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New Senate Leader Places the Middle Class at Center Stage

John Burton is history. The new leader of the state Senate has a dramatically different focus.

Burton, a bleeding-heart liberal from San Francisco, crusaded for the poor: welfare moms and kids, the aged and disabled. His successor won’t.

New Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Alameda) intends to emphasize -- loudly and conspicuously -- the struggling middle class.

The poor won’t be abandoned by Democrats, Perata says, but they won’t be featured center stage, either.

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Too many of the middle class feel that they have been deserted by Democratic politicians, Perata feels. And the party needs to regain their confidence.

“They just don’t think we’re speaking to them,” he says. “They’re stuck in traffic, their kids are being turned away from the [state] universities even though they’re eligible to attend....

“The rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. And the middle class, it’s like they’ve got a foot on the dock and one on the boat and they’re being wishboned.”

Middle-class voters get an earful of Democrats helping the poor -- and promoting driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants -- but not much that’s relevant to them, Perata says.

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“Democrats don’t need to constantly revisit what we stand for in terms of services for the needy and the elderly,” the Senate leader says. “That’s a given. That’s why we’re Democrats. That’s the entry fee. All these social programs, we gave birth to them during the FDR years....

“We’ve been drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘These are drop-dead issues for us.’ We have to be smarter than that. We don’t have to be wearing it on our sleeve. Some things we’re going to do as a matter of course. In order to have our place in the political system, we need to be looking at the bread-and-butter issues.”

Without naming him, Perata is describing Burton, who always drew a line in the sand for the poor and shouted about it to everybody. Preserving their government benefits was “the price of doing business with me,” he declared.

Perata’s approach will be quieter, he says, while equally protective.

“They [the poor] are not on the [budget negotiating] table,” Perata vows. “Nobody’s going to use them as chips. They can’t be used as hostages to be traded.

“But I don’t see any purpose in running around saying that’s what we stand for. We’ve got to be really careful about how we position ourselves so we don’t look like we’re just always doing things that serve only a few needs, as opposed to many needs.”

Beyond the politics of it, the middle class has been in trouble for years, he notes.

“The biggest concern I’ve got is that we are going to allow the middle class in California to slip away. Not everybody who comes here wants to be like Donald Trump. They want to be like the guy who’s the foreman on the job, somebody whose kids go to good schools. Many schools are miserable failures.... We need to promote policies that allow us to have a strong economy, to give people more self-determination....

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“Basically, if we don’t listen to the people who are in their cars more than they’re with their kids, then we’re in trouble.”

California, once a middle-class haven, has become much less hospitable.

A study in February by the Public Policy Institute of California measured the declining middle class. In 1970, about 60% of Californians had middle incomes, the institute found. By 2002, that had dropped to roughly 50%. One reason: “People with just high school diplomas were replaced by computers,” says PPIC researcher Deborah Reed.

Reed also found this clear evidence of a reduced middle class: “California used to have lower poverty than the rest of the United States, but now we have higher poverty. We also have a much higher rate of affluence.”

High housing costs make it difficult to recruit workers. The median home price in California is $465,000. That leads to long, aggravating commutes.

“People can’t afford to buy a home close to work, so when they get tired of renting, they drive and drive until they qualify [to buy],” notes Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch). “On a Sunday, that may be a half-hour drive. But during a work commute, it’s an hour and a half. It’s hellacious.”

Torlakson -- a transportation and housing policy wonk -- has been named by Perata to head a new, combined Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

The two East Bay lawmakers have in mind legislation that would provide carrots and sticks for more residential developments within cities and around public transportation, especially commuter rail stops. They’d also streamline the construction permit process. Their goal is to slow down sprawl.

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“If we don’t solve congestion and housing costs,” Torlakson says, “we’ll lose our economic sustainability and competitive edge.”

That’s assuming we haven’t already.

A sustained Perata focus on the middle class also assumes that he doesn’t get implicated in a federal grand jury investigation of his political and business associates and relatives. So far, the FBI has not identified Perata as a target.

But regardless, Burton has left and he’s not coming back. And Senate Democrats are widening their focus.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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