Ron Kaye: You, the voter, must pay attention

Mail-in voting for the general election two weeks from now already is under way with reforms in place — open primaries and the end of gerrymandered legislative districts — that are supposed to end the stalemate in Sacramento.

The odds of any significant change occurring are about as great as the current crop of legislators actually solving California's fiscal crisis.

Better you should have gambled all your money buying stock in Facebook so you, too, can be a billionaire.

It isn't going to happen.

Somehow, in the 21 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the constant threat of a nuclear holocaust under the policy of mutually assured destruction, we have internalized the policy into our political culture as mutually assured (self) destruction.

Three governors now have succumbed to the MAD-ness: Gray Davis, because he was too weak to control his party; Arnold Schwarzenegger, because his party despised him; and now Jerry Brown, because neither party cares what he thinks.

It is madness, alright, to think that two decades of creating costly entitlements for public employees, the rich and the poor, while failing to invest in California's future, are going to be fixed without hard and painful decisions — and without both Democrats and Republicans putting aside their ideological insanity for the common good.

The goal of the open primary system, and of creating honest districts, was to give voters the chance to elect more moderate representatives who will force the ideologues to the center, where compromise is possible.

But that requires you, the voters, to pay attention, to know who you are voting for, and whether they have the courage and integrity to stand up for what’s right, and not just be obedient servants of their party and their personal advantages.

How many of you are going to vote any differently than you always have in the past: party affiliation, name recognition, vague sense that your representative is doing a good job?

The results will almost certainly be what they have been for so long: Democrats fighting against real cuts, Republicans opposing every form of tax increase, and both parties protecting the special interests who keep them in office.

Repeating the same thing over and over and expecting something to change makes us all complicit in the political insanity.

In my own frustration and cynicism as a failed idealist still hoping somehow that we can find the light at the end of the tunnel, I turned to local Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) for insights into what it takes for the system to change, for the legislature to get to work solving the people’s problems.

I chose Portantino because he stood up to the system last year and was the lone Democrat to vote against the budget because it was, as everybody knew, based on fictitious revenue numbers.

When his party’s leadership punished him by taking away funding for his office and staff, he fought back. And we all won, when a lawsuit filed by this paper and others forced the Assembly leadership to reveal their dirty little secret about how much it cost to run the Assembly and how those millions were spent.

Portantino is termed out of the Assembly and is taking a pass this election cycle. So besides his penchant for independence, he also has a degree of dispassion about the political system after six years in Sacramento.

“Here’s the kernel,” he said over coffee. “What does the electorate do after election day?”

“They go to sleep,” I answered.

“That’s the problem. People have to stay engaged. The public has to step up and say to the representative, ‘I want you to do better. I’m going to be paying attention to how well you represent me and my children and the family down the street.’

“Yes, it’s important how people vote. Yes, the issues matter. But what also matters is how legislators arrive at their decision. Are they voting because they believe in the issue, or because they are being told how to vote?

“The most important thing is for the electorate to be engaged with that representative to know how and why they are voting.”

Portantino made it easy for constituents to stay in touch with the how and why of what he was doing. He posted his telephone number on his website — his home phone number.

Maybe that ought to be a law. At the least, it ought to be something voters ask of every elected official, just to keep in touch.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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