this time, a ballot initiative approved by state voters last year that limits the tenure of members of the state Assembly to three two-year terms and members of the state Senate to two four-year terms. It also cut the budget for legislative staff by 40 percent.

Legislators challenged 140 in the courts, but almost all its provisions were upheld this month in a 6-to-1 vote of the California Supreme Court. The term-limit clock started ticking in 1990, so by 1999 every face in the Assembly and Senate will be a new one.

That ticking, sounding more like a bomb to many, began just as state politicians began celebrating one of the great career windfalls in political history. Because of population growth, California will have seven brand-new congressional seats in next year's elections. And because Pete Wilson gave up his seat in the U.S. Senate to become governor and Alan Cranston gave up his after being named one of the scandalous Keating Five, there are two Senate seats up for election, too.

There is a frenzy here among politicians. They don't know where to turn. Many state legislators want to run for Congress for the job security, betting that federal term limits will eventually be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But no one is quite sure what district to run in, because there are no districts yet. The reapportionment of California is in the courts now after the state Assembly voted for a series of reapportionments in an arrogant exercise -- conducted by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, one of the more compelling and cynical products democracy has yet produced -- that not only bypassed public hearings but also never produced detailed maps that showed where the districts began and ended.

It is hard to feel sorry for Mr. Brown and his boys, the Democrats, or for the Republicans, either. California still has more than its share of sun-crazed conservatives who consider government the anti-Christ. In fact, my guess is that in California, and later in other places, this decade will end with citizen initiatives to break up the two-party system -- going after state laws that are essentially contracts (or conspiracies) between Republican and Democratic parties to preserve and protect each other against real threats by third, fourth and fifth parties -- or the people.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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