Town hall allows State Senator Josh Newman to engage opponents, fire up supporters

Directional sign on the west side of the Cypress Senior Center for the State Senator Josh Newman town hall on Saturday, July 15, 2017. Photo by C.E.H. Wiedel.

My understanding is that town halls are supposed to allow constituents to voice concerns, ask questions, and get answers in an informal and small-scale setting.

Cypress Mayor Paulo Morales and State Senator Josh Newman (D-CA29) talk together prior to the start of the town hall at the Cypress Senior Center on Saturday, July 15, 2017. Photo by C.E.H. Wiedel.

Cypress Mayor Paulo Morales and State Senator Josh Newman (D-CA29) talk together prior to the start of the town hall at the Cypress Senior Center on Saturday, July 15, 2017. Photo by C.E.H. Wiedel.

It’s not supposed to be a campaign rally.

From the viewpoint of State Senator Josh Newman (D-CA29), I would have to judge Saturday’s town hall a success. He presented himself well, had ready answers to questions raised, and enjoyed abundant support. Every statement he made was loudly applauded, especially by those in the front two rows reserved for staff and ardent supporters. (They were introduced as staff members, or were wearing Josh Newman labels similar to his campaign signs, or carried signs reading Josh Newman I’ve got your back.)

From the viewpoint of anyone not loudly applauding his every word, the town hall must have been frustrating and annoying.

He’s not a politician, he only plays one in Sacramento

Senator Newman claims not to be a politician, but he is adept at the political skill of deflecting blame. He’s new! All the problems existed before he went to Sacramento! He’s just trying to clean up a mess twenty-five years in the making!

He is equally skilled at claiming credit. For example, while he felt he had to vote for S.B. 1 (that’s the gas tax), by his own account he also made sure that ACA 5 will be on next June’s ballot. That’s a proposed amendment to the State Constitution to restrict the use of the funds raised by S.B. 1 to only transportation projects. ACA 5 shouldn’t be necessary if the governor and state legislature spent money more modestly.

(The “ACA” in front of the 5 stands for “Assembly Constitutional Amendment.” So it originated in the California Assembly. Senator Newman does not serve in the California Assembly. He voted for ACA 5 on April 6. Our local Assemblywoman, Sharon Quirk-Silva, also voted in favor of it.)

Progressive California politicians are fond of claiming that California has the sixth largest economy in the world. Setting aside the controversy over context (the state drops significantly in its ranking if cost-of-living is figured in), let’s all agree that, yes, California is an economic powerhouse.

So Sacramento should be rolling in dough, right? In fact, Sacramento is rolling in dough — the May revision to the Governor’s 2017-2018 proposed budget projects income of $126 billion.

May revision of the 2017-2018 California State budget. Graphic courtesy of the State of California.

May revision of the 2017-2018 California State budget. Graphic courtesy of the State of California.

But as with your own personal budget, what makes you broke is not the income (above a low level), it’s the outgo. And, boy, does the money flow out of Sacramento.

A modest challenge to Senator Newman (and his fellow Democrats): produce a list of expenditures that the State should cut. Produce a list of activities that the State just doesn’t do well, and should avoid trying to manage. Write down things that maybe, just maybe, should be left to non-State entities — you know, people and civic organizations and churches and non-profits and businesses.

Just asking.

Speaking in parables

Senator Newman addressed the question of the gas tax by telling a story. Imagine you’ve been elected president of your homeowner’s association and discover that prior board members were altogether lax about maintaining the common areas that everyone depends on. Fixes must be made! Maintenance can no longer be put off! So you roll up your sleeves… and raise HOA fees to cover the repair costs.

As a reporter, I duly noted his story. As a constituent, I bit my tongue. He never, at any time, brought up the possibility of reforming the budget — either the fictional HOA budget or the state budget. Under a reformed budget, the State would pay for what it ought to pay for, rather than high-speed trains or fetal stem cell research or college tuition for illegal immigrants or local street repair…

Incidentally, whenever S.B. 1 (a.k.a., the gas tax) came up, Senator Newman claimed that state infrastructure has been neglected for “twenty-five years.” What the heck, I looked it up. Twenty-five years ago was 1992, the second year of Pete Wilson’s governorship. Wilson was a Republican. After him came the lamentable Gray Davis (Democrat), the ineffective Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Return of Jerry Brown. Fifteen years were under a Republican governor, ten under a Democrat, and the last six under Jerry Brown, Democrat, who has shown more interest in thwarting global warming than in ensuring that California dams don’t collapse.

Questions, we have a few

I noticed something odd about the questions.

All questions were to be submitted in writing. A staff member read a question, and Senator Newman responded to it. (His supporters clapped after every answer. Loudly. Enthusiastically.)

The oddity was in how the questions were phrased. I do not know whether the oddity was in the questions as originally written (since I did not review the cards after they were submitted) or whether the oddity was introduced by the staff member reading the questions.

The oddity was that most every question asked referred to a specific piece of legislation by number. Most people simply don’t do that. They get angry over “the gas tax” not “S.B. 1.”

Open space, Los Alamitos Race Course, and State Senator Josh Newman

Senator Newman is proud of his support for preserving remaining open space in densely populated Southern California.

I will admit to a qualified “yay.” Growing up in Southern California, I can remember the vast open spaces of the inland valleys and Orange County. Part of me prefers that vast open space.

Another part bristles when a representative of the State of California promises to do everything in his power to block the development of the property that Los Alamitos Race Course sits on.

First, that’s an outsider poking his nose into what should be a local issue.

Second, it’s a government representative trying to assert control over private property. Yes, the property is zoned “public/semi-public.” That label represents its expected use, not its ownership.

If Josh Newman wants to butt in, he’d better be willing to pay market price to the property owners to turn Los Alamitos Race Course into a public park — and compensate the City of Cypress with a stream of revenue to make up for the lost sales taxes that the City is hoping will at least partially offset the screamingly scary mounting cost of public employee pensions (CalPERS).

Lots more

The town hall covered a lot of ground not included in this article. For instance, one question asked Senator Newman how he might “re-energize” S.B. 562 (a.k.a. single-payer health insurance).

To his credit, Senator Newman pointed out that the expected cost of the program would triple the current size of the State budget. He said that the State should wait until health care legislation currently in play in Washington, D.C., gets settled.

This response met with loud grumbling from quarters that were at other times supportive of his positions.

A couple of sustained loud outbursts from non-supporters in the audience, talking out of turn, kept operations from being entirely smooth.

Cypress Mayor Paulo Morales had a small number of opportunities to address topics, including whether the City would take advantage of funds through S.B. 1 and whether more could be done to manage the problem of homeless people.

Senator Newman also mentioned a law suit against him stemming from his ballot designation as an advocate for veterans. Since I have not had time to look into that in detail, I will have to wait until later to comment on it.

Transparency note

In opening remarks, Senator Newman offered some statistics about District 29.

He noted that it contains sixteen cities in three counties. (He did not mention that sprawling across three counties breaks one of the rules of district-drawing laid down for the so-called non-partisan redistricting committee* in 2011.)

He noted that the three largest ethnic divisions are Asian (28%), Caucasian (31.6%), and Hispanic (36.6%). (He did not explain how divisive it is to constantly emphasize ethnic divisions.)

He noted that Democrats (36%) outnumber Republicans (34%). A large number (23%) are unaffiliated.

Transparency note: I am unaffiliated. I did not vote for Josh Newman last November, nor for Sharon Quirk-Silva, because I think it is a bad idea for Democrats to revel in a legislative supermajority. When Jerry Brown is the State’s voice of fiscal sanity, we have real problems.

Update July 17, 2017

In this morning’s edition of the Orange County Register, columnist Martin Wisckol includes this item in his quick hits:

Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has awarded the voter-mandated California Citizens Redistricting Commission its 2017 Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government, which comes with a $100,000 prize “to support the replication and dissemination of the initiative.”

While several states are under fire for partisan gerrymandering of state and federal legislative districts, California has turned to an independent, nonpartisan panel to do the job since the 2000 census.

As far as I can see from California’s experience, the Citizens Redistricting Commission merely provides cover for gerrymandering that is bearing fruit in fewer and fewer conservatives at all levels of government in California.

Thus it makes sense that the blatantly progressive Kennedy School of Government at Harvard should support not-so-non-partisan efforts to see it spread nationwide.