“Californians like to walk on the political wild side.” That’s how Bruce Cain introduces Game Changers in his foreword to the 2014 California Historical Society Book Award winner, and his observation paves the way for a rollicking, epic history of more than a dozen California state elections. Full of engrossing personalities and dramatic government battles, Game Changers is equally for fans of thoroughly researched local history, insider’s political baseball, and page-turning stories. Over email, I talked with the book’s four authors–Steve Swatt, Susie Swatt, Jeff Raimundo, and Rebecca LaVally–about California’s vibrant elections and their implications for the present day.
Which political characters did you enjoy writing about most? With people like Upton Sinclair and Howard Jarvis in the story, there’s no shortage of larger-than-life figures.
Steve: While it was interesting to find nuggets about those individuals I covered – such as Ronald Reagan, Howard Jarvis and Willie Brown – I most enjoyed researching and writing about characters who pre-dated my journalism career. I learned so much about Leland Stanford’s manipulation of the state legislature and the federal government in accumulating funds for his railroad; I achieved a greater understanding of Hiram Johnson’s determined resolve to stamp out the Southern Pacific’s vise-like grip on California; and I was fascinated to learn that we can trace our modern scorched earth election strategies to a pair of innovative communicators who had been hired in 1934 to derail at all costs the gubernatorial candidacy of Upton Sinclair.
Susie: One of my favorite characters is a man that few Californians know anything about – legendary lobbyist Artie Samish. He represented the major industries – such as liquor companies, racetracks, and chemical companies – and had tremendous sway over legislators. And he spent his clients’ money to elect lawmakers who would be loyal to him. In 1934, he got even with a veteran Assemblyman who angered one of his clients. He plucked a man off of LA’s skid row, cleaned him up, bought him two new suits, ran him against the incumbent, and won!
Rebecca: Described by a Sacramento Bee reporter as an imposing, charismatic man, Earl Warren offers an intriguing paradox that still makes him endlessly fascinating. Although his Warren Court became known for its rulings on behalf of society’s most vulnerable, he actively supported interning citizens and immigrants of Japanese ancestry in 1942, the year he won his first election as governor. Warren was state attorney general then, in charge of civil defense, and thus was the state’s leading civilian advocate for the popular notion. We’ll never know whether political expediency played into his thinking. What we do know is that, within months of leaving the governor’s office to accept President Eisenhower’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Warren wrote the momentous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that desegregated public schools. He had insisted it be unanimous. Warren never publicly apologized for his role in the internment, but expressed his regrets in his memoirs, published after his death.
Jeff: The Los Angeles Times and its owners clearly stand as seminal players in California’s political story. We constantly were amazed at the power the paper and the family that controlled it were able to wield over politicians and voters alike. Whether it was profiting copiously from creation of the aqueduct that drained the Owens Valley to feed SoCal’s growth or contriving facts to help defeat Socialist Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor in 1934, the Times has had an outsized influence on California for more than a century.
The book begins by talking about the immense political power the railroads had during California’s first fifty years. Have any industries wielded a remotely comparable influence at the State Capitol since then? How do the railroad years continue to influence California politics?
Steve: We’ve certainly seen some special interests wield significant power at the Capitol, but nothing has come close to the railroad’s earlier dominance of just about every facet of commerce and politics in California. In the 1930s and 1940s, lobbyist Artie Samish represented a number of major industries (liquor, racetracks, banks, chemical companies, railroads). Spreading around his clients’ money liberally, Samish had his way with a pliant legislature. Even Governor Earl Warren conceded that on matters that affected his clients, Samish had more power than the governor. More recently, the oil industry – a major contributor to political campaigns – has flexed its muscles to defeat environmental legislation it believed would adversely affect its members. But the legacy of the Southern Pacific lives on in the direct democracy tools that Hiram Johnson and the Progressives gave us in response to SP’s domination.
Susie: Since the late 1990s, we’ve seen California’s gambling tribes become one of the most potent campaign contributors in the state – spending roughly $400 million on the political process.
Jeff: I don’t think any corporation has matched the controlling power over so many years – virtually a half century – that the railroad enjoyed. Other industries have shown great power in the Legislature since then, although not as consummately or over so long a period. Agriculture, horse racing, banking, insurance and medical industries all have been able to dominate their issues with large political donations and powerful lobbyists during particular extended periods. The railroad’s impact is felt even now, a century later, in the Progressive reforms of the initiative, referendum and recall, the stronger role of the Public Utilities Commission as well as the public’s innate distrust of large corporations. All are legacies of Stanford and the railroads.
When did the research for this book surprise you, even after a long career in California politics?
Steve: We tend to learn history by placing names and dates with particular events without understanding the political, cultural or social forces that led to those events. From the beginning of our research, I was fascinated with the fact that throughout California’s history, major political revolutions didn’t occur in a vacuum. For example, few Californians realize that the seeds of the Proposition 13 tax revolt in 1978 were actually planted in 1965 when a scandal among county assessors led the legislature to tie property tax assessments to inflation.
Rebecca: It was stunning how devoid of scruples Governor Leland Stanford and his Southern Pacific Railroad were in pursuing a Transcontinental Railroad that profited both enormously. Voters didn’t seem to mind that Stanford was simultaneously chief executive of California and president of the railroad – and used his office to advance his business interests accordingly. Southern Pacific’s grip over commerce and governance, dating directly from Stanford’s tenure, was insidious into the 20th century.
Earl Warren turned out to be a surprisingly pivotal figure in guiding California’s remarkable World War II-era boom at a time when at least the potential for graft and greed fueled by massive infusions of defense dollars could have taken the state in another direction. A lesser governor surely would have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of newcomers – at 10,000 a week, Warren likened them to starting up a small city every Monday morning. His years as U.S. chief justice have overtaken history’s memory of Warren as an especially visionary governor who embraced the anti-corruption reforms of Hiram Johnson while laying the policy groundwork for Pat Brown’s epic achievements.
Jeff: I was surprised at how constant the public’s concerns about government have remained over more than a century. Complaints about high taxes driving businesses from the state, corrupting power of money on government, the wanton political power of some corporations, the failure of local governments to adequately manage schools and crime and roads, the battle for water between haves and have-nots – all of those things motivated the 1878-1879 Constitutional Convention. All remain concerns today.
1934, 1980, and 2003–all of those years featured outbursts of sensationalism and excess in California election campaigns. When I read your coverage of those years, I felt like the book was hinting at something cyclical in the election system: every now and then, some unexpected upping of the ante leads to new kinds of campaign wars. When you compare election years that seem particularly crazy in hindsight, what similarities do you see?
Steve: It’s fascinating to look at how election campaigns have changed over the years – primarily by taking advantage of innovations in communications and research. Leland Stanford’s low-key campaign for governor in 1861 was still in the horse and buggy era (literally). In the final 34 days of the campaign, he traveled to 31 out-of-the-way burgs giving speeches and hoping to get some coverage in small newspapers. In the early twentieth century, newspapers still dominated political communication but had figured out that bellowing headlines in large type would attract more readers. The 1934 governor’s contest introduced all sorts of innovations – a propaganda blitzkrieg of newspaper coverage and ads, radio spots, pamphlets, posters, flyers, billboards, and newsreels in movie theaters (the anti-Sinclair campaign created phony, one-sided newsreels using actors purported to be average citizens). A generation later, television came to dominate statewide campaigns, while early computers gave rise to voter-targeted direct mail. Interestingly, it was a bit of “Back to the Future” in the Gray Davis recall campaign in 2003, as bellicose, conservative talk radio played a key role in the governor’s ouster.
Susie: Another trend is the rise in campaign costs as more expensive technology was created. California set two national records in 1998. The governor’s race (primary and general elections) was the most expensive governor’s contest in U.S. history at that time. In addition, Proposition 5 – to allow Indian tribes to engage in Nevada-style gambling – was the most expensive ballot measure in U.S. history. That year, California set all sorts of records for campaign spending – a half billion dollars on ballot measures, the legislature and statewide elections.
Jeff: You can add the constitutional election of 1879, the Progressive reforms of 1910-11, Proposition 13 in 1978 and Proposition 187 in 1994 to that list. I think the link is that advocates were able to tap into underlying voter anger or frustration. Each of those elections was laced with demagoguery and populism, whether for good or bad. All were the result of pent-up public wrath over perceived ills.
When you look back to your early careers in California politics, do you miss anything about the political process from that time? What don’t you miss?
Steve: At the Capitol, I don’t miss watching lawmakers’ time-tested practice of gutting, amending and voting on bills with little public notice or input at the end of the session. It’s a bad habit that demeans the process. From time to time, legislative leaders promise to end the practice, but it never happens. I miss the days when television stations actually covered the Capitol. At one time, major stations in Sacramento, Los Angeles and the Bay Area had reporters dedicated to Capitol coverage. Today, not a single TV reporter covers the Capitol full-time, despite the fact that people continue to rely heavily on television for their news and information. Without a vibrant press corps – including television – the public is short changed.
Susie: When I worked in legislature, we had what I considered to be some of California’s best and brightest working on public policy – both lawmakers and key staff. We were at the center of some of the state’s most interesting and important political discussions, and I relished the role I had in making public policy – whether it was helping to create a new state park or cleaning up a toxic landfill. Now in retirement, I miss the vitality of working at the Capitol. However, I don’t miss watching the politics of public policy. I’m concerned that too many policy decisions are being made for political purposes.
Rebecca: What I miss is that things used to get done in the Legislature because most legislators had lots of experience – and it takes plenty of time and experience to learn California’s complex policy issues. They knew each other, they knew the process and they had the luxury of time. State Senator Bob Presley, a Democrat from Riverside, spent years getting California’s smog-check law passed, for instance. Term limits have changed much of that. What I don’t miss is the good old boys’ network that used to pervade the building. On one hand, it was unfair that even do-nothing legislators could be reelected for decades on end. On the other, although the Legislature has become a more diverse body, more representative of the people it serves because of its steady turnover, the political skills of a Maxine Waters or Willie Brown are long gone. So, too, is the bipartisan camaraderie of those days.
Jeff: I miss the collegiality among legislators of opposing parties that could overcome partisan differences to actually get things done. Today’s rigid ideology, particularly from the right, is again leading to voter frustration. How it manifests in the near future is uncertain, but on the national stage you can see it in the support being shown to Donald Trump’ and Bernie Sanders’ renegade campaigns.
If you could go back in time to the beginning of your career and give yourself advice about California’s political system, what would you say?
Steve: Follow the money. Who is paying for the TV commercials? Who is financing the direct mail and the public relations campaigns? We can’t keep big money out of the system, but we could do a better job of disclosing in a timely fashion where the contributions are coming from.
Susie: We should remember that there are good people in public service who want to get things done for their constituents, and there are bad people who want to use the system for their own benefit. We shouldn’t paint everyone with the same broad brush.
Now that we’re approaching the 2016 election, which California ballot issues are you paying close attention to?
Steve: The one measure I am most interested in watching is the attempt to extend the temporary taxes on high wage earners that voters approved in 2012. With an influx of unanticipated revenue into the state treasury – but the recession still fresh in our minds – how will voters react?
Susie: Other hot-button issues are the referendum on the plastic bag ban, and we could see ballot measures on mandatory prison sentences, marijuana legalization, minimum wage, and gun control, where proponents are trying to qualify an initiative that would ban military-style magazines and require background checks for ammunition sales.
Rebecca: I’m interested in the proposals circulating to extend the Proposition 30 tax that Brown successfully promoted in 2012 to help balance the books for four years; that would tell us much about how voters are thinking these days. If one or more proposals to raise the minimum wage can qualify and win, despite the opposition they’re sure to receive, that will be huge, too. The fact that all qualified statewide initiatives will be going on one ballot – in November – rather than spread across the primary and general election ballots is interesting in itself. The idea behind this new law is that general elections draw a larger turnout, traditionally helping Democrat-backed proposals such as the two above. Given that the action will be in November, it’s still a bit early to judge.
Jeff: I’m watching those measures that reflect at least some frustration with the Legislature’s or the governor’s choices. The minimum wage, the renewal of the “temporary” Proposition 30 tax increase and Dino Cortopassi’s proposal to require statewide voter approval of revenue bonds in excess of $2 billion (his effort to block Gov. Brown’s tunnels to siphon Delta water to Southern California).