Friday, October 27, 2006

Why Vote, and Who For?

November 7 Election Endorsements


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Perhaps the first question to consider in this space just before an election is why bother to vote at all. Many people on the Left I respect are against voting on principle, and their objections have some merit. As the late political scientist Hans Morgenthau wrote in The New Republic in 1974, elections under capitalism will always avoid the real issues of power and wealth distribution in a country simply because “there are some issues on which the ruling class will not let itself be outvoted.” All too many citizens have reached the same conclusion, coming to the idea that since the electoral system can’t or won’t address the issues of importance to them — particularly access to decent employment and health care in an era in which the capitalist class worldwide is determined to end all this nonsense about liberal “reform” and reduce the world’s workers to subsistence and the poor to penury and desperate want — it’s not worth participating in.

But elections do matter. As the anti-war movement learned in early 2003 when it mobilized the largest numbers ever to participate in demonstrations over a single issue (the U.S. attack on Iraq) on a single day and the war happened anyway, street actions don’t succeed unless the politicians who actually make the decisions are receptive to the message of the street activists — or at least are scared that the passions of the street activists threaten their own continuation in office. If we decide not to vote as a matter of “principle,” we give up our one power actually to get back at the politicians who don’t do what we want them to do.

It’s true that in any class system politicians “govern” within a narrow band of alternatives dictated in advance by the ruling class, but even within that band there are real advantages to having one capitalist party in power rather than another. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are likely to address the underlying problems of capitalism in the U.S., but the Democrats are more likely to raise the minimum wage, appoint National Labor Relations Board members who will make it easier for unions to organize, expand access to health care, take global warming and other environmental problems seriously, protect the civil rights of people of color, women and Queers, get us out of Iraq and curb the foreign-policy adventurism and civil-liberties and due-process abuses of the Bush administration.

Not that they’re going to do that without prodding. If many direct-action activists make the mistake of assuming that because elections can’t address the real contradictions of capitalism they don’t matter at all, many electoral activists make the opposite mistake: the idea that merely electing candidates sympathetic to our issues is enough for reform. They’re wrong, and the generally disappointing record of Bill Clinton on progressive issues proves it. Even if the Democrats take control of both houses of Congress in 2006 and elect a President in 2008, that’s not going to solve all our problems. We’ll still need to be in the streets, pressing the Democrats as hard or harder than we have the Republicans, mobilizing support to get them to do the right thing and avoid being sucked into the go-along-to-get-along influences they’ll be under from major campaign donors and corporate interests to screw us over.

As a long-time Leftist, it’s been frustrating to me to see electoral and direct-action activists treat each other as enemies. The simple fact is that to get anywhere as a movement, we need to do both: we need to mobilize around elections in order to get the best people in office we can and we need to stay in the streets at all times to make sure the best people we can get in office actually do the right thing. So if your thing is marching in the streets, getting in people’s faces with chants and leaflets and generally raising a ruckus, do that; just don’t put down the people who’d rather precinct-walk and phone-bank for an electoral candidate or party. And if you’re more comfortable doing campaign work, go ahead; just don’t put down the street activists whose help you’re going to need to hold the people you’ve helped elect accountable.

So with that, here are the Zenger’s election endorsements for November 7, 2006:



Let’s be real here. It’s a foregone conclusion that center-Right Democrat Dianne Feinstein is going to sail to re-election as California’s senior U.S. Senator — and, alas, it’s equally obvious that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to win a full term as Governor by a double-digit margin. Indeed, after his hard-fought primary win against Steve Westly, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Angelides’ campaign has melted down so thoroughly it’s reminded me of Mort Sahl’s joke about the “McGovern juggernaut” that came to the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami, won him the nomination — and then seemingly disappeared as McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in the most lopsided defeat of a major-party Presidential nominee to that time. (“Some of those people must still be down there!” Sahl said almost a year later.)

So if there’s ever a time and a place to cast a protest vote, these races are it. With nods to the San Diegans who are running for both offices — Janice Jordan for Governor as the Peace and Freedom nominee and Kent Mesplay, who lost the Green Party primary to Chretien but is running as a write-in on the theory that a southern Californian can mobilize more votes for the Greens in southern California than a northerner like Chretien — progressive voters should stick to the Green nominees in both races and send a message to center-Right Democrats and Republicans alike that we’re out here and we demand to be heard.

Lieutenant Governor: JOHN GARAMENDI

Secretary of State: DEBRA BOWEN

Attorney General: JERRY BROWN


Controller: JOHN CHIANG

Insurance Commissioner: CRUZ BUSTAMANTE

Though we’re endorsing Greens at the top of the statewide ticket, for the remaining state offices Zenger’s is recommending the Democratic Party slate. John Garamendi is a proven progressive with a strong pro-consumer record as insurance commissioner and also one of the most stalwart pro-environment stands of anyone in elective officer in California. Debra Bowen, unlike the Republican incumbent, has a properly skeptical attitude towards electronic voting machines and will be a champion of electoral integrity. Jerry Brown will be an aggressive attorney general who will see the job as more than just the state’s chief prosecutor. Though the other Democratic nominees for statewide office (aside from Lockyer, who’s been a good attorney general in an office from which he’s been forced out by term limits) don’t have records as distinguished as Garamendi’s, Bowen’s or Brown’s, and it’s unlikely that Bustamante will be as aggressive a regulator of insurance companies as Garamendi has been, they are still preferable to their Republican opposite numbers.

Congress and State Legislature: ANY DEMOCRAT

However blurry the differences between the Democrats and Republicans sometimes seem, they are real. It’s not so much that the Democrats are perfect (they’re not) as that the Republicans are far worse. The important thing in these races is to put the Democrats in the majority in Congress and keep them in control of the California legislature.

Superior Court Judge, Office 36: ROD SHELTON


San Diego Unified School District Board: KATHERINE NAKAMURA, JOHN DeBECK

I think the framers of the U.S. Constitution got it right where judges are concerned: keep them off the ballot, appoint them for life (unless they screw up grossly, in which case they can be impeached) and thereby insulate them from political pressures and allow them to do their job: to enforce the law and protect the rights of minorities under the Constitution. Unfortunately, that’s not how most of the states do it. California actually has one of the stronger state constitutions when it comes to protecting judicial integrity, but local judges still have to run in competitive elections hamstrung by the clash between the necessity of campaigning and the canons of the legal profession, which severely restrict what they can and cannot tell voters about themselves.

Rod Shelton deserves our endorsement not only for his own qualities but because his opponent, Larry Kincaid, has tried to politicize the campaign in ways that themselves call his ability to serve impartially into question. Kincaid wrote letters to County Supervisors Ron Roberts, Pam Slater and Greg Cox saying they should support him because they and he are all Republicans and Shelton is a Democrat. Kincaid also falsely stated that he led in the primary election (he didn’t) and that Shelton was a “liberal Democrat” who belonged to the American Civil Liberties Union (he doesn’t).

We’re also endorsing all the incumbents in the San Diego Unified School District and Community College District races. The departure of the controversial Alan Bersin as San Diego Unified superintendent has eased the political conflicts that previously roiled the district. Some of the incumbents, like John DeBeck and Peter Zschiesche, are people we’ve long supported; others, like Katherine Nakamura, are people we’ve questioned in the past but they’re still better than their opponents this time.


Proposition 1A (Transportation Funding): NO

Proposition 1B (Highway Bonds): NO

Proposition 1C (Affordable Housing Bonds): YES

Proposition 1D (School Facilities Bonds): NO

Proposition 1E (Disaster Preparedness/Flood Prevention Bonds): YES

Remember those old Star Trek episodes in which the Enterprise crew had to defeat a super-powerful computer and did so by throwing such illogical statements at it until it blew itself up out of sheer frustration and confusion? That’s what trying to come to a rational decision on this massive package of state borrowing proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger and signed onto by the Democratic state legislature is like. Aside from Proposition 1A — which puts new restrictions on the state’s ability to spend the tax on gasoline, and is yet another example of the dangerous ballot-box budgeting that has hamstrung state government generally — the bond measures 1B through 1E have two main problems.

First, because of the interest charges on government bonds over their long maturities (usually 30 years), paying for anything with a bond issue generally costs twice as much as it does to finance it on a pay-as-you-go basis. Second, in a practice Schwarzenegger pledged to stop in his initial campaign to replace Gray Davis in the 2003 recall and instead has pushed to the max, California is already massively in debt, doing the governmental equivalent of using one credit card to pay another as it borrows again and again just to keep the state government running. Schwarzenegger is running for re-election largely on the boast that he’s avoided a tax increase — but the longer the state goes without facing the fact that it can’t provide all the services its residents want on the taxes those residents have so far been willing to pay, the harsher and more severe the inevitable tax increase will be when it finally comes.

So we’re splitting the vote on the bond measures, endorsing 1C and 1E partly because they’re the most narrowly focused on specific state problems and partly because they’re the cheapest: face values of $2.85 billion for 1C and $4.09 billion for 1E compared to nearly $20 billion for 1B (virtually all of it for more freeways and streets; the pittances for public transportation were put in by demand from Democratic legislators) and $10.4 billion for 1D.

Proposition 83 (Restrictions on Sex Offenders): NO!

Proposition 84 (Water Bonds): YES

Proposition 85 (Abortion; Parental Notification): NO!

Proposition 86 (Tobacco Tax to Fund Health Care): YES

Proposition 87 (Tax on Oil Producers to Fund Alternative Energy): YES

Proposition 88 ($50/Parcel Property Tax to Fund Education): YES

Proposition 89 (Clean Elections; Publicly Financed Campaigns): YES!

Proposition 90 (“Regulatory Takings” Initiative): NO

Proposition 83 is a draconian and utterly unnecessary attempt to wreak vengeance on people already convicted of sex crimes who have completed their sentences. It adds further restrictions on where they can live — which, as some analysts have said, could actually make them more dangerous by driving them out of big cities and into rural areas where therapy and support services to keep them from re-offending don’t exist — and, worse, requires that every Californian ever convicted of a sex crime (including Gay and Lesbian people who pled guilty under California’s sodomy laws until they were repealed in 1975) wear a GPS tracker that will allow government to monitor their movements for the rest of their lives. Proposition 83 isn’t about punishing these people for the crimes they have committed; it’s about punishing people for crimes they may or may not commit in the future — which is utterly repugnant to any reasonable concept of justice. What’s more, implementing and monitoring all those GPS devices will cost nearly $1 billion -— money that can better be spent on police resources to catch, try and convict people who are actually committing crimes in the here and now.

Proposition 84 is a water-quality bond measure similar to 1C and 1E: a limited focus and a relatively small price tag ($5.4 billion face value).

Proposition 85 is one of those bad ideas that refuses to die — thanks largely to the cash resources of San Diego Reader publisher Jim Holman, the principal financial backer both of this and of the previous attempt to pass it, Proposition 73 on the November 2005 ballot. Though 85 eliminates the most obnoxious feature of 73 — its attempt to write a statement into the California constitution that life begins from the moment of conception, which would have automatically abolished legal abortion in California if the Supreme Court ever overturned Roe v. Wade — the rest of it is sufficiently identical that the points we made in our endorsement against 73 still go on 85:

“The problem with parental notification requirements is it’s precisely the parents who are most sexually conservative themselves, the ones likely to be judgmental and condemnatory towards sexually active children, who are most likely to raise their daughters (and sons) in a sexually naïve manner that will make them more likely, not less, either to contract or to cause an unwanted pregnancy. Parents sufficiently in touch with their own sexuality to accept their children’s inevitable maturation into sexual beings don’t need parental notification laws because their children almost certainly will have talked to them on their own. Indeed, sexually aware parents are less likely to have daughters who need abortions because either they’ve worked with their kids to counter the peer pressure on them to have sex or, if their children are going to have sex, they’ve educated and supplied them with birth control. … Under parental notification laws, teenagers will either resort to dangerous illegal abortions or ruin their lives bearing children who will be burdens on society. The one thing most of them won’t stop doing is having sex.”

Propositions 86 and 87 have become textbook examples of the kinds of campaigns giant corporations wage against initiatives which attempt to hold them to account for the damage their products cause society. The tobacco and oil companies have both hid behind nice-sounding organizational names — though if you wait to the ends of the TV ads where they legally have to announce who funded them you’ll hear familiar names like Philip Morris and Chevron — and they’ve tried to confuse the issues as much as possible, even (in the case of the opponents of 86) inventing a giant conspiracy on the part of hospital bureaucrats to fatten their own treasuries on the taxes paid by smokers. Nonsense: 86 and 87 are simple, reasonable measures that address major social problems and attempt to hold corporations accountable for the individual and social harm they cause. Vote for both and don’t fall for the corporate hype.

While we’re concerned about the regressivity of Proposition 88 — the fact that the additional property tax it charges to finance education is on a $50 per parcel basis rather than as a percentage of assessed valuation (though under California’s warped Proposition 13 definition of “assessed valuation” that would produce its own set of inequities) — for the most part this seems like a reasonable initiative and an better alternative than the massive borrowing for school construction and repair Proposition 1D would authorize.

Proposition 89 may be the most important initiative on the 2006 ballot in the long term. It would allow candidates for public office in California to opt for the so-called “clean money” system already in place in Maine and Arizona. This way, a candidate who either can’t or doesn’t want to fund his or her campaign with massive donations from wealthy individuals and (where it’s legal for them to contribute) corporations has an alternative: get enough people to sign a nominating petition and cough up a nominal sum (usually $5) to demonstrate public support, and then everything else they need to run a competitive campaign is paid for by the public — in 89’s case, specifically by the corporations that have been the main beneficiaries of California’s pay-to-play politics. An enthusiastic yes on this one …

… and a reluctant no on Proposition 90. This is one of 12 measures on various state ballots sponsored by New York real-estate developer Howard Rich and his organization, Americans for Limited Government. Its ostensible purpose is to rein in the vast and unjust expansion in the government’s power of eminent domain — their ability to force you to sell your property for a “public purpose” — allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court last year in the Kelo decision. Originally government could only take private property for genuine public purposes — to build a road, a school, a hospital, a park. Then big developers and politicians beholden to them invented “redevelopment,” a sort of law that said that as long as they could first declare that a particular community was “blighted,” government could take private property from one set of owners and give it to another to build bigger, splashier businesses and housing developments that would eliminate the “blight” (translation: drive out poor and working-class people and bring in middle-class and upper-class people) and increase the tax revenues generated by the property.

It got worse when creative legislators and developers invented “tax-increment financing,” which meant that once you seized people’s property and “redeveloped” it, the increase in property taxes generated by the new development didn’t go back into the community’s general fund. Instead it went into the coffers of the redevelopment agency, thus giving agencies like San Diego’s Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) the incentive to look for other “blighted” areas of the city and “redevelop” those as well. Originally founded to rehabilitate the Gaslamp Quarter in 1975, CCDC has become a bloated monster sucking tax-increment revenues while the city starves and heads for bankruptcy. Kelo made the situation even worse by removing the requirement that redevelopers first had to certify an area as “blighted” before they could use the power of government to take it away from its owners.

So why is a New York real-estate developer financing a nationwide campaign supposedly aimed at reining in the excesses of real-estate developers? Because of what else he sneaked into Proposition 90 and its 11 clones in other states: a doctrine called “regulatory takings” that says that if government makes any decision at all that affects your ability to profit from land you own, they have to compensate you not only for the fair-market value of your land as it stands but also for any potential profits you might have been able to make if they hadn’t regulated. In practice, this would virtually destroy environmental regulation, zoning laws and all other brakes on the power of big businesses and wealthy individuals to do whatever they like no matter what the effect on the overall common good.

Veteran environmental activist Al Meyerhoff put it best when, in an anti-90 op-ed he wrote for the September 29 Los Angeles Times, he wrote, “There will be no open and honest debate on the two very different visions raised by Proposition 90. Under one vision, we are all in this together, agreeing to use, enjoy and preserve California’s magnificent natural resources as a public trust — a concept of the ‘commons’ grounded in Roman law. We enter into this social contract because, as President Kennedy once told us, ‘in the final analysis … we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. We all are mortal.’ Under the other vision, we are each in this alone, free to exploit resources for profit or personal use — or be paid by the California taxpayer not to do so.”


Proposition A (Advisory Vote on Miramar Airport): NO

Proposition B (Voter Approval of City Pensions): YES

Proposition C (Privatization of City Services): NO

Proposition N (Community College Bonds): YES

Fifteen years ago, the last time San Diego voters had a chance to consider locating a new airport at Miramar, it would have been a good idea. The Navy was planning to close down its fabled “Top Gun” air station and the surrounding area was still relatively undeveloped. Today the Marines are firmly ensconced on the base, the build-out around Miramar has made it almost as dangerous an airport location as Lindbergh Field, UCSD students complain that they already have trouble hearing their teachers or doing their homework during Marine fly-bys and a civilian airport would be even worse, and Orange County had to abandon their own attempt to convert El Toro naval base into an airport because of all the toxic waste the military left behind. It doesn’t matter how this vote goes, anyway, because it’s only “advisory” and there’s no way Miramar is ever going to be a civilian airport because the military ain’t leavin’.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders is pushing Propositions B and C as a package, as his proposed solution to the city’s pension crisis. Proposition B would require future increases in city workers’ pensions to be approved by the voters. In 1985, after the San Diego City Council had shown itself to be dangerously irresponsible in approving rampant development in the city’s future urbanizing area, we took that power away from them and gave it back to ourselves through the ballot box. It seems eminently reasonable to do the same now that the Council has shown equal irresponsibility in approving pensions the city can’t pay for.

Proposition C is another matter entirely, a siren’s song prepared for by decades of Right-wing propaganda extolling the supposedly miraculous “efficiency” of private companies as compared to the alleged slovenliness and uncoolness of public agencies. Proposition C would allow private contractors to bid on existing city services, replacing city agencies. It’s been tried in other cities and the results have been disastrous — most notoriously in Atlanta, which hired a private company to take over the city’s water system and then found the pipes dispensing a dirty brown fluid instead of the clear liquid Atlanta’s public water department had formerly provided.

Private companies who seek contracts under measures like Proposition C generally promise to deliver services at lower costs to city taxpayers. Since they also have to make a profit — their whole reason for existence — there are only two ways they can squeeze enough money out of the operation to charge the city less than it was paying its own people and still make money. One is to reduce the quality of the service; the other is to slash the pay of the workers.

Usually, when cities privatize services, most of the same people who worked for the city agency end up doing the same work for the private company — only they do it for dramatically lower wages, fewer (or no) benefits and no pensions. Indeed, Mayor Sanders’ advocacy of Proposition C suggests that this is his long-term solution to the city’s pension crisis: privatize everything, get rid of the pensions the city had promised its workers (promises that wouldn’t be binding on their new “private” employer) and thereby get out of the unfundable pension obligations while the workers are left either with inadequate 401(k) plans or no retirement benefits at all.

Finally, Proposition N is a local bond issue to build and rehabilitate community college facilities. It shares with the other bond issues we are endorsing a relatively low price tag and a narrow focus on genuine and immediate community needs.