The sage of St. Paul, the radio storyteller Garrison Keillor, has a tender spot for California -- so tender that perhaps one day he'll launch "A Coastal Home Companion" as a winter replacement series for his "A Prairie Home Companion."
In his newspaper column here on the eve of the Republican National Convention, he wrote that Californians "are less jittery than us flatlanders. ... They roll with earthquakes, the landscape ripples, the china clinks, and so what, it's only an earthquake. Giant mudslides and brush fires -- you ride them out and you move on. They remind me of Londoners, who are famous for rolling with the punches."
Don't. Please. Envy us, loathe us, but please don't patronize us. Plucky little California, we don't want to be.
But that's how this convention might regard Californians. California is politics' bull elephant: 55 big votes to cast in the electoral college, the largest bloc of any of the 50 states. You'd think we'd get more respect here.
You'd think, but no.
Even though our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is regarded warily by the GOP's hardest core as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) among elephants, he's still a star turn at any party, but he wasn't at this one. No speech to the convention, and no reflected glory for California. The tangle of California budget meshugas also kept most of the rest of the Republican state politicos at home (although Steve Poizner, the insurance commissioner who's angling for Schwarzenegger's job, came here in a big way.)
A Republican hasn't won California's presidential popular vote or its electoral bloc since 1988. Republican legislators in Sacramento hold the upper hand in unblocking the budget, but when it comes to national politics, they're Rodney Dangerfield's kin. Sure, California has had some great parties here, like Tuesday night's "island fever" bash alongside the Mississippi. But Mitt Romney, who was supposed to be Schwarzenegger's star-power proxy at the event? A no-show. (Former Gov. Pete Wilson told me it was because he was sent to a post-Gustav disaster summit.)
At any political convention, voting and geography are destiny. You can look at a convention seating chart and delegate hotel assignments and figure out what states delivered the goods in the last campaign and what states matter in this one. Here, swing states Ohio and Pennsylvania are literally front and center. Arizona and Texas delegates get good seats by virtue of John McCain and George W. Bush.
Our delegates have just about the worst possible seats at the convention, at the back and so far left that they can only see the speaker in profile. The only way they could be any more distant is if they were working the concession stands. (Wilson explains that if the huge delegation were any closer, it'd take up "a third of the infield" -- that, and the fact California is considered safe for Barack Obama.
And while Texas and Arizona delegates go to bed a cozy few blocks from the Excel Center, the Californians are about 20 miles and a $50 cab ride from downtown. A group of delegates from the San Gabriel Valley and part of the Inland Empire sat in the hotel restaurant Monday night griping good-naturedly about the faraway digs. At least they could toast UCLA's football victory over Tennessee.
Everybody fusses about how they're treated. Ron Paul's fans are fuming about his limited role. Utah is in the same distant hotel as the Californians, and to them, California's roster of parties and meetings -- even absent its Governator power -- looks thrilling. Delegate Spencer Stokes, who's been at these gigs for 16 years, groused to the Salt Lake Tribune that "we never get great speakers, and they don't throw parties for us," but Utah has delivered for the Republicans since 1968. At least "we get decent seating on the convention floor."
Conventions are family reunions, and family reunions are meant for patching over differences. This year, says Wilson, things are better than "recent conventions where Republicans quarreled among themselves" and lost sight of the larger fight.
Yet within the California delegation, there's still a San Andreas-sized split between GOP moderates, who gave McCain the win, and the rock-ribbed social conservatives, who wanted Romney. Bill Jones, the former California secretary of state who was a party pariah eight years ago for championing McCain over Bush, is now -- told you so -- chairing the California delegation.
But all that, like a suitcase full of dirty clothes, is something they'll worry about when they get home.