Lifestyles Left and Right

The Pandora’s Box Factor

A Democrat who had everything going for him is now positioned to lose in a heavily Democratic state.

6.17.02

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Suppose you are the governor of a large state. You are up for re-election this year and, if you win, this will be your second and last term. Also, if you win, your name will immediately be in contention for your party's presidential nomination in 2004. If you lose, well, you'll have plenty of time to write your memoirs.

Re-election should be easy. Your party has a huge registration advantage over the other party. About one fifth of the voters are independents and they broke your way last time. You have more than $20 million in the bank with which to blister your opponent, a businessman who has never held public office (in fact, didn't bother to vote in several elections). He and his family were involved in a savings-and-loan that went belly-up a few years ago and you should be able to wrap that one tightly around his neck. And, for icing on the cake, he's on the wrong side of the abortion and gun control issues so far as your state's voters are concerned.

Piece of cake, right? Not exactly.

You inherited a surplus from your predecessor when you took office in 1998, but steady spending increases since then have resulted in a $23.6 billion deficit today. The state constitution requires a balanced budget be voted by June 30. Your party controls both houses of the legislature, but has made no headway in reducing the deficit as the clock ticks away.

To get the problem under control you have called for huge new borrowing (the state's borrowing capacity is already strained), and you want to roll back auto registration tax cuts and add $5 in new registration taxes over the next two years. Even if your scheme passes, it won't work according to financial experts who say it will result in a $45 billion-worth of deficits over the next five years.

A state senator from the other party says the deficit could be wiped out and turned into a surplus if you were to roll back all your non-education spending increases to their 1998 levels. You won't do anything of the sort and your legislators, on a drunken-sailor spending spree, seem to the think the voters will blame neither themselves nor you.

That's not the only problem. It's as if you had opened Pandora's Box and a flock of troubles flew out. Little did you know that when some of your senior appointees approved a sole-source contract for the software giant Oracle to streamline all state government software, it would come back to bite you. Two days after the contract was let, an Oracle lobbyist handed one of your senior officials a $25,000 contribution for your campaign. You've had to fire five of these officials since then, and the story has more legs than a centipede.

The other day a new sweetheart deal surfaced: The board of the state's public employees retirement system voted to invest $760 million in two money funds of Yucaipa Co., headed by Ronald Burkle, who gave your campaign $100,000 last year. Two of the board members who voted for the deal, the state's treasurer and controller (both members of your party), have received large campaign contributions from Burkle and his wife. A third board member, appointed by you, had a large consulting contract from Yucaipa. That's on a scale with the practice of Clinton's late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who doled out seats on trade mission flights in exchange for big campaign contributions.

Then there was the story that surfaced the other day to the effect that when officials of the state's large teachers' union came to the capitol to discuss some legislation with you, you shook them down for a campaign contribution.

Maybe all this explains those public opinion polls showing you, incumbent Gray Davis, even with your opponent, Bill Simon, or so slightly ahead as to be within the margin of error. Simon has said repeatedly, "I will not raise taxes." It just may be that this, more than all the negative ads you buy about abortion and gun control, is what will register with the voters.

The "pros" in California still think you'll pull it out, but only if by election day you can turn around tens of thousands of Democrats who are angry with you and if you can persuade those pesky independents that deficits, new taxes and mismanagement somehow didn't occur on your watch. Don't count on it.

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