Two adjectives that best describe California politics these days: dull and non-pioneering.
Jerry Brown, at 76 the nation’s oldest governor, is more of a mechanic than an innovator. Other California institutions — Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi — are in the autumns of their careers.
And it’s been ages since the Golden State generated a political commotion of Drudge-worthy notice — eleven years since Arnold Schwarzenegger headlined a circus of a gubernatorial recall that began on the Tonight show and finished with the Governator waving a broom on the steps of the state capitol.
But just when it seemed that California had lost its flair for the rebellious and ridiculous, along comes Silicon Valley investor Tim Draper, whose Six Californias ballot initiative would subdivide the Golden State into a half-dozen mini-me’s. This past week, Draper announced that he’s collected 1.3 million signatures, more than enough to land a spot on the November 2016 ballot.
When the people and their state are no longer in sync, and large populations feel that they are not being represented and when the state fails to provide the services that it promises to our citizens, then we lose our democracy.
Translation: The man has serious problems with a California that, despite possessing the world’s eighth-largest economy, suffers from rampant poverty, a crumbling infrastructure, spotty schools, and a hostile business climate.
Breaking up isn’t a foreign concept to California, the land that pioneered no-fault divorce. But politically, it’s hard to do. As far back as the mid 19th century and as recently as the early 1990s, Sacramento lawmakers have threatened to bisect or trisect the Golden State.
The difference this time?
Draper, a billionaire who invested early in Skype and Hotmail, has the resources to run an aggressive campaign if he so chooses (in 2000, Draper spent $23 million of his fortune on the losing Proposition 38, which would have provided private-school vouchers to California public-school kids). And he has two years to sell his idea to an electorate that recently has grown increasingly disenchanted with Sacramento.
But will Six Californias actually pass muster with voters? Here are three ways to look at it:
First, there’s the plan’s author. Tim Draper is a visionary; he champions bold ideas. He’s also an easy target for lampooning (check out this video).
Second, the initiative is seriously if not fatally flawed.
If approved, the northernmost new state, Jefferson, would surpass Mississippi as America’s poverty leader. Silicon Valley — an amalgam of tech-rich Santa Clara County, San Francisco, and Berkeley (try selling that name to lefties who tip Smart mini-cars and vandalize Google buses) — would lead the nation in per capita income . . . and pay a king’s ransom to import water and electricity. Los Angeles-centric West California couldn’t house its prison population. The list of woes goes on — and Draper doesn’t have answers.
Finally, there’s the political impact.
As designed, South California, Central California, and Jefferson would line up as red states. West California and Silicon Valley would be blue, with North California as a blue-leaning bellwether. Conceivably, the Republican presidential nominee could win up to 28 electoral votes in the 2020 election — the equivalent of Ohio plus Wisconsin. Good luck getting President Hillary Clinton to sign off on that (for more on this, plus a deeper look at the economic and demographic effects, I refer you to this excellent three-part analysis by the Hoover Institution’s Carson Bruno).
So dismiss the Draper initiative as half-baked and its author as naïve for picking a fight he likely won’t win, much like his school-choice battle of 14 years ago.
However, there’s another way to look at Six Californias: as the latest installment of Californians’ raging against the political machine — a tradition that dates back nearly 50 years to Ronald Reagan’s landslide 1966 gubernatorial win.
Twelve years after Reagan’s win, in 1978, Californians rebelled against rising taxes by approving Proposition 13. In 1986, it was the removal of chief justice Rose Bird for opposing the death penalty. In the 1990s, voters spoke out against illegal immigration and racial quotas (1994’s Proposition 187 and 1996’s Proposition 209, respectively). The first decade of the 21st century brought the recall spectacle.
The only problem with this continuum: Draper’s on the right path of public resentment but he offers the wrong Rx. Why not make more practical use of his fortune, such as teaming up on education reform with David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and driving force behind the landmark Vergara v. California ruling, which struck down tenure for teachers? Improving the state’s business climate means electing more Sacramento lawmakers who are less beholden to special interests, which is what David Crane, a Stanford lecturer and pension-reform expert, is trying to achieve via Govern for California.
Being a more subdued angel investor in the business of transforming California wouldn’t be as much fun as being the public face of a quirky ballot initiative. But it’s more practical than the quixotic pursuit of taking the state to divorce court.
In other words, a wiser investing strategy — and a better return on capital.
— Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow specializing in California and national politics.