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Demo Sale 

The party's leaders are putting their lack of ethics on display once again

Wednesday, Dec 19 2007

Proverbs 16:19 — "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall"—is more than a biblical verse. It's a political axiom.

In 1980, Willie Brown became Assembly speaker and flamboyantly ratcheted up Sacramento's pay-to-play tradition. The Democrats soon lost the governorship, but clung to their control of the Legislature through gerrymandering.

At the end of 1991, Senator Alan Cranston, then the dean of California Democrats, was reprimanded as the worst of the Keating Five payola peddlers. His party couldn't shake the image of entrenched sleaze, and in 1993, Republicans took Congress.

In 2001, Democratic legislators, with the help of lobbyists for PG&E and Southern California Edison, crafted a campaign-finance-fueled electricity meltdown. A devastating recall election soon followed.

In 2004, Willie Brown ended his career in humiliation as San Francisco voters became disgusted at his patronage-based politics.

In 2006, former rainmaker Jack Abramoff became the symbol of a storm of Republican Party corruption, sexual impropriety, and pork-barrel spending scandals, helping Democrats retake Congress.

This cycle is inevitable, because of all political narratives — "Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them. And when they heard it, they were glad, and promised to give him money" — Mark 14:10 is the most powerful and unmistakable.

The cycle of betrayal and perdition seems poised to turn again. California Democrats are in real peril in the face of serious campaigns to end the party's gerrymandering privileges and redistribute the state's electoral college votes to benefit Republicans. Yet the state's two most powerful Democrats, Fabian Nunez and Don Perata, seem every month to make new headlines sneering at charges of party corruption. And kingpins in San Francisco, long the home of the California party's power epicenter, seem to brush aside accusations of patronage, misuse of funds, and other misdeeds as if they were politically irrelevant.

Are our political leaders dying to meet their maker?

Earlier this month at a political old-timers' confab, Willie Brown fondly recalled his old backroom-dealing days and complained about how transparency impedes political judgment, according to Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag.

These sentiments are nothing new for Brown, who was speaking at a dinner hosted by San Francisco's Public Policy Institute. But he was giving voice to a recent spirit of brazenness among California Democrats, who seem to be in a mood to scoff at the same message of public integrity that allowed their party to take the U.S. Congress. State Democratic leaders seem to be dipping into the public trough to reward friends; looking the other way as their allies' misdeeds go unpunished; and defending, rather than objecting to, the kind of pork-barrel deals that repeatedly give politicians a bad name.

This kind of haughty spirit comes at a dangerous time, as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger continues supporting a potential ballot initiative that would end Democrats' gerrymandering rights. The movement has the support of the League of Women Voters of California, California Common Cause, and the AARP. Schwarzenegger is also backing another political time bomb, the so-called Presidential Election Reform Act, which, if it succeeds on June's primary, would change California's ability to throw all of its 55 electoral college votes behind a likely Democratic presidential candidate. Some 20 such votes would likely go to a Republican and could possibly swing the election.

No worries, state Democrats' behavior seems to say.

Examples of how sleazy business gets done in Sacramento always abound. But lately, things are seeming downright profane. The leaders of the state Democratic Party seem to be painting themselves as caricatures of political sleaze.

Assembly Speaker Fabio Nunez is the lead spokesman for a term-limits-extension ballot initiative whose campaign kitty has served as a tollbooth for corporate interests with business before the Legislature. He's been caught by the LA Times skirting finance laws by routing corporate money through charities to his own campaign events. He has spent months leading negotiations for a healthcare-reform package that seems severely tilted to serve medical business interests — at a time when his wife's salary is paid by a hospital-industry-funded nonprofit.

In an e-mail responding to a recent column in which I criticized apparent backroom dealing to pass the healthcare measure, Nunez spokesman Steven Maviglio defended the proposal as being tough on medical providers and insurance companies. Nunez has "been fighting for his healthcare bill for a year," Maviglio wrote.

Nunez might do well to also fight for his party's survival by cleaning up his own act.

Then there's the piece of work that is State Senate leader Don Perata, the subject of an extended FBI investigation into his alleged habit of using his position to benefit friends such as Alameda developer Ron Cowan. Seemingly undeterred by FBI scrutiny, Perata recently jammed through the state Legislature a bill that creates a new $250 million bureaucracy to oversee Bay Area ferry service. According to a recent East Bay Express column by Robert Gammon, the bill appears poised to guarantee Cowan, a Perata financial backer, heavily subsidized curbside ferry service to a Cowan-owned real-estate development on Alameda.

When I spoke with Perata press aide Alicia Trost last week, she denied that the bill was a sop to Cowan. But this entailed having to explain away his roles in both the bill's creation and as its main potential beneficiary.

"Ron Cowan is actually a well-qualified person to discuss ferries and how they work in the Bay Area," she said. "We've always said with the Vallejo ferry, the Alameda ferry, we don't want to cut back on ay service. We want all riders to know the ferry they catch is still going to be there."

Bit players abound in the California Democrats' performance of Rome Before the Fall. Many are caught up in the morass of details around one of the biggest pieces of political patronage in America: the Central Subway rail transit boondoggle in San Francisco connecting the Giants ballpark to Chinatown.

This $1.25 billion pork-barrel spending project is closely associated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has pulled strings to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to keep it rolling toward fruition. Most transit analysts say it's a massive waste of money that could be used to far greater benefit elsewhere. But it's seen as deeply important to Chinatown merchants, who control enough votes to swing elections for city and state officials. The subway project continues despite mounting evidence that its financial projections are based on smoke and mirrors.

According to Gerald Cauthen, an Oakland transportation consultant who specializes in Bay Area rail projects, the subway project's backers have reached a new level of dishonesty by claiming that, once completed, it will save the transit system money. According to a new environmental impact report conducted by the city's transport agency, the Central Subway would help cut costs because the new rail line would be cheap to maintain, and because it would divert current bus and rail passengers to a new, efficient, underground rail line. Cauthen dismissed these claims as hogwash.

The subway project's environmental impact report appears to be the latest in a united effort by local and national Democratic officials to rig data to hide the fact that it violates federal guidelines and universal sensibilities regarding effective government spending. According to Cauthen, the report contains misleading estimates of the completed project's costs to the city's public transport system once it's up and running.

As I've noted before, Pelosi helped lead the Democrats' retaking of Congress by saying she'd help end pork-barrel spending. By Cauthen's reckoning, the Central Subway's backers try to stick to this promise by fudging the numbers. "I uncovered an astounding array of cost and operational defects, most all of which are presented in a manner designed to obfuscate," he said. "Virtually none of the key impacts of the project are presented in a fair and credible way. I frankly could hardly believe what I was reading."

MTA spokesman Alan Siegel said city officials will study Cauthen's criticisms, which were submitted in writing earlier this month. Siegel said the study's fiscal estimates follow state and federal guidelines for transit projects.

In left-wing San Francisco, where "mainstream Democrat" means the same as "conservative," readers are likely to follow the state party's transgressions with a smirk. Local left-wing progressives, it's widely believed, map the clearest route to public integrity. Until, that is, you note our local lefties' blood-marriage to medical marijuana vendors, some of whom exist by dint of preposterous medical claims, business dealings with drug-trafficking criminals, and money-laundering schemes.

Just as laughable from a public integrity perspective is the local progressive faction's latest cause celèbre: the defense of compromised political hack Susan Leal. Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed her to run the multibillion-dollar Public Utilities Commission, a position for which she had no experience, after she dropped out of the mayor's race and endorsed him. Newsom recently moved to dismiss Leal. Progressives cried foul, and five left-leaning supervisors introduced an amendment to the city's charter that would tie the mayor's hands in appointing public utilities commissioners, presumably to punish Newsom for attempting to fire Leal.

Leal, as it happens, is the last person you would imagine to be a paragon of effective public service. She's a former director of SFO Enterprises, a secretive private corporation used between 1997 and 2005 by a group of city bureaucrats to siphon some $2 million into a scheme to privatize the airports of Honduras. When I asked Leal some years ago for her files on the corporation — which she was obliged by state and local sunshine laws to show me — she refused. When I asked her about her involvement in the SFO Enterprises scheme at a public event several years ago, she misrepresented the company's activities. And now, irony of ironies, Leal is being heralded by progressives as a symbol for competence and integrity.

If things keep moving in this direction, Democrats, including members of their San Francisco left-wing progressive peanut gallery, may be forced to observe yet another political axiom, otherwise known as Proverbs 16:19: "Better it is to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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