To begin with, my apologies for having been so long in posting anything to my blog. I have, to say the least, been very busy the past few months, and it’s only the prodding of friends (thank you for the prods) and the immanence of November that have prompted me to get back on-line here and put down my thoughts.
Let me start with some general comments. With this election, we’re seeing the effect of California’s new open primary (AKA “top two”) electoral system, and I must admit I don’t like them at all. Yes, it does mean that there’s almost always a contest in the November election, unless a seat is totally uncontested or one candidate’s such an overwhelming favorite that they get over 50% in the primary. However, narrowing the choices to two often means you get a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee — two candidates who aren’t saying significantly different things. Sometimes, it devolves into the choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber – two candidates who seem to be trying to outdo each other to mouth mindless platitudes and pretend there are no real issues.
My other preliminary comment comes in the context of the current Ebola panic. Republicans are saying that the whole situation is Obama’s fault, while Democrats either chime in with blaming Obama (if they’re up for re-election in a red-tinged state) or assert he’s done everything right and it’s all the Republicans’ fault. It seems to me that there’s more than enough blame to go around.
As was pointed out by an recent article in New York Times, after 9-11 George W. altered the mindset of the CDC to focus on the risk of a bioterrorism attack. (Such an attack hasn’t come close to happening after thirteen years.) Many at the CDC got disgusted with what they considered a silly distraction and left. Further, there followed a series of budget cuts which, although they didn’t specifically target the CDC (as opposed, for example, to food stamps), nevertheless left it less able to address all possible risks and led to a triage mentality where only the most likely risks at any time got attention. Since Ebola was half a world away, it didn’t get much priority. While Democrats tended to object to the cuts, some of them were accepted, and others even proposed as a way to make the Republicans look bad.
It has also been pointed out that the budget cuts affected grant funding by NIH. There are, and have been, people out there working on trying to develop a vaccine and other weapons against Ebola. Unfortunately, there’s not a large political constituency in the U.S. to push for Ebola funding (unlike heart disease or breast cancer). When cuts had to be made, guess which kind of research ended up on the chopping block. (By the way, the people in charge at NIH have said that if it weren’t for the budget cuts, they’d have developed an Ebola vaccine by now.) The U.S. has also not pushed to make sure that WHO has adequate funding, and Africa has not been a priority for foreign aid funding, especially not public health infrastructure. It’s not “sexy.” Again, Republicans were in the forefront in attacking U.N. funding, but many Democrats were not unwilling to let it go in favor of domestic priorities. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.
So, with that diatribe out of the way, let’s move on to the ballot, starting at the top.
At the federal level, California’s contests are only the house seats. In my district (13th), it’s pretty easy. Regardless of what kind of job you think Barbara Lee is doing (and while she’s hardly a firebrand, she votes the right [or should I say left?] way on most issues, her Republican opponent is little more than a joke. If there were third parties on the ballot, it might be more interesting, but as it is, I’d recommend LEE.
At the top of the statewide offices is, of course, the governor. Here’s where the top two has really taken its toll. We’ve got only two choices – Jerry Brown or Neel Kashkari. Kashkari is somewhat moderate for a Republican, but that’s damning with faint praise. On the other hand, while Jerry Brown has shown some competence in holding the Legislature’s spending sprees in check, his stance on water issues (the “twin tunnels”) and high-speed rail show his desire to want to outdo his dad in leaving a monument to himself. Unfortunately, neither monument makes sense. Better he should have proposed a 30 foot high solid gold statue of himself on a horse. It’d cost much, much, less and be about as useful. as you can tell, I don’t have a lot of use for Governor Brown. You can make your own choice, but I’m leaving my ballot blank in protest.
Lieutenant Governor – Here you’ve got two not very competent (IMHO) politicians vying for a totally useless job. We probably ought to abolish the post, although the Lieutenant Governor does sit on a few bodies, like the State Lands Commission, and the Board of Regents of UC and Board of Trustees of the California State University system. Unfortunately, the Lieutenant Governor has no obvious credentials for sitting on any of these boards. It would be far better if these boards had more knowledgeable, if less politically visible, members. At any rate, I can’t get excited about either, but Newsom is probably the lesser of the two evils.
Secretary of State – This office has important, if mundane, responsibilities, including tracking various business entities and running California’s statewide elections. Alex Padilla, the Democrat, is an undistinguished state senator. Pete Peterson, the Republican, is part of the administration of Pepperdine University, a righ-wing oriented school in the LA area. While much of what Peterson says has some logic to it (improving the business-friendly attitude of the Secretary of State’s business entity section, improving the technology of California elections, I frankly don’t trust someone with an ideological stance superintending California’s electoral process. That’s not to say that I trust a Democratic politician like Padilla more. This is another example where to “top two” process has left two choices, neither of which I like.Maybe you should flip a coin? (Like deciding whether to issue $8.5 billion in bonds?)
Controller – This is the office that superintends California’s public funds, including supervising the disbursement of legislative appropriation and auditing the financial records of state agencies. It’s potentially a very important office in keeping California government honest. It probably should not be a partisan office, but it is. If I trusted the Republican, I might actually want a Republican here t counterbalance Jerry Brown’s power. Unfortunately, I have not trust in Ms. Swearengin, the current Mayor of Fresno. I’ve had one person from Fresno ask me to vote for her so she’s no longer be running that city! Not a ringing endorsement. The Democrat, Betty Yee, has a more professional background in auditing and currently serves on the State Board of Equalization. She may be the better choice, although I doubt she has the guts to oppose Jerry Brown’s administration of state agencies.
Treasurer – This is the person who handles California’s finances and investments. Again, an important office that probably should be nonpartisan. John Chiang has had eight years as State Controller, and his term of office has been very quiet. Perhaps there should have been audits of things like the Bay Bridge construction, but there weren’t. I’d expect him to do whatever Jerry Brown tells him to. Greg Conlon, the Republican, is a CPA and businessman. On this one office, I might end up voting for the Republican.
Attorney General – This is another office where the “top two” leave me cold. I can’t see voting for a Republican, given how the last Republican who held it, George Deukmejian, pushed a “law and order” strategy that, to my mind, was a total failure. Still, the incumbent, Kamala Harris, has underwhelmed me with her performance. I was shocked when her office advocated preempting CEQA under federal law for California’s high-speed rail project, a huge project with enormous potential to do environmental damage. I’m afraid I’m going to leave this blank on my ballot in protest.
Insurance Commissioner – This is about the only statewide office that I feel reasonably good about making a recommendation. Former State Senator Dave Jones, the incumbent, has been consistently pro-consumer. He deserves another term.
Superintendent of Public Instruction – This is one statewide office that IS (at least nominally) nonpartisan. The incumbent, Tom Torlakson, has stong backing form the teachers’ unions. I worry that his support for those unions may be getting in the way of making the best decisions, especially when it comes to the controversial issue of charter schools. I am not an avid supporter of charter schools, which can draw off resources a top students from the conventional public school system, but I do think charter schools have their place as a laboratory of innovation and experimentation, and frankly many of our conventional public school systems are failing, so something other than the status quo is needed. For that reason, I’m choosing the challenger, Marshall Tuck.
Board of Equalization – Another somewhat technical financial position. The Board of Equalization administers the state tax system and is the board of appeal for state income tax and franchise tax disputes. It’s the only elected board of its kind in the country. Again, this shouldn’t be a partisan position, but it is. I have no trust in either candidate. Fiona Ma, the Democratic candidate is, in my opinion, nothing but a political hack, and I would trust her about as far as I could throw her (actually, not even that far). I don’t trust her Republican opponent any more than her. Pull the coin out again, or leave it blank? That’s my quandary.
State Assembly (15th Assembly District) – Another “victory” for the top two approach. There were some very good candidates in the primary, but they didn’t have as much money and political connections as these two. I’m not enthusiastic about either. Tony Thurmond served on the West Contra Costa School District Board. You might remember that district went bankrupt a few years back. I’m not sure if he was on the board when it did, but it’s a district that has not done itself proud. His opponent, Elizabeth Echols, has even less to recommend her. She has never held elective office, and was a federal bureaucrat before being drawn into this race by her friends in the local Democratic party machine. Neither seems to have a lot to say other than the usual Democratic platitudes. I’m going with Thurmond just because I’m so sick of the local Democratic Party machine.
If you’ve been reading my blog for any time at all, you know I think the idea of electing judges is stupid, and an invitation for mischief. (Recall the Mississippi Supreme Court Justice who was thrown out of office for putting a sculpture of the ten commandments in the State Supreme Court’s courthouse, and then was promptly re-elected by Mississippi voters, who thought it was great fun to thumb their nose at the First Amendment’s establishment clause.)
Supreme Court – I suppose you might look at this vote as a referendum on how the Supreme Court is doing. By that token, I might be tempted to vote no on all of them based on their refusal to take up the high-speed rail case. However, I think that would be unfair and probably unwise. I will, in this case, abstain.
Court of Appeal justices – A lot of the same principles apply here, but I follow the First District Court of Appeal’s decisions pretty closely, and I’d have to say I’ve been increasingly disappointed in them over the past few years. This used to be one of the best districts, but IMHO it isn’t any more. The one exception I’d make is Justice Ignazio Ruvolo, who I think is doing a good job. However, I make no recommendations on any of these votes.
STATE BALLOT MEASURES
Proposition 1 (Water Bond) – There’s a common theme among most of this year’s ballot measures (both state and local) – the compromise. The idea is that whichever side of an issue you’re on, the ballot measure gives you “enough” to vote for it. Perhaps the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, but what about the “not too bad?” In this case, the “not too bad” isn’t good enough for me. Yes, we need to address California water deficiencies and the environmental and economic consequences. Something must be done. But throwing a wad of money at big surface storage project (i.e., dams) isn’t a good way to go. It may be good, in the short run, for some farmers, but it’s bad for the fish and not good for the delta. We could have done far better, but if this bond passes, nothing else will happen for a while. Vote no and send the message – do better next time.
An add-on for Prop. 1. I just heard that NRDC (who supports the measure) says that if the measure’s promises of environmental benefits aren’t carried through on , they’re ready to go to court to enforce those promises. To which I say, “Good luck with that!” As some of you know, I’ve been heavily involved in litigating on the failure of the state government to carry out the promises it made in the 2008 high-speed rail bond. Just last month, the Court of Appeal said that at least some of the promises made in that measure weren’t enforceable. Thus was overturned nearly 100 years of precedent, and the Supreme Court refused to grant review. Bottom line, for any bond or tax measure placed on the ballot, you can no longer count on those ballot promises being carried through. If they’re ignored, the courts could leave you high and dry. [an appropriate analogy for a water bond measure]
Proposition 2 – Budget Stabilization Account – “Rainy Day Fund” – This is an enforced savings plan for the state, but it lacks the needed flexibility to avoid damaging the state during recessions. NO
Proposition 45 [I don’t know why there’s a gap] – Health Insurance Rate Changes – This would place health insurance rates under the jurisdiction of the insurance commissioner, as many other kinds of insurance already are. If you trust Blue Cross implicitly, by all means vote no. If you think there needs to be someone who asks them to justify their rate increases, vote yes. I’m voting yes. [add-on: my wife, a physician, is voting no. She’s worried the insurance commissioner could cut rates to the point where insurance companies start nickel-and-diming physician reimbursement rates, to the detriment of hospitals and community clinics. Obviously, I disagree.]
Proposition 46 – Another one of the “compromises.” The trial lawyers want to be able to increase damage awards in malpractice lawsuits (they’re currently capped by state law). They figured they could make it more popular by putting the screws to doctors and their alleged tendency towards drug addiction. If we’re going to start random drug testing folks, maybe politicians should be first in line, followed by trial lawyers. NO
Proposition 47 – Reduces some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. We’ve already tried throwing everyone who commits crimes in prison for a long time. It was called three strikes, and it didn’t work. Now we’ve got overcrowded prisons gobbling up our tax dollars. Let’s spend that money of getting people out of the criminal pathway instead. YES
Proposition 48 -Indian Gaming Compacts referendum – We’ve had lots of Indian gaming compacts, allowing tribes to set up casinos on tribal lands. This compact was for casinos NOT on tribal land. Personally, I think expanding casinos was a bad idea, and this compact makes it worse. NO
These are all nominally nonpartisan races, but in Alameda or most of Contra Costa County, if you’re not a Democrat, it’s probably not worth trying to run. That may be changing, however, as more and more voters switch to decline to state. You’d think the Democratic and Republican parties might take a hint that maybe voters were getting dissatisfied. Apparently not.
Alameda County Superintendent of Schools – I have to confess I’m at a loss to decipher which of these two candidates is the better choice. Karen Monroe is clearly the establishment choice. She’s now associate superintendent and is heir apparent to step in and replace Sheila Jordan, the retiring superintendent. If you think the County’s currently doing a good job on its educational responsibilities (which i don’t particularly), she’s obviously your choice. Helen Foster’s platform sounds very similar to that of Ms. Monroe, but includes more detail, and focuses on those students currently being left behind. She lacks establishment endorsements, but is endorsed by the Alameda Newspaper Group. However, I’m not sure I consider that a plus. It’s definitely a puzzle, and this is one race where I honestly don’t feel I can make a recommendation, but my leaning would be in Dr. Foster’s direction.
East Bay MUD Director – Ward 3 – This race, however, is one where I feel very confident in making an endorsement. East Bay MUD, our water and sewer district, has a reputation of being at the forefront of progressive and pro-environment water policy. That reputation is, at this point, largely undeserved. EBMUD has focused, over the past 20 years, in trying to get more water, primarily by a cooperative project with Sacramento County to use its federal Bureau of Reclamation contract (yes, the folks who run the Central Valley Project for all the ag users) for water from the Sacramento River. This year, with the drought, EBMUD is drawing on that water, at a cost of over $500 per acre-foot. Not as costly as some water, but a lot more than its Mokelumne supply, and much more than the more environmentally benign groundwater storage conjunctive use option would be. However, EBMUD would rather join the farmers at the straw than try to move forward into groundwater storage, which ag users have been slow to adopt. EBMUD’s also been asleep at the switch on adopting a rate structure to addresses yearly fluctuations in water supply to send a price signal to customers about how important conservation is. The incumbent, Katy Foulkes, has been on the board for twenty years, but somehow is just now thinking about a drought rate structure. Her opponent, Marguerite Young, comes out of a progressive water policy background and is pushing for more emphasis on conservation, and on speeding up replacing EBMUD’s aged water pipe system. Ms. Young is a clear choice.
AC Transit At Large Director – There are three candidates, and almost no information about them. Joel B. Young, the incumbent, has been on the AC Transit board since 2009 and ran unsuccessfully for State Assembly in 2012. That suggests his heart isn’t in his current position. I’ve also heard not very good things about him as a board member. His endorsements come entirely from labor unions, which suggests he’s a pro-labor vote an the board. That may or may not be a good thing. Of the three, Dollene Jones’ twenty years experience as an AC Transit driver givers her a perspective not found on the current board. On that basis, she’d be my choice.
Oakland Mayor – OK, this one’s a biggie. With fifteen candidates on the ballot, it’s not easy making a choice. The ranked choice election makes it a little easier, because you can pick up to three candidates. My strategy in using ranked choice is two-fold. First, pick out the candidate you like best, regardless of their chance of success. make them your number one choice. It they win, you’ve helped make it happen, and hopefully you’ll be very happy. If not, you’ve still got your second and third choices. For the second and third choices, pick candidates that have a realistic possibility of winning, and then, again, choose you most favored as second and next most favored as third. If you’ve got major reservations about a candidate, DON’T PICK THEM!!! Better to leave choice blank than help elect a candidate and end up kicking yourself later because you knew better.
So, who are my top choices? Let me start by saying who I’ve eliminated: 1) I eliminate those who’ve never held an elective office. You don’t start your political career as mayor of a large and difficult-to-manage city. That kind of on-the-job training we definitely don’t need. 2) I eliminate those who seem overly ambitious. We need a mayor who’s going to focus on being mayor, not running for their next political office. We had enough of that with Jerry Brown. Between those to, it knocks out most of the candidates. Here are my choices among those left:
1. Dan Siegel – I frankly don’t think he has much chance of getting elected, but he’s got a lot of experience and is still idealistic enough not to get dragged down by the political deal making that’s all too common in Oakland. Like Jean Quan, he’s got a lot of experience with Oakland schools, and that’s something that is one of Oakland’s weakest links. He’s also got a focus on restorative justice, which is, to my mind, an approach that could work well for Oakland.
2. Jean Quan – Jean Quan has certainly got more experience than any other candidate, and has had four years of handling the City. She’s certainly made her share of mistakes, but I think she’s learned from them. As with Dan Siegel, she’s got a strong focus on education and a generally progressive attitude. I also think she’s realistic in what she can hope to accomplish, unlike some of the candidates’ pie-in-the-sky approach to police staffing. Sure, we need more police than we have now, but how are you going to pay for 900 sworn officers??? Better, perhaps to spend more money one putting people on non-criminal tracks than running around trying to arrest and jail them all.
3. Rebecca Kaplan – I make this third choice with some trepidation. Ms. Kaplan strikes me as someone who’s aspiring for higher office, which is not my ideal choice for mayor. She also strikes me as somewhat too prone to posturing, and I fear she’s too doctrinaire on some issues (like Bus Rapid Transit) which makes her not open to listening to things she doesn’t want to hear [but needs to]. Nevertheless, her generally progressive approach would, IMHO, be better than that of her equally ambitious but more conservative sister council member, Ms. Schaaf, or the even more conservative Mr. Tuman. Call this pick a defensive move to avoid electing someone I’d like even less.
City Auditor – This is potentially an important office. My sense of Oakland’s administration is that it’s rather inefficient and could use a strong critical eye. However, the auditor should NOT be a political office. It’s not the place to sharpen knives. The two candidates are both CPAs, and hence at least qualified to conduct audits, but Len Raphael is a strong political slant. He ran unsuccessfully for City Council (District 1) in 2012 on what was basically a “law and order” platform. as i said, i don’t think we need a politician as auditor. His opponent, Brenda Roberts, is an experience corporate auditor. I worry that she may bring too narrow a financial focus to the auditor position, as opposed to looking a functional as well as financial audits, but I think a strong financial auditor would be helpful. I pick Roberts.
LOCAL BALLOT MEASURES
Finally, we have the local ballot measures. There’s one county measure, one Oakland Unified School District Measnure, and five Oakland city measures. Here are my takes on them:
Measure BB – 30 year 1/2 cent sales tax INCREASE, bringing the county transportation sales tax to 1%. The last attempt to pass this tax, with NO time limitation, just barely failed. Now they’ve gotten slightly less ambitious and are ONLY asking for a 30 year tax. I will probably expire before it does. I think thirty years is too long. We don’t even know what the transportation of 30 years from now will look like. We shouldn’t already be giving it funding, sight unseen.
Further, this is a classic “something for everyone” measure with enough boondoggles to satisfy any advocate of government waste. We’re already funding the ridiculous BART to Warm Springs, and now this adds BART to Livermore – a give-away to construction contractors and unions that will be an even bigger boondoggle that the Oakland Airport Connector (which is now expected to cost $7 one-way for a ten minute ride!) There’s also lost of money for highway expansion, to further feed our appetite for gasoline, along with an uncritical subsidy for any and all transit. We could, and ought to, be doing much better. NO
Measure N – this money would help pay for services to make graduation rates higher and make Oakland’s graduates more successful. The OUSD isn’t one of the best run school districts around, but it’s got an enormous job to do, and needs all the help it can get. YES
Measure Z – This continues Oakland’s Measure Y – a public safety funding measure – that provides both money for police services and money to provide help getting people (particularly youth) off the criminal track. YES!!
Measure CC -an attempt to give the Oakland Public Ethics Commission at least a few teeth (which it badly needs). YES
Measure DD – Establishes an independent redistricting commission for the City Council and OUSD trustee seats. Badly needed to get the politics out of the redistricting process. YES
Measure EE – Would replace one of Oakland’s retirement systems with a fixed annuity to be paid for with existing funds. Would get the City out of the business of administering this system. YES
Measure FF – sets a $12.25 per hour minimum wage within Oakland. This was a compromise between the current grossly inadequate minimum wage and the $15 per hour wage advocated by labor groups but opposed by businesses. It will help considerable, and isn’t that high that it will drive business out of the city. (We really need to have at least a countywide, or better a Bay Area uniform minimum wage, gut at least this is a step in the right direction.) YES