The Magic of Leadership: The Missing Element

California is in a state of paralysis. A gridlock in policy-making in Sacramento has prevented the state from solving long-festering problems in education, housing, water and the environment. The situation is only getting worse. Solutions seem nowhere in sight.

A crisis can be paralyzing or liberating: It all depends on who's in charge. Where is the leadership in Sacramento? Does Gov. Pete Wilson have the vision to open a new chapter in California's history? Are state legislators willing to act on matters that really count? Do we need new mechanisms of governance to engage a skeptical and diverse public to help shape a changing state?

In an era of limitations, which the 1990s undoubtedly will be, the appropriate role of state government is under scrutiny. Political institutions and processes are failing. Sacramento is a mess. Californians are looking for new ways to nudge political operatives off the right and left to the center, where most real people are.

THE GOVERNOR: California once had a fine tradition of strong, policy-setting--even visionary--governors. Gov. Hiram W. Johnson ushered in bold Progressive programs in 1910. In the years before and after World War II, Republican Gov. Earl Warren invested in schools, roads and other public facilities. His successor, Democrat Edmund G. Brown Sr., followed with similar bold policies such as the California Water Project. But successors Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown and George Deukmejian lowered the achievement level, though Brown deserves credit for bringing more women and minorities into government. Otherwise, the three rode out their terms without enhancing the programs of Warren and Brown Sr.

When Wilson became governor, he said he believed his role was to govern. That was promising, even radical, talk. And, right from the start, he sought to define an imaginative proposal to use schools to deliver social services to poor children. And, as a tactician, Wilson stood firm in working with the Legislature to wipe out a $14-billion deficit by raising taxes and slashing costs.

That was a promising start indeed--a show of willingness to use his political capital to get things done. But on the downside, the governor has had little opportunity to show his vision of the state's future--perhaps in part because he's grappling with an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

THE LEGISLATURE: Gubernatorial activism could pose the best challenge to the state Legislature. Too many legislators answer only to lobbyists and other patrons who finance their reelection campaigns. Campaign finance reform would be the best remedy for that. But voters have repeatedly defeated public financing initiatives, and legislators won't press for reform.

Voters revolted against legislative indifference with Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that limited property taxes and changed the way California finances its government. Voters have used initiatives to make other laws too but recently have begun to reject such measures, some of them overly complex. An exception came last November when voters registered their disdain of politicians in passing the Draconian Proposition 140 to limit legislative terms. If upheld in court, 140 would regularly remake the Legislature. Reapportionment--an issue now before the court--may have a similar effect if new districts are created to better represent growing minority communities and strike a balance between Democratic and Republican voters.

The political fallout doesn't stop at California's borders. The congressional delegation does not understand its mission is to protect the state's collective interests. Instead, the 45 House members and two senators--lame-duck Democrat Alan Cranston and freshman Republican John Seymour--too often represent narrow competing interests and fail to function as a coherent unit. No wonder California has lost major new federal projects such as the supercollider and the earthquake research center. California is entitled to seven new House seats, and both Senate seats are up for grabs. It's a rare opportunity to redefine the congressional delegation.

A NEW CONSENSUS: California's diversity means its residents have less in common than at any other time in the state's history. The body of voters is aging and predominately white and middle class. But the faster-growing segments of the population are younger and of ethnic backgrounds and color. Latinos are seeking political power commensurate with their numbers. Blacks don't want to lose clout, and Asians are eager to emerge as a political force.

Thus even when there is agreement in identifying a problem area, such as education, there's a lack of consensus on a solution. The splits occur along lines of party, race, ethnicity, age and other special interests. The challenge is to bring together such disparate interests. New coalitions and approaches are percolating on the grass-roots, community level--perhaps spawning a powerful new force.

BUSINESS'S ROLE: Government cannot make change without solid economic development, but California business has been low-profile. Business leaders need to reach out to communities, as several top Los Angeles executives have done in the innovative L.A. Educational Partnership and LEARN organizations to improve the city's public schools.

California long ago outgrew its image as a provincial outpost on the edge of the Pacific. It is a major player nationally and globally. If only it had leadership to match its heritage.

Next Monday: Community Empowerment

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