Working Across the Aisle: Stories from the California State House
By Daniel Weintraub
Is bipartisanship dead in California? If it's alive, it is definitely on life support. Lopsided political districts, term limits and highly partisan primaries have combined to create a Legislature in which the two parties stare each other down like warring nations on either side of a disputed border.
Legislators who dare to discuss solutions with members from the opposite party are branded as traitors by their colleagues and outside pressure groups. If they break ranks and vote against the wishes of their party leaders, they risk being targeted in a contested primary or even a recall election. their hopes for higher office are all but dashed. still, even in this polarized climate, there have been moments in recent years where the parties worked together to solve problems. Former
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger struck an independent pose, sometimes working alone with Democrats and sometimes bringing his fellow Republicans into the fold. a nd here and there legislative working groups with members of both parties have quietly found common ground on contentious issues.
Three Saint Mary's alumni who have seen the State Capitol up close recently discussed their views on bipartisanship.
Susan Kennedy '07 was Schwarzenegger's chief of staff from 2005 through the end of his term earlier this year. Guy Houston '82 MBA '87, and Joe Canciamilla '82 tried, mostly without success, to work across party lines from opposite sides of the aisle. Here are their stories.
Susan Kennedy '07
Susan Kennedy knows a few things about bipartisan governing. A lifelong democrat and a longtime party activist, she had never even voted for a Republican until she went to work for one — as former Governor arnold Schwarzenegger's chief of staff. in that job, Kennedy helped engineer several deals between Schwarzenegger and the Democrats in 2006 that propelled him to re-election by proving that he knew how to govern. Schwarzenegger and legislators won voter approval for the biggest-ever package of public works, passed a budget with a minimum of rancor, increased the state's minimum wage and , most famously, passed a bill to make California a leader in fighting the carbon emissions believed to be the cause of global warming.
Later, Kennedy was in the room when the governor and Republican leaders struck a landmark budget deal with Democrats in 2009, combining deep cuts in spending with temporary taxes. She also was witness to difficult, bipartisan budget agreements that rolled back pension benefits for new state hires, repealed automatic cost-of-living increases for health and social programs and placed a proposed rainy-day budget reserve on the ballot. the key to all of these deals, she said, was leverage. It would be nice if legislators reached across the aisle out of a belief in good government or mere magnanimity. But Kennedy said it is unrealistic to expect such behavior in a heated political climate. Especially in California, where lopsided political districts and highly partisan primaries have left the Legislature deeply polarized. the trick, she said, was to present a united front of Republicans that would force the Democrats to take them seriously. Until this year it took a two-thirds super-majority to pass a budget, so that is where Republicans drew their line.
"We combined our seat at the table with the Republicans' two-thirds vote on the budget," Kennedy said of Schwarzenegger's approach. "We consolidated the Republican position. There were two parties at the table who had equal power and so we were then able to negotiate as adults. All these things we got were because there were two parties at the table that had enough power to negotiate with each other."
Kennedy, who earned a degree in management from Saint Mary's in 2007, believes that two reforms Schwarzenegger supported — open primaries and an independent commission to draw district lines — will change the way the Capitol works over the next decade. The reforms will force legislative candidates and incumbents to win the votes not just of their fellow party members but also independents and even voters from the opposing party.
"When redistricting reform takes hold and open primaries take hold, and you change a little bit of the culture, we will have more bipartisanship," she said. "We will know it has arrived when legislators are more afraid of the voters in the general election than they are of a primary challenge from within their own party."
Joe Canciamilla '82
As a state Assemblymanfor three terms, 2000-2006, Joe Cancimiallawas a rebel. He spoke his mind, voted how he pleased rather than how his Democratic Party leaders told him to vote, and carried on a highly public legislative partnership with a maverick Republican, Assemblyman Keith Richmond.
In the end Canciamilla's independence did not amount to much. He and Richmond were ostracized by their parties, and they attracted few followers. Some of their ideas were eventually adapted and adopted by the full Legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But they both left behind a Legislature that was even more polarized than the one they had entered six years earlier.
How bad was it? Canciamilla recalls that when he and Richmond started what became known as the "bipartisan group," a small collection of lawmakers who would meet for dinner a couple of times a month, the legislators had to meet in private homes because they could not risk being seen together in public.
"The whole idea of going outside the (Capitol) building was that there would be a certain level of privacy and we would not be seen as plotting outside of the dictates of the leadership," he said. "The structure in Sacramento has been and continues to be leadership-directed, controlled by the majority leader as much as possible, and the minority leader. The idea that you would have a dialogue outside of their control was just going to be suspect from the very beginning."
Canciamilla blames term limits for preventing legislators from establishing meaningful relationships, and the rise of independent campaign committees that can dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into a single race to influence the outcome. The result, he said, is a highly partisan atmosphere in which fewer and fewer members are willing to break ranks.
"It's quite striking how hard it is for people who have the ability to get elected to a legislative position to then stand up and show any backbone once they get to Sacramento. That was one of the most astounding things I saw, how quickly people seemed to lose their independence."
Guy Houston '82 MBA '87
Guy Houston's six years in the state Assembly convinced him that bipartisanship in California government is on life support. He blames gerrymandered political districts, which helped elect the most conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, and term limits, which create such rapid turnover that lawmakers barely get to know each other before they move on.
"With the districts the way they are, most legislators just worry about their base, because you know if you win the primary you are going to win the general election no matter what," Houston said.
"Term limits have also hurt. You don't have people there long enough to have any kind of relationship. People are not there long enough to have a rapport and relationship and a trust. In the old days people were there longer, and even though they had sharp differences they could communicate."
Houston actually represented a district in the East Bay that was one of the few competitive seats in the state. That made him a constant target of Democrats, not only at election time but in the Legislature, where, he said, they were determined to keep him from recording any wins.
But his own party's leadership was not much help, either. Houston said republican leaders wanted everyone to stick together, so they discouraged members from talking to legislators from the opposite party.
"If you never reach out to the other side, we're never going to understand each other or get things done. It's always going to be World War III. if there's more discussion, formal and informal, among members, we'd be better off."
Houston did have one bipartisan achievement of note. He worked with Democrats to tweak school funding formulas to help suburban and rural districts, which had long been disadvantaged compared to the big urban districts.
Daniel Weintraub has covered California politics for more than 20 years for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the Sacramento Bee and the New York Times. He edits the California Health Report at healthycal.org