A Bad Word in California

A Bad Word in California

What does voter anger at pension payouts and government spending mean for candidates who rely on the support of public employees?

Steven Greenhut is the director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center and the author of “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives And Bankrupting the Nation.”

“I do not believe that Jerry Brown has a ground operation,” Willie Brown, the former California Assembly speaker, said this week, referring to his fellow Democrat’s run for governor. Willie Brown doesn’t think other major Democratic candidates have a serious ground game either, and he wondered whether the Democrats should rely so heavily on unions, which don’t always have the same interests as the rest of the party.

Democratic leaders criticized his remarks, but in California the public sector unions have become the dominant player in the party. The state’s Democratic Party has become synonymous with the unions. Many legislators come out of the union movement. While one should never underestimate the value of union-financed advertisements, they might not be nearly as effective this year, which could be a problem given Democratic reliance on them.

California is ground zero in the battle over the power of public employees. The scandal in tiny Bell, where officials are facing criminal charges for looting the city, has made headlines. So, too, has a new report showing that the top 10 San Diego retirees receive pension packages worth $61 million. Average folks are angry, especially in these tough economic times.

A friend who produces campaign mailers and signs for local candidates told me he is having a heyday throwing around terms like “pension abuser.” One union-backed candidate in Orange County told me the union label is more detriment than help this year.

The biggest problem for California Republicans is that their gubernatorial candidate, Meg Whitman, has not excited Tea Party activists and the grass roots because of her carefully focus-tested moderation. She has taken on the unions on pension reform, but her plan is so full of exemptions that few Republican base voters take it seriously.

So while the unions are a big target for criticism this year, the G.O.P.’s mostly moderate statewide candidates might not be able to capitalize on the sentiment, suggesting that California might once again be out of step with voters in the rest of the nation.

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