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The perils of a one-party state (San Francisco Chronicle) June 11, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

If competition brings out the best in people, it is no wonder that Gray David is buried in hugh budget deficites and low poll numbers, facing the prospect of being the first California governor ever recalled from office. Republicans have provided Gov. David and the Democrats with little or no competition and thus California is facing some of the challenges of a one-party state.

It happened so fast. After holding the governorship for 16 consecutive years until 1998, no Republican now occupies an elective state office in California for the first time since 1882. With no one in the farm system of lesser statewide office, there are few bright prospects for the immediate future. Only members of Congress would be well positioned to run for governor or senator, and the risk of giving up a safe seat in the House to run in a state where only 35 percent of the electorate is registered Republican is simply too great.

So the loyal opposition is reduced to trying to recall an unpopular governor it could not defeat in the 2002 general election. Or, since the Republicans do not have a majority in either chamber of the State Legislature, to taking important issues directly to voters through endless ballot initiatives. With no obvious candidate for governor or senator in the lineup, Republicans can only hope that Arnold Schwarzenegger or National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will pinch-hit and provide a game-winning home run.

It’s not enough for the 65 percent of Californians who are not Republicans to say, “It’s their party and they can cry if they want to.” No, the problem a one-party state is a problem for the state as a whole.

As Thomas Jefferson put it, a free democracy depends upon “opposite parties and violent dissentions and discords.” The competition of political ideas and adversaries becomes the testing ground for new policies and stronger leaders.

With one party so clearly in command of the $38 billion budget crisis, for example, options not acceptable to that party’s major constituencies — such as labor unions — do not even make it to the bargaining table. Unable to garner votes even if the party had an agenda, Republicans are reduced to blocking what they do not like.

There is no quick fix when a political party loses its base. In a state with growing minority populations, California Republicans have not figured out how to appeal to African American and Latino voters, and they ahve lost ground with Asian voters in recent elections. Once called the party of big business, Republicans haev even lost their touch with California business leaders. A survey for an L.A. businessman showed that 92 percent of the contributions from selected California business leaders went to Gov. Gray Davis in the last election.

There are a couple of models California Republicans should study: Texas Republicans in 1978 and Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964. Texas was an all-Democrat state from top to bottom when Bill Clements, aided by a young operative named Karl Rove, won the governorship with new grassroots approaches.

Now Texas officeholders are all Republicans. Similarly Barry Goldwater ignored much of the party structure and built his own grassroots organization in 1964, bringing new people into the political process.

Instead of waiting for the state party, grassroots Republicans need to become proactive, building a supportive scaffolding around the old party structure. Current and former policymakers should invite policy experts to help develop clear issues that will connect with California voters, especially ethnic minorities. Democrats have learned to speak about tangibles, while Republicans still talk about their principles. It will be important to demonstrate how ideas like limited government and free markets help Californians. One or two issues that reconnect Republicans with business are essential. The astronomical growth in workers’ compensation premiums would be a good place to start.

New, fresh faces need to be encouraged to run for political office at all levels. The party must refrain from demonizing moderates, such as Richard Riordan, who could win. The use of expensive national consultants — who have cost Republicans a ton of money while delivering mediocre results — must be reviewed. Perhaps consultants should be compensated based on their performance: success fees if they win, responsible debts if the campaign accounts don’t balance.

If Will Rogers were a Republican today, he would have to say, “I belong to no organized politcal party. I am a California Republican.” California needs the contest of fresh ideas and strong candidates that only a vital two-party system can provide.

This op/ed appeared on Page A-27.

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