Mattole Valley, California -- It is often said that California is a bellwether of the next trend -- pop culture or public policy -- that will sweep the nation. Last week there were two bells ringing in the news here that you should hope will not weather a trip eastward over the Sierra Nevada.
One was the matter of "reparations" for descendants of 19th Century slaves; the other a $95 million computer contract dispensed by the state to the Oracle Company without bidding. Both are already becoming entangled in election year politics.
California entered the union in September 1850 -- after heated debate -- as a free state. Soon, it may become the first state to grant -- or mandate -- "reparations." The other day several insurance companies -- in response to a state demand -- made public insurance policies they (or, in most cases, predecessor companies) issued to slave owners before the Civil War. These are not California companies, although they do do business in the state.
This information provides fuel for the plaintiffs who are suing these companies for "reparations." In the event the suit goes forward and prevails, the companies will fork over something on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. It won't, however, be doled out to the great-great-grandchildren of various slaves, but will go to "charitable" organizations of the sort Jesse Jackson and other shakedown artists operate.
As long as we're talking reparations, wouldn't it be poetic justice if a "commission" were required to be paid out of the proceeds to descendants (or to worthy charities) of the soldiers who fought to free the slaves? My great-grandfather, from Wisconsin, contracted malaria fighting in Tennessee. His compensation: a very tiny government pension for a lifelong disability. There must have been thousands like him.
Meanwhile, in Sacramento, Governor Gray Davis is issuing statements of shock and dismay that the state drew up a sole-source contract with Oracle for computer work. As things go, he may have been unaware of the matter until it became a problem. Nevertheless, the people involved are all appointees of his. His General Services administrator has resigned, as has the state's director of Information Technology, whose office -- shades of Arthur Andersen -- was caught shredding documents about the transaction. A long-time Davis aide, the director of something called "e-government," also resigned. It seems he accepted a $25,000 contribution to Davis's reelection campaign a day or two after the contract was approved.
Davis's office insists this was a coincidence. The attorney general, a Davis ally, noted that the official , Arun Baheti, did not violate a law in accepting the check because he did not receive it in the capitol -- felony -- but at a restaurant. Good government lives!
Davis's challenger in November, Bill Simon, Jr., said of all this, "The dots are beginning to connect."
Despite a war chest of $30 million, Davis is very unpopular in the state. A large budget deficit and the recent energy crisis are sources of voter discontent. The statewide Field Poll last week showed his favorable percentage at 39 and his unfavorables at 50 percent. The Field Poll also showed him ahead of Simon by 43-29, contrary to several other polls showing them virtually tied or Simon slightly ahead. Field typically polls people who say they are registered, but not whether they vote regularly. Thus, Field's results tend to overstate Democratic strength.
Nevertheless, pros in both camps think Davis's formidable war chest will prevail. Democrats tend to think it will be by 10-15 points; Republicans by about half that. All may be forgetting that November is a long way from early May and Simon is husbanding his resources for use later.
Challengers have a hard time breaking into the news unless they offer up some big program or say something foolish. Incumbent governors can make news every day, although Davis must wish the news about the Oracle contract would go away. So far, the state's media are not obliging him.
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