When John Phillips wrote about "California Dreaming" with the Mamas & the Papas, he was talking about opportunities in the Golden State. Chris Cornell wrote "I'm looking California, but feeling Minnesota" in Soundgarden's "Outshined." For all its natural beauty, trend-setting culture, and hold on the imagination, California today has found itself in punch-line status. The state is currently down in the dumps, but there's a movement to turn things around. If this effort delivers, California could set the trend for American democracy in the 21st century.
Jim Wunderman, Steven Hill & Krist Novoselic (Photo: James Manniello)
I was born in California and lived there until I was 14. At 20 I returned as a roadie for the Melvins, driving an old VW van painted with zebra stripes. I've lost count of how many times I've traveled up and down the West Coast on I-5. I'm connected with Los Angeles and San Francisco through many friends, family members, and associates in the entertainment industry.
I even live near the Pacific Ocean on Washington's coast. Last week I followed the shore flying south to Sunnyvale, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. I attended a forum called Re-Booting California. The event was about a state constitutional convention. It was held on the campus of a big technology company, so it was no surprise to hear analogies about re-booting, California version 2.0, and how a new state constitution could be like a killer app. While these are the buzzwords of the area, underneath is an ethic of innovative problem solving rooted in sophisticated thinking.
The problems with the state are well known, and among the disarray, an idea arose. Jim Wunderman wrote an editorial last August for the San Francisco Chronicle in which he proposed a state constitutional convention. The article garnered a massive response. (I've already written a column about reforming California's constitution, and the efforts in California.)
Wunderman is president of the Bay Area Council, an association with a mission that "mobilizes business leadership on the key issues that affect the business climate and quality of life in the region."
I hear that! I stayed in San Jose the night before the forum. The last time I was there was in 1990, when Nirvana played with Tad in this little club next door to a sex shop. The city was kind of dumpy. When I stayed there last week, downtown was built up and rather cosmopolitan. You could see how technology-industry money has been good to the city.
It's simple--things are broken in California, and that's bad for business. The Council's member roster is an A-list of San Francisco Bay Area companies. And Wunderman is emerging as the face of the effort. He drew in the three hundred people attending with calm passion and reason. At forums across California, people are listening to his call for change.
I remember the swell of interest around Proposition 13 in 1978 - a property-tax ballot measure that captured the imagination of Californians. And it had a face too--Howard Jarvis. This tax revolt made him a huge celebrity, riding a wave of populism as a fist-shaking crank who hammered the state and politicians with glee. Voters ate it up by passing this historic change to property taxes.
Prop. 13 took away local control over property taxes and put it in the hands of Sacramento. And worse, it penalized first-time home buyers like young families. They'll pay property taxes at the value of their new home, while the person next door, who's lived there for years, only pays on the value at the time of their purchase. The cost of public services has risen, and it's young families who must bear the cost by paying way more than their neighbors.
Jarvis died in 1986, and it's been 30 years since it passed, but Prop. 13 is still enshrined in the imagination of Californians. Even though it's unfair and takes away local control, the ballot measure stands to this day as a check mechanism over politicians. There's a cautionary tale here: If voters see a constitutional convention as a way to give lawmakers free reign, the effort is doomed.
But there can't only be an individual face on this effort. We're going to need to see faces, and that's the whole point of this. Wunderman and others leading the call for a convention are considering ways to bring Californians together. The idea is to randomly select voters, like a jury, from each state assembly district. Something very similar has been done in Canada in what's called a citizens assembly.
The convention will succeed when Californians see the effort as one of regular people--not politicians--coming together to move the state forward. There are so many possibilities not only for re-booting the state--potential reform should reconnect citizens with their local governments and representatives in Sacramento. There were many ideas presented at the forum. Some spoke of a unicameral legislature and proportional voting; others reforming the tax system towards equity/local control; and cleaning up the state spending requirements within the literally hundreds of amendments to the state constitution.
Many details were discussed at the forum regarding how this could be done. Speakers invoked the drafting of the United States Constitution: Despite the imperfections of the process, it yielded an enduring framework for our nation.
The California Constitutional Convention idea is currently in the capable hands of the state's leading policy groups. If it happens, the citizens participating in the convention will then take the lead. Finally, California voters themselves will give recommendations: a thumbs-up or -down.
Things can't get much worse with Golden State public affairs. As California picks itself up, it could set the trend for change beyond its borders. Remember that classic saying, "As goes California, so goes the nation." If their constitutional convention succeeds, in time we all could be "feeling California" in our own states.