SALINAS, Calif. — Tony Salameh and Danielle Clark weathered the Great Recession from two worlds just a few miles apart.
Salameh, 62, owns several restaurants in Carmel, the wealthy hamlet perched like a small jewel overlooking the sea. After a significant falloff, business is about where it was five or six years ago. Salameh's bottom line, though, is a third what it used to be; tourists are back in force, but they order lamb sliders or spring rolls instead of a meal to accompany their $10 and $12 cocktails.
Clark, 38, is an office manager who commutes to a local vineyard from nearby Salinas, the flat, drab portal to California's vast agricultural valley. Her fiancé lost his advertising position in the downturn and after three years of unemployment landed two jobs: caring for an autistic child and working weekends as a bouncer at a local club. His combined income, however, is less than what he made before the recession, so the couple remain watchful of their wallets.
"You walk gingerly because when you've had the rug pulled out from under you, like we all have, you're tentative," Clark said, pausing as she addressed boxes at a post office. "I'm still kind of holding my breath. The security that I felt — and maybe it was a false sense of security before this all happened — I no longer feel."
Despite their stations, Salameh and Clark share a similar outlook, a mix of tempered optimism and low-grade anxiety that reflects the mood of California early in this election year. "People are afraid to spend," Salameh said, as sunlight danced off a fountain in the courtyard of his Anton & Michel restaurant. "People are still worried we might have another crash."
After a raucous decade marked by incessant elections and an unprecedented recall that turned a Hollywood action hero into governor, California has settled into a period of rare political quietude. A severe drought has gripped the state. But the battles over immigration and affirmative action have receded, if not entirely ended. The budget is not only balanced but showing a surplus of several billion dollars.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who seemed so captivatingly kooky during two terms starting in the 1970s, has become the very model of buttoned-down sobriety. Bidding for an unprecedented fourth term at age 75, the Democrat is an overwhelming reelection favorite, though he has yet to declare his candidacy.
Beneath the surface calm, however, is a stomach-fluttering sense that the Great Recession has changed California in some fundamental way, unlike other periods of boom and break that have been the state's life cycle since the Gold Rush days. Things are getting better, many say, but they aren't great and it's not certain they will keep improving, or ever get back to where they were.
"We may be back on our feet," said Pete Realmuto, 55, who owns an upscale Carmel women's boutique, "but it's not landing in the same spot."
In his recent State of the State address, Brown touted California's economic turnaround and the 1 million jobs created since 2010. But millions are still living in poverty — by some accounts, the highest rate in the country — and the recovery has been decidedly uneven. Cities and suburbs on or near the coast are rebounding — the more so the closer they are to San Francisco or Silicon Valley — while double-digit unemployment remains the norm across much of the interior.
The contrast is plain here in Monterey County, which has long been divided economically by the so-called Lettuce Curtain.
The peninsula, a leisure playground, boasts world-class tourist attractions, high-end resorts, trophy golf courses, breathtaking scenery and what, for many, are second or even third homes. A sign at a Carmel real estate office advertises properties at $4 million or more in one window and "our most affordable homes," starting at $700,000 and soaring past $1 million, in the other.
The Salinas Valley, less than 20 miles away, is blessed with richly fertile soil but few of the other gifts nature can offer. When the outside world looks in, it is often for the wrong reasons: Salinas' chronic gang violence, or the struggle to keep libraries and booksellers afloat in the place where John Steinbeck was born.
The agriculture industry helped ease the hardship of the recession — even in bad times, people still have to eat — but the downturn hit hard. Many of the service workers who live in the valley and commute to the peninsula lost their jobs when tourism tapered off and people quit dining out. Home values plunged and remain far below their peak.
"If there's a recovery, I don't see it," said Star Martinez, 50, a manager at the county welfare office in Salinas, which remains filled with people applying for food stamps or who've lost their homes.
Although unemployment has dropped to 4.9% in coastal Monterey and 4.1% in neighboring Pacific Grove, from a recession high of 8.3% and 7%, respectively, it has ticked down only slightly in Salinas, to 15.5% from 17.7%. The December jobless rate was 8.3% statewide.
With the recession still casting a broad shadow, polls show Californians just about evenly split on whether the state is on the right track or headed in the wrong direction, a standard gauge of political contentment. But that is vastly improved from where things stood before Brown took office, and in any case, few of the dozens of people interviewed across Monterey County blamed the incumbent for the unsettling times.
"He's had to make some unpopular decisions," said Democrat Corliss Kelly, 62, a teacher trainer from Carmel Valley and one of several who favorably compared Brown and his long political experience with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was catapulted into office by the recall. "I was hoping that Jerry Brown would be a little more education-friendly, but I understand the climate, the financial world in which he found himself governing."
Many praised Brown as an adult supervisor of sorts, minding fellow Democrats in Sacramento who have supermajority control of the Legislature. (Republicans were dismissed as irrelevant.) "He's probably the right guy for the job," said Chris Campisi, 48, a Monterey financial advisor and political independent who voted in 2010 for Brown's GOP opponent, Meg Whitman. "We're pretty much a one-party state, and he's a smart, mature guy who knows how to handle the players in a one-party state."
Brown also appeared to benefit from another comparison: a contrast with his earlier self. A few still harbored animosities from his first two terms as governor. But many more were pleased to note an evolution, as one put it, from his past eccentricities to the more quietly conventional politician Brown has become, with a decided skepticism toward government that mirrors their own.
"He's different than he was as Governor Moonbeam, dating Linda Ronstadt," said Martinez, the county welfare worker and a self-described middle-of-the-roader. "Wiser. More practical."
Not everyone, of course, wants to reelect Brown, even in a county that backed him overwhelmingly, 60% to 35%, against Whitman. Josh, a 33-year-old Salinas truck driver who declined to give his last name, used an obscenity to dismiss the incumbent whose record, he said, amounts to little beyond "more taxes, more regulations and more pandering to illegals."
But if reelection campaigns are typically a referendum on the incumbent, the burden in this contest seems to rest with Brown's Republican challengers to make the case for his ouster. There are two main opponents: Neel Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official and fund manager from Orange County, and Tim Donnelly, a second-term assemblyman from Twin Peaks. Only one person among those interviewed had heard of either of them.
It may be a case of lowered expectations, to borrow a phrase from Brown's first go-round as governor, but many seemed to judge the governor not against their hopes but against the mess he inherited when he took office.
"We're not slinking downhill," said Clark, a Republican who is nevertheless leaning toward supporting Brown in November. "We're not moving as fast as any of us would like, either. But I think we're getting to a better place."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times