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California

Column: Republicans blame Democratic leadership for California’s problems. They have a point, but ...

Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger
California had Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger followed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. Who says both parties don’t bear responsibility for California’s problems?
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Have Democrats ruined California?

Yes, according to a small army of readers who beat up on me after reading my Sunday column about the Golden State’s many big challenges.

And I’m part of the problem.

“Look in the mirror,” wrote Rick Barnes. “You voted for these morons and you want to blame Trump.”

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Actually, I didn’t blame Trump for California’s problems. All I did was point out that when the planet is melting and fires are raging, it doesn’t help to have the biggest dunce in science class serving as president of the United States.

But keep the criticism coming. I can take it. And besides, as one reader pointed out, my fate is sealed.

I’m going to hell.

“When I get to heaven,” wrote Steve French, “I will count all the Democrats on my fingers. I do not expect to need more than one hand.”

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I already suspected I was not getting through the pearly gates, having stolen and eaten a Eucharistic host while serving briefly as an altar boy at St. Peter Martyr Catholic Church.

And now Mr. French leaves no doubt. And David L. McDaniel pointed out that I don’t need to die to know what hell looks like.

“The Democrats have turned this state into a living hell,” he wrote, but his best line was this one:

“This state is like a functional drunk, working but not competent.”

So what about it? Any truth to the argument that all our problems can be blamed on Democratic elected officials?

Well, they certainly deserve some of the blame, I’d say. And I’m not alone, though I don’t always agree with my fellow blamers on what the Dems have done wrong.

“The state over the decades became an incredibly unattractive place to have employees, and workplace regulations and litigiousness are a big part of that,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant.

The housing shortage, he added, is related in part to onerous construction fees and environmental hang-ups.

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“The Democrats should have to answer for a lot,” Stutzman said. “There’s no question.”

Dan Schnur, a onetime Republican strategist who switched to “no party preference” several years ago, put it like this:

“If the party that runs state government can’t keep the lights on, runs the DMV into the ground, and oversees the worst income inequality and worst homeless crisis in the country, voters would usually be ready for an alternative,” said Schnur. “But not when the alternative hates immigrants, wants to make abortion illegal, and opposes marriage equality,” he continued. “Until Republicans decide to join the 21st century, Californians are going to choose the ineffectual over the immigrant haters every time.”

Fair point.

And I’d say to the critics of my last column that it’s not the fault of Democrats that the California GOP has shrunk to near invisibility.

You want Dems out of office?

Then build a bigger tent and grow a crop of candidates with workable fixes.

And by the way, if Democrats get blame for all the problems, do they also get credit for California being the envy of other states with its ranking among the world’s top economic powers?

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Republicans are understandably exhausted by California’s never-ending imposition of new taxes and fees. But they can’t deny that a conservative anti-tax movement created Proposition 13, which brought welcome relief to homeowners but strapped cities and school districts across the state for decades.

Actually, that brings up another point. California didn’t copy the East Coast model of big boss, machine politics, said Raphael Sonenshein, director of Cal State L.A.’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs. Power is more dispersed, mayors have titles but no teeth. Politicians are responsible for fixing what’s at their feet, Sonenshein said, but doing so isn’t always easy.

When things get really out of whack, we put another initiative on the ballot, and sometimes that only makes matters worse.

I heard on Sunday, as I often do, from readers attributing many of the state’s problems to illegal immigration and the stresses on housing and education.

Yes, those are real concerns, but they ignore the important role immigrants play in the workforce.

They also ignore the role U.S. drug addiction and the cartel-driven violence it has wreaked have played in pushing people to risk everything to come north. And are Democrat-bashers aware that agriculture, run largely by conservatives, has helped drive immigration for decades, and mostly to California’s benefit?

Do they know that President Reagan, conservative icon and former California governor, granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants?

The last Republican governor of California was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who quickly discovered that fixing the state’s problems was a lot harder than just saying you can. I was at the Orange County campaign rally where Schwarzenegger dropped a wrecking ball on a car, signifying the repeal of a vehicle registration tax.

The car was shredded, but Schwarzenegger also ripped a $4-billion hole in the state budget, the state imposed higher college tuition fees and closed parks, and Mr. Universe limped out of office with an approval rating of 23%.

California, no matter who is in charge, will always have tremendous assets and a reservoir of unfixable problems. We’re built for boom and for bust, too big to manage or tame, and history has been both kind and cruel.

Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist, said there is no excuse for the failure of Democratic leaders to do a better job managing the state’s festering problems. But he thinks three events helped to shape the California we live in today and redesign the state Republican Party:

The end of the cold war, which dried up thousands of aerospace and manufacturing jobs. The waves of immigration in the ‘80s and ‘90s that changed the face of the state. And the rise of the tech industry.

In recent history, said Madrid, the Democrats have not developed a plan to rebuild the middle class, and the Republicans have not figured out how to rebuild their party.

“People will consciously choose inequality, poverty and homelessness if the only alternative is a racist, nationalist party, and that’s what the GOP is offering them,” said Madrid.

When I asked Gov. Gavin Newsom about all the state’s problems — income inequality, homelessness, the housing crisis, power blackouts, the DMV, the threat to coastal communities by sea level rise — he didn’t hang up the phone, point fingers or excuse Democrats.

“We have to own that and take responsibility,” Newsom said, adding that he thinks of himself as a Californian first and a Democrat second. “But as governor, I look in the mirror and realize my outsize role and responsibility to do something about it.”

What we’re seeing in California and the rest of the nation are the “vulnerabilities of capitalism,” Newsom said. The state has a pretty good balance sheet, he said, but he wants to build on the assets and reduce the deficits.

“For me,” he said, “the question is … how can we remake our brand by reimagining capitalism and address the fundamental disparities that are self-evident?”

He said he’s still looking for the answers, but that one of his first moves was bigger investment in support of children who start out behind the pack.

The governor called the state’s homelessness epidemic “the most obvious manifestation of our failure.” He said “housing and zoning and NIMBYism and mental health are all stubborn issues that have to be addressed much more forthrightly.”

They better be, or I will see him in hell.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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