Reagan and social issues
Sacramento, Calif. — One of the chief campaign issues for Ronald Reagan in his 1966 race for governor was the growing troubles on California's college campuses. Berkeley has spawned the "free speech" movement, pitting students and some faculty members against the administration and state Board of Regents. Anti-Vietnam war sentiment was growing.
With a unique and extensive system of public colleges and universities and free tuition, higher education in California was more "political" here than in most other states. And in the mid '60s, the increasingly comfortable and conservative "silent majority" began to wonder why it should be paying for the education of "ungrateful troublemakers."
The University of California's mother campus in the north symbolized all of this, and gubernatorial candidate Reagan promised to "clean up the mess at Berkeley." He proposed a special commission headed by former CIA director John McCone to "investigate charges of communism and blatant sexual misbehavior." A plague over his new door as governor head, "Obey the Rules or Get Out"
Among his first acts as governor was an attempt to slash higher education budgets and impose a partial tuition requirement for the first time in the system. Taxpayers should not be asked "to subsidize intellectual curiosity" and the "user of the service [students] should pay for the service," he said.
Within a month, Ronald Reagan had been hanged in effigy on campus, and even some of his supporters reacted sharply to his moves against students and faculty. The Los Angeles Times (which had supported his election) editorialized against "the most short-sighted and destructive kind of economizing."
"If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged and subsidized, then it is nothing," the newspaper said. "An anti-intellectual political reactionary now governs California and is determined to bring higher education to a grinding halt. . . ."
Even conservative columist William Buckley chided his friend by suggesting that perhaps "intellectual frivolity" was a better term than "intellectual curiosity." The issue first came to a head with the firing of University of California president Clark Kerr. There had been a growing movement against the controversial administrator among the university's Board of Regents, and Dr. Kerr probably precipitated his own ouster by demanding a vote of confidence shortly after Reagan's election.
But there is strong evidence that Reagan's part in the move extended beyond his single vote (which he said at the time he never officially cast against Kerr) as one of 24 regents.
"I don't think there's any question that he had a major influence on that taking place," says Dr. Wilson Riles, state Superintendent of Education and now (as such) a member of the UC Board of Regents. "The university [system] was on the defensive the whole time he was there."
On the matter of tuitions, Reagan never was able to force acceptance of them, but he was instrumental in bringing about substantial "fee" hikes that amounted to the same thing.
Reagan also has been criticized for his handling the "People's Park" episode in 1969 in which a small minority of students attempted to take over a university-owned vacant lot. In retrospect, there is little doubt that some self-styled "revolutionaries" wanted and provoked (sometimes violently) a sharp response by law-enforcement officials. At Governor Reagan's order, California National Guard troops patrolled the streets of Berkeley for 17 days.
An uneasy calm finally was restored, but not before there had been mass arrests, tear-gas attacks by National Guard helicopters, and the firing of shotguns, which resulted in one death and many injuries.
The Los Angeles Times called it "repressive force beyond any order of magnitude required." Tackling a pet peevem
If Reagan never achieve more than an uneasy truce with the University of California, there is another side to his record on higher education that is more positive -- although little publicized. It says much about the small-town boy who had to work his way through a small Midwestern college.
During his years as governor, he was influential in increasing the number of state scholarships to public and private universities from 6,042 to 31,000 -- an increase of more than 400 percent. State spending for loans and scholarships to students from less-affluent families rose from $4.7 million to $43 million -- or 915 percent.
As support monies for the prestigious University of California grew, Reagan also bolstered the lower-tiered California State University and Colleges, and the separate system of community colleges. State spending for these two systems (which drew their enrollment from a less elite and much broader group of young Californians) grew much faster than enrollment during the Reagan years.
"When you look at the state universities and colleges, which are separate from the University of California, they made more gains under Reagan than at any time in history," says superintendent Riles, a Democrat.
Although the University of California never got as much money as it asked for from Reagan, its budget also rose faster than enrollment during his years in Sacramento.
Did these years result in a net benefit for education in California?
"I would certainly say yes," says Riles.
Says another knowledgeable Sacramento source: "If you talk to university people today, they'll tell you that they preferred the Reagan administration over the [Jerry] Brown administration. Brown, they figure, is a much bigger threat than Reagan ever was."
Having won re-election in 1970 by a half-million votes and having improved his relations somewhat with the Legislature, Reagan in 1971 tackled another of his pet peeves: welfare.
Because it was a rapidly growing state with a highly mobile population, California had seen marked increases in the number of people demanding social services including welfare assistance. And since for most Californians the decades after World War II were relatively prosperous, taxation to pay for the services had kept steady pace. Welfare payments in California were the fourth-highest in the nation when Reagan took office.
If there was one area where he could "cut, squeeze, and trim," he felt, it was welfare. "Horror stories" about welfare fraud had been a standard part of his campaign rhetoric.
The welfare situation was definitely worsening when Reagan began his second term as governor. Due to recession, unemployment in california rose from 4.j percent in December 1969 to 8.8 percent at the beginning of 1971. Welfare costs had jumped fourfold between 1960 and 1970 and now consumed about one-third of the state budget. The welfare caseload was rising by as many as 40,000 a month.
"There were reforms that were necessary beyond peradventure in welfare," former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown recalled in a recent interview.
REagan at long last saw his opportunity to do something about the situation and he made his move, appointing a "welfare reform task force." In five months, the group reported back with specific recommendations on how the system could be tightened up and reduced in cost.
The Legislature at first balked at the Reagan proposals. But the governor already had generated considerable public support on the matter in his 1970 re-election campaign, and he used one of his most potent political weapons -- his ability to communicate directly with Californians via radio and television -- to unleash a torrent of protest against the recalcitrant lawmakers.
There followed 17 days of negotiation in which members of the administration and legislative leaders carved out a compromise.
The Welfare Reform Act increased penalties for fraud, narrowed eligibility requirements and set up a "community work experience program" requiring that "able-bodied" welfare recipients accept employment training or community jobs.
The legislation also raised welfare payments for "the truly needy" (those without any outside income) by 41 percent and included the first regular cost-of-living increase feature.
Today, Reagan claims his welfare reform saved California $1 billion, a figure obtained by projecting forward the "worst case" 40,000- per-month caseload number. Between 1970 and 1974, the total AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) caseload in California had dropped from nearly 1.7 million to 1.3 million.
But many observers say this was due to other important factors as well as welfare reform. Among these were President Nixon's moves to bolster the economy (including wage-price controls and extending unemployment benefits), a leveling-off of the increased use of contraceptives, a leveling off the migration to California, and the liberalized abortion law Reagan had signed. Critics say a more likely saving from The new welfare act totaled no more than $ 100 million. A tribute from Jerry Brownm
But in any case, there is today general agreement that welfare reform indeed was Reagan's biggest in Caifornia. The proggram became a model for other states , and Robert Carleson, Reagan's welfare director, went on to become US Commissioner of Welfare. REagan's testimony in Washington helped kill the Nixon-proposed "Family Assistance Program."
Perhaps the highest tribute to his efforts at welfare reform comes from the current California governor, Jerry Brown, often a sharp Reagan critic. Several years ago Brown said: "The Reagan welfare program is holding up. And, considering today's high unemployment, it is amazing that it has kept welfare down as much as it has."
While government taxes and spending, education, and welfare were the key concerns during the Reagan years in California, there were other important issues as well. Among them:
Environment -- For a man who was widely reported to have said "A tree's a tree. How many more do you need to look at?" (in what was considered an almost irreverent slap at California's majestic redwoods) Reagan's record on the environment is more positive than might be imagined. He drafted and signed perhaps the toughest water- quality act in the country and created an Air resources Board to strengthen smog abatement.
He named a special comminssion that has led to a cleaner San Francisco Bay, set up the California Ecology Corps (which provided jobs for young people), and established the first requirement for environmental-impact studies on state construction projects. He successfully blocked some federal projects, including a dam that would have destroyed Indian ancestral lands.
Minorities -- Reagan appointed more minorities to government positions than had any previous governor of California but almost without exception, stress his critics, these tended to be lesser posts and not those with the potential for affecting institutional change. Before he was goveror, he had campaigned strongly against the state's controversial "open housing" law, which prohibited discrimination but once elected worked against a repeal measure.
Some black leaders felt he displaye insensitivity when (to a Republican fund-raising dinner in South Carolina) he said, "There is no law saying the Negro has to live in Harlem or Watts."
He established a number of bilingual services for Spanish-speaking Californians, but strongly opposed the unionization of farm workers by Cesar Chavez.
Women's Issues -- He signed into law numerous measures prohibiting discrimination against women in such areas as credit, property ownership, and employment. As late as 1972, he sent a letter to Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) supporters stating his "full support" and adding that he would "be pleased if you are able to find a use for my name in attracting additional support. "Reagan's opposition to ERA now is well-publicized.
Today the Republican presidential nominee favors a constitutional ban on most abortions. But during his first year as governor of california he said, "I am fully sympathetic with attempts to liberalize the outdated abortion law now on the books. . . ." He signed a much-liberalized law and, as a result, the number of abortions performed in California increased significantly. He later said he regreted signing the law and thought it had been misused by the medical profession.
Crime -- Although Reagan signed many anticrime measures, crime in California continued to rise, as it did across the nation. He opposed local efforts to control handgu ns and signed legislation reestablishing capital punishment after the state Supreme Court had outlawed it. In what he says was one of his most difficult decisions, Reagan refused to stop the execution of one man. But he also stayed another scheduled execution and instituted some prison reform measures, including the first conjugal visits for inmates in California.
Consumer Affairs -- In another move that surprised some of his critics, Reagan reorganized various agencies into a single Department of Consumer Affairs -- the first of its kind in the US.
In sum, Reagan compiled what even many of his detractors admit was a creditable record during his eight years as governor of California. He accomplished less than he had promised, but more than was expected by some. He proved he could compromise where necessary and -- after a rocky start -- was able to forgo what one of his former aides calls his "Bonapartist style." Government continued to grow and become more expensive while he was in sacramento, but undoubtedly less costly that it would have were he not there.
"His administration functioned smoothly, had no scandal, worked out solutions to issues with the Democratic Legislature," says Ed Salzman, editor of the California Journal. "You will find very few people but the most liberal ideophiles who will say that Reagan was a bad governor."
Above all, he left office an experienced professional politician, ready to take his own brand of conservative populism on the federal road to White House.