‘Supermajority’ minority leverage

by Bill Watkins on May 2nd, 2013
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Previously published in the Orange County Register

Over the past few months I’ve been privileged to hear two members of California’s Black Caucus speak, and I’ve been mightily impressed.

Last fall, Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) gave two presentations to a Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) economic summit. He painted a portrait of California’s industrial past, presenting statistics on the percent of the world’s aircraft, tires, and automobiles that used to be produced in California. He talked about how those jobs provided dignity and opportunity for folks in his district. He lamented the decline of opportunity his constituents have witnessed. The passion and energy he displayed provided a much needed energy to the conference, and earned him two standing ovations. It was clear Wright was speaking from the heart.

More recently, I had the opportunity to witness Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s (D-San Diego) keynote address to the California Energy Action Summit in Buellton. Weber told how her father, a sharecropper farmer with only a sixth-grade education, moved from Hope, Ark., to Southern California, because as she said “There was no hope in Hope.” Her father found a job in a California steel mill. That job allowed her father to raise many children–I think it was seven–and to purchase a home. Shirley Weber earned a Ph.D. from UCLA at 26, finishing with little debt.

Weber didn’t display the same energy as Wright, but she spoke with just as much passion, and from the heart. Her story is an example of the American Dream that is increasingly difficult to obtain in California. Weber knows this, and she regrets that journeys of her family aren’t possible today. I think she intends to do what she can to restore that dream to California.

It’s nice to finally see some California policy makers talking about jobs and opportunity. Far too often California policy makers ignore the economy as they push other agendas. Most of the time, they deny that California even has economic problems. This, of course, requires ignoring lots of disturbing economic data, such as jobs data, unemployment data, and poverty data.

When asked about California’s economic data, they have an excuse for every bad data point, and they assert something like “California will always recover” or “It doesn’t matter what we do in Sacramento.” This is the same as saying that California has such an abundance of economic assets that no amount of bad policy can hurt California’s economy.

This is absurd. California does have abundant economic assets, but it is possible to make conducting business in California so time consuming, so uncertain, and so expensive that businesses that don’t have to be here aren’t here.

California’s leadership has become increasingly dominated by representatives from relatively wealthy communities populated by a college educated upper middle class and public service unions. Policy goals have mostly been about the environment and about meeting the demands of the public services unions. Very little thought and less action has been given to creating opportunity for California’s least advantaged.
Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters said immediately after the last election that the Democrat’s supermajority would reveal differences among the Democrats; they wouldn’t be a monolith. Enter Weber and Wright and the Black Caucus.

No group has suffered more under existing California policy than Blacks. Nobody knows this better than the Black Caucus. This has me thinking that California’s Black Caucus just might be able to save California.

Given the Democrats slim supermajority, the Black Caucus has the opportunity to act like a minority party in a parliamentary system. Their votes are needed on any vote that needs a supermajority. This is leverage, and I hope they use it to demand policies that promote an opportunity economy.

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