Long on ‘change,’ not details


The voter uprising against Sacramento on Tuesday showed that “CA needs wholesale change,” Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco wrote on Facebook. “Ready to Buck the System?” asked the Democratic candidate for governor.

“Donate 5 bucks to change CA,” he wrote. “Goal is 500 people to give 5 bucks to create an army for change.”

Newsom’s maneuver to spin campaign money out of California’s budget calamity was in keeping with the short-on-substance approach to the fiscal crisis that nearly every major contender for governor has taken, lest a voter backlash ensue.


Never in modern history has California faced fiscal peril on this scale. Yet with the lone exception of Republican Tom Campbell of Orange County, the crowd vying for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s job in 2010 has ducked questions on the tough choices needed to keep the state afloat.

Vaguest of all has been Republican Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner. He has refused to specify any spending that he would cut to make up for $12 billion in recent tax hikes that he opposed -- or to close a new budget shortfall that could exceed $24 billion.

Poizner, his campaign says, would give agency chiefs two weeks to “streamline and optimize.” He would cut “bloated bureaucracy.” He would dispatch “SWAT teams” to overhaul spending on schools, prisons, healthcare and welfare. In search of useless programs to wipe out, he would “go through this budget line by line” (1,235 pages plus appendixes).

Republican rival Meg Whitman, a former EBay chief executive, opposed the tax hikes as well -- and like Poizner, she has ruled them out for the future.

She has not entirely shunned specifics, calling for layoffs of up to 40,000 workers and a simplified bureaucracy. But those steps would produce nowhere near enough money to offset the tax hikes and plug the budget hole. And Whitman’s promises of higher pay for teachers and new tax cuts for business would throw the state’s budget further out of balance.

Leading Democratic contenders Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown backed the tax hikes, if reluctantly. But beyond that, none of them has embraced any plan for painful cuts.


“To fix California’s budget crisis, Gavin Newsom believes that all options must be on the table,” his campaign website says.

Contrast that with Campbell, a former Silicon Valley congressman who teaches economics and law at Chapman University. His nine pages of bullet points to balance the books include one idea that is sure to cause him grief in the Republican primary: a 32-cents-a-gallon, one-year hike in the gas tax to raise nearly $6 billion. He also details more than $15 billion in spending cuts, mainly healthcare for the poor, welfare and the state university systems.

“I just would not be happy speaking in broad generalities or saying that we can get these savings by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse,” Campbell said in an interview. “That’s not honest. It’s not who I am.”

With the primaries still a year away, said Republican strategist Jim Nygren, it’s good politics for candidates to keep dodging specifics for months.

“There’s a bunch of bad choices in front of people,” he said. “By the time you get around to it next fall, whatever’s been done will be done, and we’ll be on to whatever the next disaster is.”

Perhaps. But in an era when voters admire tell-it-like-it-is politicians, the question is whether Californians will lump the would-be governors with the politicians who took a thrashing in the election on Tuesday. Voters roundly rejected budget measures put before them by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

Schwarzenegger, who this year broke his promise not to raise taxes, has voiced frustration with the absence of details from fellow Republicans, so far unnamed.

“Those who say that we could have balanced the budget through spending cuts alone are guilty of political cynicism at its worst,” he said in March. “Those are not serious people.”

Adam Mendelsohn, a political advisor to the governor, said candidates who call for such a budget are duty-bound to “put a plan on the table that shuts down people’s schools and releases prisoners onto the streets -- but at least it won’t raise taxes.”

Spokesmen for the candidates defended the lack of specifics.

“What’s important for candidates is to delineate specifically what their guiding principles and philosophies would be for the time that they’re in office,” said Whitman strategist Rob Stutzman.

Or, as Whitman spokesman Mitch Zak put it: “The current budget mess is not Meg Whitman’s mess.”

Equally blunt about the evasiveness is Brown, who was governor from 1975 to 1983. With rivals scrounging for attack-ad fodder, any candidate who suggests specific cuts or tax hikes “will never have a chance to be governor,” Brown told the CalBuzz political blog in April.

Brown’s website says not a word about the budget mess. Nor does his Facebook site, although it does feature a recipe for his mother Bernice’s banana cake. (“Make the cake the day before serving,” the site recommends.)

For now, Brown and Villaraigosa both have the luxury of not being officially declared candidates, which keeps pressure to lay out ideas to a minimum.

As for Newsom, he touts his management of San Francisco as a template for Sacramento: consolidation of city agencies, workforce reductions and pension and civil service reform.

In a telephone interview, he slammed Schwarzenegger for moving to scrap health coverage for children of the working poor and slash local aid, saying San Francisco would lose $175 million. “I’m dealing with this not in the abstract, but in the reality,” said Newsom, who declined to suggest other state cuts as alternatives.

Villaraigosa, who is still weighing whether to run for governor, is also grappling with a city budget crisis made worse by state cuts. Ace Smith, his longtime campaign consultant, said all the candidates ultimately must put forward specific budget plans and demonstrate that they get the depth of voter exasperation over systemic troubles in the Capitol.

“Does the car need a brake job, or does the engine need to be pulled out and rebuilt?” he asked. “The engine needs to be rebuilt.”