California: trendsetter or 'rogue state'?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If the Bush administration is serious about bringing "rogue states" into line, perhaps it should start with California.

At a time when few states are moving in directions radically at odds with Washington, the Golden State has forged a different – and often combative – policy line on virtually every issue but national security.

Last week alone, Gov. Gray Davis defied President Bush by supporting expanded stem-cell research and infuriated Beltway tax cutters with a new payroll tax to fund the nation's most comprehensive paid-leave program. This legislative session the state has expanded abortion rights, agreed to regulate greenhouse gases, and boosted solar and wind power – all in opposition to expressed Bush administration wishes.

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Even for California, long a leader of social and economic reforms, the number of ground- breaking bills is unusual. And their tenor is causing as much of a stir as their content. Not since the 1970s has America's most influential state been so out of step with the mood in Washington.

The obvious reason for the split is a matter of political calculus: While a conservative president sets the agenda in the capital, Democrats here hold almost every major elected office and significant majorities in the statehouse. Behind that, however, is a simmering feud as California chafes under a chief executive who – seeing the state as a lost cause in the 2004 election – has largely ignored it.

As a result, California has established itself as a counterweight to Washington – a political foil with a liberal vision of America's future.

"When a Democrat was in the White House, there was less interest in jumping out ahead," says Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute in San Francisco. "Now, the California legislature is going out of its way to draw a distinction between ... Washington and Sacramento."

During the past few months, that distinction has been impossible to ignore.

When the legislature passed a bill to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from autos this summer, it was heralded as a clear break from Washington and a move closer to the ideals of Europe and Japan.

When Governor Davis signed a bill earlier this month to ensure abortion would remain legal here even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, he did it with a dig and a nudge. "We are acting today to ensure that the freedom to choose is the law of the land tomorrow and every day thereafter," he said, hinting at the White House's perceived desire to appoint anti-abortion judges.

And last week's challenge on stem-cell research undermined one of Mr. Bush's most carefully weighed decisions. It offers state funds for a wide array of studies deemed unsuitable for federal money.

That California has taken a prominent role on such issues is not surprising. The tradition of independent thinking is as native as the rocky coves or cypress pine. This is where voters revolutionized taxation and overturned affirmative action. This is the state of Santa Cruz, where city officials recently handed out marijuana in front of city hall to protest a federal government ban on its medicinal use.

"California frequently acts like a sovereign nation," says Steve Erie, a historian at the University of California in San Diego.

But it has been 25 years, during the eco-friendly governorship of Jerry Brown, since its might has been so clearly contrary to Washington.

Mostly, it's a question of numbers – and the Democrats have them. Bush's ascendance in Washington comes as the Republican Party in California has all but collapsed. The party's strict adherence to the most conservative elements of the GOP doctrine has consigned it to the margins.

The only statewide elected Republican is the secretary of state. And with nearly a two-thirds majority in both the Assembly and Senate, Democrats can do as they wish – and they have.

The paid-family leave bill was enacted over the strong opposition of the typically Republican business community, which has been accused of having too much clout in Washington. Moreover, the new law that 20 percent of the state's power must come from environmentally friendly sources by 2017 runs directly counter to the fossil-fuel-heavy energy plan laid out by Vice President Dick Cheney a year ago.

While some of these laws surely have come about as a reaction to the administration's conservative bent, no one suggests that California is fashioning laws solely to thumb its nose at the federal government – that's just a perk.

The negative perception here that Bush refused to help California during the energy crisis has been compounded by the fact that he has almost denied the state's existence since. After eight years of constant affection from President Clinton, California officials have felt jilted by his successor, who has, for instance, never set foot in San Francisco as an elected official.

His popularity among voters, though lower than the national average, still tips 50 percent. But among lawmakers, what began as a cool distrust has now become a deeper resentment that only amplified their liberal leanings.

"They were almost emboldened by the electricity crisis, because they saw that Washington had cut the state adrift without tremendous promises of federal assistance," says Professor Erie. "California politicians can act with a greater degree of impunity."

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