coming this sunday: nyt magazine…”who can possibly govern california?”

not particularly flattering for the current field of candidates...worth a read

New York Times
July 5, 2009
Magazine Preview

Who Can Possibly Govern California?

Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, has an emergency button under his desk that was installed 30 years ago after former City Supervisor Dan White entered City Hall through a window and fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Not knowing what the button was for, Newsom kept pushing it on his first day in office, only to have three sheriffs rush in repeatedly.

Newsom says he has not had occasion to press the button since, although the mayor admits he is tempted to whenever meetings drag on or when reporters ask him annoying questions or when he becomes bored, something that happens easily.

I was sitting in Newsom’s office in May, and the mayor was fidgeting behind his desk, which is neat except for a few side-by-side stacks of collated papers. These are what Newsom calls his CliffsNotes, part of an elaborate system of self-education he developed over several years.

Newsom struggled with severe dyslexia as a child and compensated by rereading, underlining, bracketing and scrawling comments in the margins. “I just butcher a book,” he explained to me. “Everything I underline I assume is important to me.” Interns type up what Newsom has underlined and produce a set of notes for him. “Sometimes I will make CliffsNotes of my CliffsNotes,” Newsom said. He described the practice as “really pathetic.” But it works for him and illustrates a larger point about people with learning disabilities: when a person struggles to learn in conventional ways, he said, you adapt “in ways that can nurture creative solutions.” Doing so can also promote “audacious goals that many would dismiss as irrational.”

That may well be the best description of Newsom’s latest ambition: to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as the governor of California even as the state is in the midst of one of its recurring cataclysms. They come along once or twice a decade, sparked by natural disaster or some fiasco of overcrowding (prisons, schools, roads) or shortage (water, energy, cash) or civic rebellion (taxes, cops, Gray Davis). California always seems to produce more spectacle than anywhere else in the country, and that goes for its meltdowns too. Calamity is just part of the equation here, as if God gave California so much glamour and grandeur and great weather that he had to throw in some apocalyptic menace to provide a little balance. Earthquakes, say. Or Sacramento.

Californians, would-be governors included, have learned to take crises in stride. “People have been declaring this place on the brink of extinction for decades,” said Newsom, who was born in San Francisco and reared in the city and in the adjacent county of Marin. When I visited him in his office, Newsom, who is 41, had just finished rereading his notes on one of his favorite books about the state, “Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003,” by Kevin Starr. Newsom’s CliffsNotes for “Coast of Dreams” fill 77 pages. He gave me a set, after leafing through them to make sure he had not written anything embarrassing in the margins.

“California had become . . . a reality in search of a myth that had once been believed in,” Starr writes in a passage highlighted by Newsom. “That dream, in fact, had been the first and only premise of the Schwarzenegger campaign.” Those days, in the early years of this decade, were the last time real life overwhelmed the state’s ability to govern itself — that’s when voters recalled their governor, Gray Davis, and once again looked beyond “reality,” to Hollywood, for their next savior, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Six years on, California’s political culture seems no less dysfunctional. The state’s most urgent problem is its lumbering wreck of an economy. Not surprisingly, given California’s size, more people have lost jobs and more homes have been foreclosed on and more big banks have failed here in the last year than in any other state in the country. The state faces a $24 billion deficit, and Schwarzenegger recently joked that his finance director has been placed “on suicide watch.” “California’s day of reckoning is here,” Schwarzenegger said in a speech in early June, though in fact many Californians are convinced that the state is past its day of reckoning and that the governor is approaching his “end of days.” (Whatever his successes and failures, Schwarzenegger has at least nourished California politics with endless opportunities for movie allusions, double entendres and overall goofiness — some of it occasionally clever.)

Schwarzenegger still exudes a celebrity aura that transcends politics, no matter how unmanageable they are. Schoolchildren and tourists crowd hallways to glimpse him before he appears at the Capitol — scenes that resemble red-carpet openings of “Kindergarten Cop.” Shrieks announce his arrivals. “The Arnold alarm,” one Statehouse reporter called it. There was no Gray Davis alarm.

The former Mr. Universe has shrunk greatly in political stature, now that he has become ineligible for re-election (thanks to term limits), unpopular (a 33 percent approval rating) and incapable of asserting his will over an unyielding Legislature and ornery electorate. And there is a general recognition that Schwarzenegger’s substantial assets proved no match for the daunting disorder of the state’s politics, something even Schwarzenegger admitted to me recently: “The bottom line is, even me as a celebrity governor — even with that, I can’t penetrate through certain things.”

And yet, the governorship of California remains an oddly seductive job. It doesn’t matter that the office has become a graveyard of political aspiration, that Davis was actually considered a rising national star at one time. State Attorney General Jerry Brown — yes, that Jerry Brown — recently called the job of California governor “a career ender,” which is notable given that Brown, a two-term former governor, now 71, seems intent on ending his career back in that office. Indeed, Brown is a big reason that the 2010 governor’s race in California might be the most compelling political show in the nation next year. You have nationally known Democrats. You have socially moderate Republicans who favor abortion rights and, to varying degrees, gay rights (if not gay marriage itself), in a state whose traditional strains still run deep. And above all, you have a diverse and, to some degree, radically discordant group of candidates striving to win over one of the country’s most disruptive places (the California of Silicon Valley and the counterculture) and one of its most conservative (the California of Reagan, Nixon and tax revolts). “In a sense, the race to succeed Schwarzenegger is so fascinating because the competing souls of the state are all wrapped up in the candidates,” is how the Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Bill Carrick put it. “You have the old and the new, the bizarre and the boring. Crisis does tend to bring it all to the fore.”

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