California's restless dream

How a deep deficit, rising taxes, sunken dotcoms, and a no-limits ethos create a recall state of mind.

In most states, Tom Brickley would be simply a concerned businessman, anxious over the state of the economy and vexed by a government that he sees as chronically detached from everyday life.

In California, however, he is a revolutionary. With his buttoned-down collar and perfectly parted hair, Mr. Brickley does not seem to fit the part of a modern-day Che Guevara. But he needs no berets or bullets. Instead, he needs only the ballot box, and he vows to use it next Tuesday to overthrow Gov. Gray Davis.

Why is he so mad? For one thing, it's the fact that his business must pay about $50 in workers' compensation program for every $100 of payroll. The work is risky - hazardous waste - but he calls that burden "insane." Not everyone here shares his specific lament. But across this state, a nagging question hangs in the balmy air: Is the California Dream slipping away?

The move to recall Governor Davis is, to be sure, about electricity crises and budget deficits.

But it is also, undeniably, about something more. It is disgruntled Californians' latest and most daring gambit to reclaim the bright promise that brought them here in the first place.

This, after all, is the Golden State - the home of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, a land of perfect bodies burnished by the sun and limitless opportunities generated by the world's sixth-largest economy. But for 30 years, disenchantment has grown as fast as the population; the very social and economic forces that first brought Beach Boys and Bill Gates to California have now stretched the seams of public schools and shot home prices skyward.

No exodus, but introspection

Most Californians, to be sure, aren't packing their worldly goods and moving out. But dig beneath the surface of the current recall-election frenzy, and many cite problems that go beyond a tripling of the car tax or an ineffectual governor. They wonder about the strain of immigration, the climate for business, and the state's very system of government.

And, in true California fashion, they want to do something about it.

Ever since a barrel-chested California governor in 1911 established the initiative and the recall, vowing "to make the public service of the State responsive solely to the people," California voters have been a breed apart - unafraid to tinker with the most fundamental elements of government.

The increasing voter angst has spilled over in violent eruptions before - from the Proposition 13's property-tax revolt in 1978 to the anger over illegal immigration in 1994's Proposition 187. But experts say Californians' bid to figuratively decapitate their state government crosses a new threshold.

The result is a political experiment of national import, as voters essentially recast the traditional image of American democracy, shortening state politicians' already short leash - while the nation looks on.

"There is a massive disconnect between many voters and the state government," says Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California. It is an American issue, he adds, suggesting "California is a case study in America's problems."

Citrus to suburbs: a paradigm

In much the same way, San Bernardino is a case study in California's seismic social changes. Once the home of some of California's best citrus fields, San Bernardino sits in the lush flats backed by the chapparal foothills and the stark peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, which divide Los Angeles's suburban Inland Empire from high desert. So unobtrusive as to seem stuck in time for the first three-quarters of the 20th century, San Bernardino has since become one of the fastest-growing regions of the state - and a crucible for the California Dream.

For some, that growth has already taken a toll. When Brad McMahon returned to his native California a year ago after spending several years in Arkansas, he saw the same trends here as there - only amplified. "There are more challenges and more people," says the San Bernardino resident, who came back to start a business.

At first, the shock of high prices and cul-de-sacs where only farmland had been made Mr. McMahon wonder if he made the right decision. "There have been times he's been sorry we moved back," says his wife, Cindy, as she drops into a local mall to send a package. "But when we think about it, we are determined to make it work and make all the dreams of opening a business come true."

Opportunity and obstacles

The realities the McMahons face, in fact, have become a driving force behind the recall. Since the days after World War II, Americans have come to California as a land of opportunity - first to work in its factories and fields and more recently to establish the Silicon Economy.

But some economists and businessmen have questioned whether that will continue.

So far, the California economy has done no worse than the national economy during the downturn, and even critics acknowledge that the engine of California's economic growth - technological innovation - remains anchored in Silicon Valley. But high energy costs and unemployment-insurance rates, as well broad family-leave and healthcare plans could force more small businesses to leave the state.

"I do see this business exodus as a major problem," says Jack Kyser, president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Council. "The state's economy is incredibly vibrant and can come back, but this time we are loading on so much regulation that you really start to wonder."

Immigration's challenge

Behind the state's promise and its challenges - economic and cultural - is another factor: immigration, both legal and illegal. It hasn't been at the heart of the current sparring over whether Davis should be ousted or who should replace him. But to some, it is an underlying and inescapable factor shaping the state's future for better or worse.

"The immigration issue is causing consternation here," says attorney Merle Sessions over coffee at the counter of Molly's Café. He has lived in San Bernardino over 50 years. "The Latinos are great people and add much to life here," he says. But he adds: "They also tax the infrastructure - from highways to schools to hospitals and it's not fair to those that are here legally."

His comments reflect a conflict that tears at many state leaders and citizens alike.

The embattled Davis recently tried to tackle one thorny aspect of the problem. Trying to recognize the incalculable and often unspoken benefit of that community to the state economy, in service jobs from agriculture to restaurants and hotels, he recently signed a bill allowing 2 million illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. The move won kudos from the Latino community and ire from others.

"He had previously vetoed two similar measures so when I saw him change his mind at this point, I could tell he was a man trying to respond to our needs," she says. "It made me consider him in a different light," says Felicia Hernandez (Latino mother of four from East Los Angeles), who watched gray davis in the Labor Day parade.

But some analysts say it was just one more example of a politician playing politics - and not necessarily doing it well.

"The illegal alien driver's licenses was the biggest miscalculation that outrages people more than any single thing," says Joel Kotkin, a scholar at the Pepperdine School of Business.

Meanwhile, the burden of regulations have been enough to make businessman Brickley, a Democrat, consider turning independent. He's already planning to vote yes on the recall and yes on Republican frontrunner Arnold Schwarzenegger.

His disgust founded on more than just his business's bottom line. It's the feeling that California has fundamentally changed - and not for the better. "It's certainly not like the 1950s, when my family came here," he says.

For many, his words are a mantra. In the eyes of Californians, state politicians have been given a sacred trust as stewards of the most forward-thinking and innovative state in the country. And in the eyes of many Californians, they've mucked it up. Thirty years ago, California had the nation's strongest schools, its best highways, and its most up-to-date water system. Now, its schools are below-average at best, and its roads and water systems are falling apart.

Populist tradition

So periodically, voters have attempted to reclaim that legacy. Prop. 98 in 1996 mandated the minimum amount of money the Legislature can spend on education. And Proposition 53 on Tuesday's ballot would similarly mandate a minimum slice of the annual budget for building roads and infrastructure.

To Brickley's mind, Sacramento should be doing this anyway, but "we have screwed up everything in Sacramento," he says. "This is the way Californians are doing everything."

Surveys suggest that attitudes toward state government have hit historic lows. A Field Poll released in July found that 19 percent of respondents approved of the job that the Legislature was doing - the lowest figure ever recorded; 23 percent approved of the governor's performance.

Given California's history, it should perhaps come as no great surprise. When Gov. Hiram Johnson laid out his progressive reforms in the early 1910s, it was for one unambiguous purpose: To wrest power from a corrupt Legislature beholden to railroad money and put it in the hands of the people. Nearly 90 years later, the spirit of Johnson's reforms remain the guiding principle of California politics.

California's politicians are, by some measures, entrusted with less power than those in almost any other state. For example, every constitutional officer is elected, not appointed by the governor; the Legislature needs a two-thirds vote to increase spending; and Legislators are confined to the some of the term limits of any state. To this, the recall is merely the next logical extension.

Shift in US democracy?

"What we see in California is far more than a battle for the governor's office, this recall election represents a direct conflict between the conventional representative system of governance and a far more responsive system," says Howard Ernst, coauthor of "Dangerous Democracy? The Battle over Ballot Initiatives in America." "If the poll numbers are correct, the direct system is winning the battle."

It is a startling concept for the American political system, founded on the Madisonian notion that elected officials would use their own wisdom - not simply do their constituents' will.

But for Jack Hill, it's simply a bad idea. He needs no one to tell him about the California that once was. When his family left Denton, Texas, in 1924 seeking a better life, they found it here in San Bernardino. And Mr. Hill is still living that life. Sure, California has gone through some tough times, but "we are not sinking by any means," he says optimistically and emphatically as he stands on the sun-scorched lawn of the house he bought in 1946 for $5,600. "We'll take care of [our troubles] in proper time."

While not supporting recall, Hill says Davis "should finish his term and then let's boot him out."

It's an act of patience that some experts suggest Californians would do well to follow, rather than rushing into rash policy decisions that only hamper good government further. The fleet of initiatives cannot bring back the old California, they say. Although the tax burden on Californians is roughly similar to what it was in the 1960s, escalating health-care and prison costs have resulted in more competition for each budget dollar. Meanwhile, the ballot initiatives have resulted in a less savvy and less flexible legislature.

"The term-limits initiative is a great comment on how Californians view politics more as a game than as a career: They disdain it," says Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. "More than Gray Davis, more than the $38 billion deficit, the problem is ourselves."

Still, he and others say, California will survive. After every eruption of voter anger, the state inevitably charts a new path. Adds Dr. Gerston: "The energy that drives people crazy [about California] is the very energy that drives the perpetual redefinition of the state."

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