Saturday, December 19, 2009



After six years of watching a movie muscleman wrestle unsuccessfully with California’s problems, voters will be getting a huge change of pace in the new year.

There’s not a show business personality in sight in either major party as the four major candidates still in the run for governor prepare for the primary election season to get serious.

In fact, the campaign corps looks more like a “geek squad,” filled with personalities that would fit better in a picture like “Revenge of the Nerds” than “Conan the Barbarian.”

These candidates make few vague promises, although zillionaire former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, the early leader among Republicans, does promise continually to “create 2 million jobs in the private sector.” Even that phrase, though, can't compare with the kind of empty promise Arnold Schwarzenegger made when he pledged continually in the 2003 recall election to “blow up boxes.”

The only thing that’s blown up under his guidance is California’s fiscal situation, as his policies saw the state’s credit rating slide to the lowest of any state while unemployment shot up to near-record levels.

This campaign season features candidates with very specific ideas. So much so that on one recent conference call with journalists, Republican Steve Poizner, the current insurance commissioner and a fabulously wealthy former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who in mid-December put $15 million into his own campaign, talked nonstop for 45 minutes about his plans before pausing to take questions.

Poizner, trailing badly in the early polls before he begins to air television commercials, touts his “10-10-10” plan for cutting personal and corporate income tax rates by 10 percent, slashing 10 percent from the state budget and piling up a $10 billion reserve of state cash.

Meanwhile, the current No. 2 in GOP polls, Tom Campbell, likes to say his Web site “is the most information-filled of any (candidate) Web site I’ve seen.”

It contains, among other things, pie charts aiming to show how he would limit state spending increases to a combination of the levels of inflation and population increases.

Among Democrats, the closest thing to a movie star was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is married to former starlet Jennifer Siebel. He offered very specific plans that had no chance of getting through even the current Legislature, dominated by his fellow Democrats. Without either a large personal fortune or a loyal corps of backers, he flamed out quickly when his promises of universal government-backed health insurance and large-scale job training programs drew very few campaign donations.

Then there’s the overall leader in most early polls, Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown.

As always, Brown is at least as interested in process as program specifics, although he appears far more grounded now after eight years as mayor of Oakland than in his previous gubernatorial incarnation of the 1970s and ‘80s.

He talks of smoothing the way for builders and others as they negotiate the state’s regulatory maze and finding ways around the federal biological opinions that currently limit pumping of water from the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

But he warns that nothing will be easy for the next governor, whether it’s he or someone else. He remembers what happened 30 and 40 years ago, and warns that “the same interests are still around.” In one session, he regaled supporters with the ironic tale of how big farmers were dissatisfied with the amounts of water to be moved south from the Delta under the abortive 1982 Peripheral Canal plan. So they funded television commercials featuring environmentalists fighting the same plan because they felt it sent too much water south.

“I think there are solutions if we can get a consensus,” he said. “I think we can get that consensus because we no longer have a choice. California is in breakdown and we need a breakthrough.”

He also notes that state government is essentially “a $100 billion business with only an $80 billion revenue stream. That means it’s going to take adults to solve this. People talk about cuts, but what more can be cut? Yet, no one wants more taxes.”

Every candidate is well aware of the conundrum Brown outlines. They differ only on how to solve it.

But at least today’s candidates offer substance rather than mere flash. Unlike Schwarzenegger, they’re more interested in productivity than production values. Which means there’s hope for California yet, and the geeks now running are one source of that hope – even if they will all likely begin trashing one another other soon.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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