For those who thought California was good only for sunshine and earthquakes, consider this: Political reform in the nation’s largest state is turning it from an economic basket case into a model of democracy and progress. That’s fine for California, but does its transformation hold any lessons for that other political and economic basket case, the State of New York?
Plainly, it does. Equally plainly, the politicians who benefit from the way New York conducts its affairs will not willingly give up the power they have gathered unto themselves.
California’s approach is novel and compelling, as noted in a New York Times story published in Saturday’s News. California’s system has its flaws – there, it has led to one-party government – but the advantages are sufficient to overlook that problem, at least for now.
The process of change began under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and accelerated under Gov. Jerry Brown. It included two key components: independent redistricting and nonpartisan primaries.
State lawmakers who were elected last year represent districts that were drawn not by politicians, but by a nonpartisan commission, without regard to party affiliation. Previously, politicians drew their own political lines, with an eye on protecting incumbents and party influence. They chose their constituents before their constituents ever got to cast a vote.
The consequences of that system are severe and destructive. Gerrymandered political districts free politicians to ignore the wishes of their constituents, and allow them to vote with impunity for favored special interests. That drives up costs and drives down faith in government.
New Yorkers understand that phenomenon only too well. Here, in the nation’s highest-taxed state, legislative districts are rarely competitive. They are often drawn in bizarre shapes that betray their purpose, which is to give a politician or party a clear advantage.
Noncompetitive districts also inculcate in politicians a pervasive sense of entitlement. Thus, while it can’t be proved that New York’s political redistricting leads to the kind of criminal behavior that has been on display in Albany, how could it not be an influence?
Many in New York have clamored for independent redistricting for years. The 2010 election of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was supposed to provide it, but as much as Cuomo has worked to reform state government, he reneged on this promise.
In left-leaning states like California and New York, the consequence of independent redistricting can lead to Democratic dominance, and that is what has happened in California. Democrats hold super majorities in both houses of the legislature and they also control the governor’s office. Yet, government there has become more moderate and attentive. That’s because of the other significant reform: The state has done away with partisan primaries.
Now, the top two finishers in an open, nonpartisan primary compete in the general election. Thus, candidates have to appeal to a broader swath of voters in order to appear on the November ballot. Neither party can play exclusively to its base.
The results have been dramatic. Republicans openly acknowledge that the change allows them to consider issues without automatically fearing a primary challenge from the far right. Democrats are also moving toward the center. The state’s chamber of commerce reports that 39 of the 40 bills it tagged as “job-killing” were defeated this year – by a legislature that Democrats wholly control.
Other changes are also helping to alter California’s direction. The state eased its law on term limits, allowing lawmakers to serve 12 years in either chamber. That allows elected officials to benefit from experience and reduces the chronic worry over fundraising.
It also helps that Brown is a moderate Democrat. And, of course, California only arrived at this place because it was being crushed by a massive budget deficit, brought on by dysfunctional politics. Something had to change, and it did – for the better.
New York could do all of these things. Nothing but greed prevents it, but greed and its cousin, the lust for power, are potent forces. New Yorkers will have to work hard to get their legislators to make these kinds of changes, the changes New York should make.