SACRAMENTO – I’d been starting to wonder about whether there are any true progressives left in California, until I heard about Jeff Adachi, San Francisco’s public defender. Many people describe themselves as progressive, mind you, but few seem to embody the core principles of a movement that is supposed to champion the poor, the oppressed and those who lack political power.
Adachi and I, no doubt, would be at odds on most political issues, but I’m left cheering an initiative he is qualifying for his city’s November ballot, and admiring a man who embodies the gutsy determination that is supposed to be the hallmark of those who stand up for the downtrodden against powerful interests.
“I’ve seen my budget slashed year after year,” he told me Monday, noting that the Public Defender’s Office has a total budget of about half what the Police Department spends on overtime alone. “We’re not able to do what’s constitutionally required,” he said, explaining that his office provides constitutionally mandated legal representation for the poor.
Adachi began looking at where the money is going and saw the growing budgetary effect of benefits for retired city workers. He pointed to a recent San Francisco grand jury report, which finds that pension and health care costs are expected to climb from $413 million a year to nearly $1 billion a year in five years, and that such costs amount to one-third of the city’s general fund. The grand jury wrote that “[p]ension and health benefits enjoyed by San Francisco retirees are unsustainable.”
According to the grand jury, “Reform must be undertaken in order to find a balance between keeping the city’s promise to retired workers and maintaining the critical services that make our city great.”
Adachi proposed what he accurately describes as a modest initiative that would require city workers – half of whom contribute nothing to their own retirement – to contribute 9 percent to 10 percent, as allowed under the city charter. The city currently pays 100 percent of the health care costs for workers and 75 percent for dependents. His initiative would require workers to pay for 50 percent of their dependents’ health benefits.
This is hardly unreasonable, yet the unions have gone ballistic and have accused Adachi of betrayal. They know that if serious pension reform succeeds in San Francisco that it can succeed anywhere. In San Francisco, the debate will be a tad different than the debate over similar reforms in Orange and San Diego counties, where fiscal conservatives make up a good portion of voters.
In San Francisco, this battle will center on saving vital city services. Adachi told me that the city has eliminated summer school programs. It is issuing $80 parking tickets. Park and recreation funding has been cut by 50 percent. Children’s services have been cut. “Here, these vital services that everyone relies on are being drained by pension costs,” he said.
Adachi is putting into action what another progressive, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pension adviser David Crane, pointed out (and I wrote about a few weeks ago) during a pension-reform hearing at the state Senate. “One cannot both be a progressive and be opposed to pension reform,” Crane said. The math is “irrefutable” that the programs progressives embrace “are being driven out of existence by rising pension costs.” Crane was ignored by the so-called progressive Democrats who run the Legislature, and the bill went nowhere.
Hilariously, the unions are blasting Adachi for not coming to them first, but Adachi watched pension reform get watered down so thoroughly in the city’s legislative process that the bill’s original author took his name off it. The city’s supervisors acted in a manner similar to the legislators Crane dealt with in Sacramento. So Adachi wisely took the initiative route, which increasingly is the only way to create change anywhere in this dysfunctional, union-controlled state.
This one initiative won’t stop the coming pension tsunami, but Adachi sees it as a way to reduce increasing pension costs and to “inform the public about the impact of escalating pensions on basic, core services of government.” The police union in neighboring Oakland, he noted, has refused to contribute anything to its pensions and that led to the layoff last week of 80 police officers in the city. He said that one San Francisco police officer – not the chief, either – has a compensation package of $516,000. Something’s wrong that must be fixed – although he fully expects attack ads depicting him as being anti-public-safety.
Sure enough, the unions have hired Tim Lehane, a former Clinton and Goldman Sachs mouthpiece, who told the San Francisco Chronicle last week that Adachi’s initiative is the equivalent of taking on Mother Teresa. Adachi’s prepared for such nasty attacks, but thinks he can get a serious dialogue going in a city known for its lefty politics. “Pensions are not a sexy subject, not like saving the redwoods,” he said. He wants the voters and even city workers to understand that his measure isn’t against public employees, but is a way to shore up a pension system that will be broke in 15 years.
In the big budget battles in the Capitol, the state’s dominant progressive Democrats have made it clear that they are more concerned about theunionized middle-class and wealthy workers who administer government programs than about the programs’ recipients. The group that set out to use government to help the downtrodden and uplift the public’s interest has become the representatives of those who see the government as a golden meal ticket and who always put their own interests above those of the public.
We’re looking at a good old-fashioned ideological fight – one that could have statewide and even national implications. Are there any true progressives left in San Francisco who will side with Adachi and the poor over the demands of the comfortable and powerful? We shall see. Maybe we shall even overcome!
Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s www.calwatchdog.com journalism center