California campaign: We need straight talk from the candidates

Last week’s party primary could be the last state election for quite some time in which a Democratic front-runner like Jerry Brown can secure an issues-free ride to the general election by using his fundraising prowess to scare off opponents, or in which a Republican front-runner like Meg Whitman need only dominate the airwaves and repeat platitudes that cater to her conservative base to win a spot in the final. In the future, things may be different, and that is due to the wisdom of voters in passing Proposition 14 — and to the commitment of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado to putting the measure on the June 8 ballot and spreading the word about its importance.

But it won’t happen right away. At least two years will pass before Californians benefit directly from their decision to overhaul the party primary system and to adopt Schwarzenegger’s earlier reform measure that limits party control over redistricting.

In the meantime, voters have just under five months to listen to the cases made to them by finalists elected under the old system: Brown and Whitman, plus nominees for seven other statewide offices, for U.S. Senate and for the important but low-profile state tax board. The candidates will craft the messages best calculated to appeal to donors, to their base voters and to crossover voters, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as far as it goes. Candidates aren’t worth much to the electorate if they don’t understand the political landscape and aren’t prepared to run winning campaigns.

But in brushing aside the parties’ arguments against Proposition 14 last week, and in defeating two well-funded business-sponsored initiatives that dominated television screens, voters may have demonstrated a certain impatience with the politics of money and influence. In the campaign leading up to the Nov. 2 general election, The Times hopes that voters demand — and we intend to join them in demanding — a program to repair, restore or reinvent California that goes far beyond sloganeering and checklist platforms.

Candidates for governor must begin by identifying the state’s problem. It may sound simple. It isn’t. Reciting the fact that California has a perpetual budget problem tells us nothing. Trying to characterize it as a revenue problem or a spending problem is a mere exercise in political marketing. Along those lines, we have a few specific questions for the candidates.

For example: Why do we have a problem? Explain where you believe we went wrong — whether it was in hiring too many state employees, or giving them too good a pension deal, or spending too much on welfare programs, or cutting our vehicle license fees, or refusing to increase taxes when we needed the money, or something else altogether.

What is the role of our progressive tax structure, which is calculated to lessen the burden on those struggling the most, but which creates a revenue roller-coaster that damages those same people when we have to cut programs? Do you support the plan suggested by Schwarzenegger’s tax reform commission? Do you have an alternative?

Take a hiatus from the slogans and snipes, and give us your plan for closing the gap between the state government’s mission and its means. Don’t waste our time with assertions that Sacramento can provide everything it does now, from parks to public safety to roads to a social safety net, by economizing or cracking down on “waste, fraud and abuse.” Don’t pretend we can do the same work with fewer workers. Tell us what we can’t do anymore, or else tell us where we’re going to get the money to keep doing it.

Explain why you would succeed in making government function where your recent predecessors have failed. Saying you have the right personality to sit down with members of the Legislature and make them see reason is fine for candidates for student body president, but woefully insufficient for candidates to lead a state with 38 million people, a $19-billion budget shortfall and a two-thirds supermajority requirement for adopting a budget or raising a tax.

Do you support the California Forward plan, currently struggling to get legislative support for a place on the November ballot, to return a great deal of spending authority to local governments while imposing majority rule in the Capitol? If not, what’s your alternative?

Jerry Brown: In the primary and in the many months leading up to it, before you even declared your candidacy, you advanced more on the strength of your political story than the as-yet-unheard substance of your campaign for governor. But story and persona are insufficient. Voters deserve to hear you explain why you believe you had California on the right track in the 1970s and 1980s, where the state went wrong after you left office, and what you would do to fix it. How is the state different now? How will you do things differently? What were your mistakes, and why should we not worry that you will make them all over again? What promises are you making to labor in exchange for union support?

Meg Whitman: Much of your primary message appeared to come right out of AM shout radio — or at least out of the playbook of consultants who give radio a great deal of credence. That’s fine, as far as it goes; radio talk show hosts and their call-in listeners certainly do give voice to many of the concerns of Californians, from taxes to illegal immigration to government spending policies. But they seldom go particularly deep. We expect more from candidates. For example, what do you mean by “sanctuary cities”? Is Los Angeles one? Are sanctuary cities actually a high-agenda issue for the state, or just something that polls well? What exactly would you have the power to do about them?

For lieutenant governor nominees Abel Maldonado and Gavin Newsom: How exactly do you intend to make this useless office useful? Maldonado: Do you have a platform beyond Proposition 14? Newsom: Do you, who ridiculed the office, have a plan beyond being governor-in-waiting?

For attorney general nominees Steve Cooley and Kamala Harris: Do you plan to acknowledge that the job, despite headline shorthand, is not to be the state’s “top cop” and that the victor will have primarily a civil litigation, opinion-rendering and administrative job? How are you best suited for that role?

Each of the other nominees for each of the other offices also should be expected to go beyond bromides and sound bites. California is in trouble. We want to hear what they intend to do about it. These questions are just a beginning. We’ll have more. The candidates should start thinking through some answers.