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The Progressive Opportunity 

What if Davis and the Democrats actually win?

Wednesday, Oct 14 1998
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"Laboratories of democracy" - that was what Louis Brandeis called state governments when the century was young and progressivism was slowly working its way from the hinterlands to the nation's capital. Before the New Deal, it was the states - Bob La Follette's Wisconsin, Al Smith's New York, Hiram Johnson's California - that pioneered such radical notions as social insurance, slum clearance and worker rights.

Today, it's hard to find a state that's a laboratory for anything other than retrenchment. From one statehouse to the next, the record of the past four years runs the center-right gamut from welfare cutbacks to prison construction, although some states - not ours - have also greatly expanded education funding.

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The most obvious reason for the retrenchment is the '94 electoral blowout, which left the Republicans in control of 32 governors' offices, while the Democrats govern in just 17. Every one of the 10 largest states except Florida and North Carolina is in Republican hands, and the Republicans are widely expected to pick up Florida in the election three weeks hence. For their part, the Democrats are expected to lose even more states in the pending contest. The one silver lining, the only big state where they're expected to pick up a statehouse, is California - provided Gray Davis can hang on to his lead over Dan Lungren.

But California would be huge. Pundits frequently note that if the Democrats can maintain their hold on the Legislature through the election of 2000, and have Davis in the governor's chair, they can dominate the decennial reapportionment here, transferring 10 or more congressional seats from the GOP to the Dems, and with them, just possibly the control of the House of Representatives. But this gives short shrift to the greater significance of a Davis victory.

For in creating the only major government in America with Democratic control over both the legislative and executive branches, California voters would also be creating a government that could be open to progressive initiatives. The conditional mood is required here: No government of either party is going to reverse the law-'n'-order criminology of the past two decades. No Democratic administration is going to be anything other than solicitous to the corporate sector, so long as capital is mobile and politics dominated by big money.

And yet - a Davis administration working in tandem with a Legislature headed by John Burton and Antonio Villaraigosa (the two leftmost legislative leaders in California history) would certainly create a moment of progressive opportunity. Davis himself may be no great progressive, but his election would nonetheless alter the political climate. For the first time in 16 years, liberal Democratic legislators could actually propose reforms that stood a decent chance of enactment: Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl could draft sex-equity legislation; Senator Tom Hayden could push for greater environmental protections. For the first time in 16 years, California's progressive movements and think tanks could stop playing defense and actually advocate policy solutions of their own.

So could political columnists at weekly newspapers. Herewith, the Meyerson plan for our next governor:

Reversing Inequality

In the good old days of the New Deal Order, California was a bastion not only of economic opportunity but of relative economic equality. A highly unionized and industrialized state, with the first master plan opening higher education to all its high school graduates, California in the years of the postwar prosperity was a place where the benefits of the boom were felt across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Those days are now a distant memory at best. With its aerospace, auto and other middle-income industries either shrunken or vanished, its rate of unionization considerably reduced, and with burgeoning low-wage industries built around the new immigrant populations, California now ranks 46th among the states in its level of income equality. In 1980, the bottom 60 percent of California households pulled in 24.4 percent of all earned income in the state. In 1996, that figure had shrunk to 18.7 percent. The culprit here is declining wages for all but the wealthiest 10 percent of Californians. Between 1979 and 1997, according to the nonpartisan California Budget Project, inflation-adjusted wages fell for the bottom 90 percent of wage earners.

And it's not just wages and incomes that have been declining. Because so many Californians work for small businesses, in low-paying jobs, in poorly capitalized industries, the number of Californians with on-the-job benefits has been in free fall, too. Nationally, the percentage of residents covered by job-based health insurance is 66.1; in California, it's 56.9. Which is the main reason why the L.A. County health system is chronically on the brink of collapse.

Progressive policy wonks offer a range of discrete solutions to this complex of problems. The most basic is to raise the state minimum wage - and not just raise it, but index it to the cost of living. The arguments of the laissez-faire right to the contrary, the state and federal minimum-wage hikes of 1996 did nothing to deter job creation, which boomed even as wages for California's most low-paid workers increased.

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