California's 2011 Political Watch List
In just a matter of hours, the calendars will flip and the champagne will bubble, and we'll all wonder what lies ahead in the year to come.
But for those of us who watch California politics for a living, it's more fun to bring out the crystal ball for a sneak peek.
Actually, it's not hard to guess some of 2011's top political stories, so here's five to watch (last year it was nine, but hey, times are tough):
What Can Brown Do For You? The most obvious and dominant political narrative of 2011 is the odyssey of Jerry Brown, thrust into the present from the past to save the future (slightly askew from, um, you know who). The new-but-veteran governor has only one real item on his To Do list for the year, one that's going to require every ounce of energy and political savvy he can muster: clean up the state budget mess.
The 72-year-old Democrat has carried out the most stealth, least specific, and least newsmaking gubernatorial transition that anyone seems to remember. And it seems to have been by design. Brown's challenge these weeks since being elected, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, has been to avoid his famous musings on all kinds of subjects and keep his eye on the budget ball.
So the answer to the question, "What can Brown do for you?" may be just one thing: the budget. Everything else will have to wait. The scant budget news that's trickled out so far -- cuts and a special election -- is not surprising. But what else Brown will proposes, and whether he can cajole partisan warriors and powerful interest groups alike to support it, will be the real story. And some will tell you that it may not be hyperbole to say that Jerry Brown's political legacy rides on what happens in these first few months of his third term in the corner office.
Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Closely linked to the Brown saga, but perhaps even more pressing, is how Californians will process the choices that they're presented in the new year, and whether they -- we -- can make well-informed decisions. Regardless of the reason, the state's citizens have remained blissfully unaware of how their state government spends tax dollars. They've also allowed or encouraged elected officials to promise more services than there are existing dollars. It will be fascinating to watch whether folks start to get it -- and whether a new special election, unlike the last one, can make clear what happens if the answer is to limit spending.
Reform Redux: California's governance woes have been the focus of a lot of talk (and news coverage) for more than a year, and every effort to date has fizzled. Might 2011 be different? If, in fact, the new governor pushes some systemic changes (reworking the state/local government relationship comes to mind), will that help?
As for leadership outside of government, the place to watch is the new group of experts and graybeards that has coalesced around billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, who's reportedly pledged $20 million to leading a state government overhaul. The money could, in theory, erase the biggest obstacle that felled 2010 efforts at everything from incremental governance changes to a constitutional convention: cash to get governance reform measures on the statewide ballot. Of course, $20 million may only be seed money for an effort that challenges the powerful, and deep-pocketed, interest groups which thrive on the status quo.
The Democratic Bench, The GOP Facelift? The aftermath of the 2010 election cycle will provide some interesting dramas for both Democrats and Republicans on the statewide level. For Democrats, it's an embarrassment of riches after winning every statewide elected office. But the real fun may be watching how the party's most prominent up-and-comers -- San Franciscans Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris -- handle the inevitable buzz about where their political futures are headed. Newsom steps into a job with few official duties, but perhaps the chance to be in the middle of any big issue he chooses. Harris, on the other hand, assumes the role of California's top cop and will no doubt expand the job's reach into several topical issues that will attract media attention. With so many people openly speculating about whether Jerry Brown will serve only one term, the Newsom/Harris comparisons and contrasts are going to be an especially interesting political story to watch.
For Republicans, it's a "now what?" year. Expect more party infighting about whether 2010's shellacking was due to picking the wrong candidates, the wrong message, or both. Moderates in the state GOP may see this as their chance to push a different agenda, but the party's conservative base is also angling for a fight about what it really means to be a Republican, after seven years with a governor who many considered to be a disappointment. And pretty soon, we'll see what path the GOP takes in presenting a challenger to California's senior stateswoman, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who's up for re-election in 2012.
Map Maker, Map Maker, Make Me A Map: Expect to learn more in 2011 than you ever knew (or wanted to know?) about redistricting. For the first time ever, the process of drawing California's political districts is coming out of closed-door sessions at the Capitol or the courts and into public hearings. The state's new independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will start slowly, at first; full census data won't be available until April. But look for things to be intense, and no doubt controversial, as the 14 member panel starts really sketching out legislative and congressional seats between April and mid-August. The timeline will also result in a lot of politician hand wringing; not only will they not know until the fall where district lines will land, but 2012 will bring even more changes with the state's new open primary law. Lots of reform advocates are going to be watching all of this with great interest.
There will no doubt be many more great stories and issues to watch, so have that glass of bubbly tonight and then get settled in for an interesting 2011. Happy New Year!