California, afflicted with huge budget deficits, stark inequalities in public school funding, and an unemployment rate hovering around 12 percent, has representative democracy. How's that going, particularly in Sacramento?
"I think it's still a fairly dysfunctional system," Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, says during a recent interview in a Santa Cruz Avenue coffee shop. During his campaign, Mr. Gordon had used "dysfunctional" to describe state government.
December marked the end of his first year in his first two-year term representing the 21st Assembly District, which includes Atherton, Woodside, Portola Valley and Menlo Park.
On navigating the dysfunction, Mr. Gordon appears to have been a quick study. Of the 19 bills he introduced in 2011, 16 made it to the governor's desk and 15 were signed into law — a success rate of 79 percent in an institution where 40 percent is typical, according to data from the Assembly's chief clerk.
It could be argued that Mr. Gordon had a leg up. The governor is a Democrat and Democrats have solid majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, but legislative records show just four of his bills in which floor votes broke along party lines.
No one in either house beat his rate of bills signed into law, he says. "I didn't overreach. I didn't try to do huge change in my first year," Mr. Gordon says when asked to explain.
Mr. Gordon says he plans to reach farther as his tenure in the Assembly goes on. Among his long-term targets for reform are the initiative process, term limits, relations between state and local government, and school funding, he says. Environmental protection is also high on his list, as reflected by seven of his 15 bills signed into law. Here are three of them:
• AB 512 increases incentives for local governments to use renewable energy projects to offset energy bills for local government buildings.
• AB 930 requires that the 11-member California Building Standards Commission include a commissioner who has experience and knowledge of sustainable practices in construction, design and operation of buildings.
• AB 1149 makes funds available to recycle used plastic beverage containers in California. The law might bring jobs to the state and reduce the 90 percent of the bottles — 250 million pounds of plastic — shipped to Asia every year.
Regarding state government overall, three major initiatives are likely to qualify for the November 2012 ballot, Mr. Gordon says.
• Civil rights attorney Molly Munger's initiative would implement a progressive income tax with the intent of increasing funding for public education.
• A group of policy leaders organized under the name Think Long are considering an initiative. They compare California's infrastructure, industry and financial reserves with those of China and predict a "trajectory of demise" for California if the state can't "break out of gridlock" and "show the way back to good governance."
• Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing higher income taxes on the rich and a half-cent sales tax increase.
If all three qualify, voters will reject them all, Mr. Gordon says, so the governor is trying to narrow the choices to prevent that from happening.
What makes him tick?
Mr. Gordon is thorough. Every bill introduced in the Assembly gets his attention, he says. He either reads it himself or has a staffer read it and brief him. Most of his ideas for bills come from his staff, he says.
He is also collaborative. Mr. Gordon made it a priority early on to meet every Assembly member one-on-one. "The value of the personal relationship is not to be overlooked," he says.
And he asked questions, including of old hands such as former Assembly speaker Willie Brown, who told him: "Talk to the Republicans. Nobody else does."
He did, and the results may have paid off. Mr. Gordon recalled a Republican phoning him to express support for a bill labeled "horrible" by the member's party. "I know you and this seems kind of reasonable. I don't think it's going to cost a ton of money," Mr. Gordon says the Republican told him.
"You don't need Republican votes," Mr. Gordon told the Almanac. "(But) if there isn't some kind of collaborative approach — and there isn't on some issues — the Republicans don't have much voice. I'm not sure that's the best thing. I think debate is healthy."