Regaining voter trust is Job 1


Here’s Sacramento’s problem: It desperately needs more tax money to provide the services the public wants. But the public doesn’t trust Sacramento to spend any new money wisely.

Polling shows that Californians are concerned about possible program cuts -- not only in public schools, but in health and welfare services. The same polls also show that people don’t want to pay higher taxes -- from their own pockets anyway -- largely because they don’t trust politicians with the money.

That’s a fine kettle of fish as we wind up a long weekend celebrating the 232nd birthday of our democracy, a republic dependent upon trust in our elected representatives.


“I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen the level of frustration and distrust with Sacramento that I’m seeing now,” says veteran political consultant Rick Claussen. “People are ready for a revolution -- just waiting for someone to take them there.

“If I were to qualify a measure for the ballot that would return the Legislature to part-time, tie their pay to performance . . . or recall the entire Legislature with one vote -- I swear to God it would pass.”

Pollster Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, says “trust in both the federal and state governments is near or at an all-time low. People are thinking that neither party does a very good job at fiscal management.”

A statewide Baldassare poll in March showed that only 32% of Californians “trust the government in Sacramento to do what is right” most of the time. That’s roughly the same ugly view of the politicians the public held around the time it was recalling Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replacing him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in late 2003. Only three years earlier, however, nearly half the public trusted Sacramento.

The venerable Field Poll, over the years, has shown a roller-coaster ride for legislators’ popularity. In May, only 30% of voters approved of the Legislature’s job performance. In March 2007 -- following a landmark year of bipartisan achievement -- 42% approved. But in 1988, the lawmakers enjoyed 57% approval.

To quote Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather”: “How did things ever get so far?”

Of course, a cranky anti-government attitude is part of the American DNA. So the current distrust of Sacramento has much deeper roots than late budgets and double-talking politicians.


The public psyche never has recovered from being lied to day after day -- month after month -- by American presidents during the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. Now add to that corrosive tandem the suspiciously hatched, ineptly run Iraq war.

Back in the ‘60s, many also turned against government during civil rights struggles. The movement was morally right, but the Democratic Party lost its “Solid South.”

In California, the Democratic Legislature and Gov. Pat Brown enacted a landmark open housing act that barred racial discrimination in home sales. That might seem innocuous today, but in 1963 it enraged property owners. The real estate industry repealed the act in a bitter ballot brawl whose fury hasn’t been matched since. Courts repudiated the voters, frustrating them again.

Tack on to the public’s list of government grievances the runaway property taxes that Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature failed miserably to address before it was too late. The resultant Proposition 13 in 1978 shrunk local tax revenue and shifted more power -- and fiscal responsibility -- to Sacramento.

Californians further soured on Sacramento after an FBI sting in 1988 led to corruption convictions for 14 lobbyists, staffers and legislators. That begat term limits, a two-by-four slam at the Legislature that crippled its ability to perform for the public.

Then in 1996 the Legislature unanimously passed -- at the behest of Gov. Pete Wilson and special interests -- arguably the worst bill ever: electricity deregulation. That led, on Davis’ watch, to power company profiteering out of the pockets of electricity consumers while Sacramento appeared foolish and helpless. Next up: Davis’ recall.


Much of all this follows a sad Catch-22 pattern: Public distrust leads to impulsive public actions that result in more Sacramento insecurity, straitjackets and inaction -- and more public distrust.

I called some veteran pols and asked them the Don Corleone question.

“There’s an incredible generational divide in this country between the generation that lived and fought in World War II and their kids, the baby boomers,” says Democratic consultant Darry Sragow.

“The World War II generation was committed to big institutions. Big government did a whole lot of things, not the least of which was to win World War II. Baby boomers grew up totally mistrusting big institutions. That comes out of their life experience. Anybody who lived through Vietnam and Watergate came away with the conclusion that government is inept and politicians are corrupt.”

That’s the broad picture.

Here are more detailed views:

“People think Sacramento is spending more money than they want to tolerate,” says longtime Democratic consultant Joe Cerrell. “They think they’ve been had. And the feeling is bipartisan.”

Stu Spencer, the dean of Republican strategists: “In Sacramento, they don’t think ahead. They don’t face up to the long-range problems. Sometimes they don’t even recognize the problems. People lose confidence in government when it doesn’t care for them in the long haul.”

Blame rigid term limits. Loosen them.

So how else does trust get restored? Knock off the petty partisan politics.

Declare a moratorium on new spending programs. Reform budgeting. Stress government efficiency. Raise taxes temporarily to make ends meet honestly. Just do it. Show leadership.


And most important, says Sragow, “shoot straight with the people.”

Now that would be revolutionary.