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The Migden Chronicles 

One of the last standing Democrats writes the treatment for a flick in which a befuddled sci-fi hero helps California to a better future

Wednesday, Oct 29 2003
Dozens of cadavers lie piled in the rutted grass. One body stirs. Then another. Several push their torsos from the mud. It's unclear whether they've been killed, or they've just awakened from a dream. A few make it to their feet and stare blankly toward Sacramento.

Curious as to what happens next in this scene, I met last week at the SFMOMA cafe for a chat with One of the Last California Dems Left Standing, state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden. Migden, a former San Francisco supervisor, was until last year the all-powerful head of the state Assembly's Appropriations Committee. She's the likely replacement next year for John Burton, termed-out majority leader of the state Senate, where she would be one of the most connected and experienced members, making her a likely ringleader of legislative battles to come.

Initially, we had agreed to watch and then discuss the sci-fi movie Total Recall, starring Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I did my part, watching the video over the weekend. Migden's staff did its part, renting the movie, watching snippets of it during breaks, printing out a synopsis, and presenting it to the boss. Migden did not do her part.

"I kind of turned it on, saw something blow up, and kind of had a surmise of the kind of filmic illusion the governor-elect has in store for our state. I just wasn't constitutionally able to watch more," she said by way of excuse.

Migden made it to our appointment anyway. And after two hours of discussing the future of California politics, I realized she had done something even better than watch Hollywood's version of Total Recall. She'd drafted her own treatment, a dream-within-a-dream sci-fi flick in which committed rebels take back the planet from usurping overlords.

Migden's account mixes comedy, tragedy, a fanciful narrative arc, and a deadly serious subtext -- much like this summer's recall campaign. But in the end of this tale, California comes out OK. And that makes it a story I desperately wish to believe.

Schwarzenegger and his right-wing foil, state Sen. Tom McClintock, enlivened the campaign trail with stories about California's 1960s glory days. But back when we were building Space Age water and energy systems, the world's best schools, and futuristic infrastructure projects such as BART, we were a high-tax state -- No. 10 in the nation in taxing our citizenry.

During the one-third century of decline that ensued, Republicans controlled the governor's office two-thirds of the time. We're now about 20th in the rank of high-tax states when one accounts for California's relatively low university fees. Many of our counties are so poor they can't afford dog pounds or libraries. The most vivid symbol of California-style opportunity -- our once-enviable junior college system -- is overcrowded, run-down, and increasingly housed in ticky-tacky portable buildings and abandoned grammar schools. California's permanent gap between revenues and expenditures still sits at around $10 billion per year; cut the car tax, as Schwarzenegger has promised, and it's $14 billion. Republicans say they'll fix our problems without tax increases. What they're promising, tacitly, is decades more of California decline.

Myself, I'd like to cling to some sort of hope -- a Hollywood fantasy even.

To hear Migden's telling, the future has a sweet tinge to it. If the wiliest, most patient, and skilled of Democrats simply bide their time, events may play into their hands. Before anyone realizes what has happened, Democrats will have risen anew. They'll be more powerful than ever, without the stodgy, passionless, poll-driven Gray Davis weighing them down. They'll be working with a moderate, independent-minded governor who's not really all that interested in battling for mean-spirited Republican principles.

"Long term, do I think there's a prospect of hopefulness?" Migden asked rhetorically, before launching her elevator pitch. "Yeah, I do."

Scene 1: (Schwarzenegger sits alone in the governor's office. Gray Davis' old, abandoned polling reports litter the floor. The new governor opens and closes all the drawers in his desk, gets up and straightens a photograph of Ronald Reagan on the wall, turns and strolls to a window, gazes at the Capitol grounds a moment, then heads down to the Capitol lunch room and reads the Sacramento Bee comics section.)

Schwarzenegger (to himself): "The people want action. I want action."

Scene 2: (Schwarzenegger's still in the cafeteria. He glances forlornly at an attractive legislative aide who walks by. His face strains as if he wants to say something. But he's silent. He wrings his hands, then stares at them.)

Schwarzenegger (to himself): "I'm The Terminator. I'm The Running Man. He's The Predator. This is Total Recall. I'm The Terminator. I'm The Running Man. He's The Predator. This is Total Recall. I'm The Terminator. I'm The Running Man. He's The Predator."

Carole Migden, voice-over narration: "We've got right now, tomorrow, some problems, and suddenly he's talking about commuting home every night, keeping his kids in Brentwood schools. That's not the easiest approach to being the chief executive of the biggest state in the union. You kind of think he kind of thought it was fun to run, and, like Robert Redford in The Candidate, he says, 'Oh my God, what do we do now?' I kind of think that must be part of waking up to victory."

Scene 3: (Schwarzenegger's team completes the audit he called for on the campaign trail. Though highly serious-sounding on its face -- the word "audit" conjures images of green eyeshades, scowling accountants, discovery, scandal, renewal, redemption -- the Schwarzenegger version amounts to a delay tactic, allowing the new governor time to realize what he's gotten himself into. Three months later, Schwarzenegger is in the cafeteria. He has befriended the fry chef, Pavel, who listens intently across the table.)

Schwarzenegger: "I'm The Terminator. I'm The Running Man. He's The Predator. This is Total Recall. I'm The Terminator ...."

Narrator: "Really the audit's a long stall, because we're the most audited state in the union, you know. There isn't one thing we don't know that you couldn't get right now from the legislative analyst or anybody else. But if that's what the governor-elect wants, of course he'll be accommodated. So he'll be given a couple of months."

Scene 4: (Shift to an underground hideaway, where thousands of jumpsuit-clad Democratic operatives scurry from one tunnel to another in futuristic golf carts. They're preparing the Budget Accountability Act, a proposition slated for the March ballot that would reduce from two-thirds to 55 percent the majority required to pass a state budget in the Legislature. Under the current two-thirds requirement, a minority of conservative Republicans has typically held out for budgets with no tax increases. At first glance the measure appears outgunned by the anti-tax sentiment that boosted Schwarzenegger to power. But the Democrats have a secret weapon; they'll turn the logic of Schwarzenegger's victory upon itself.)

Rick Wathen, political coordinator of the California State Employees Association, standing before a large underground map of California dotted with five different colors of pushpins, explaining the sci-fi logic of his plan: "When we had a Democratic governor, of course this would have been seen as a measure to raise taxes," Wathen says. Now that there's a Republican governor who has the option of vetoing budgets, he explains, voters will see giving more budgeting power to Democratic legislators as a reasonable option.

Migden voice-over: "It's right now almost November. Schwarzenegger is going to take over in mid-November. Then it'll be Christmas. By January, he's going to present a new budget. I don't think he wants to orchestrate a fiscal fiasco. The ballot initiative for 55 percent approval of the budget is up in March. Chances are that passes, so you can roll it in, and the governor-elect can say, 'It wasn't my idea, but it was the will of the voters and the people.' If there's only 55 percent approval for budget authorization, it will make it easier for Democrats to prevail and make it less likely that Republicans can oppose certain fiscal enhancements.

"My guess is, Schwarzenegger can punt the issue. I guess what I'm trying to say [is], I think there will be a little short-term eclipse."

Scene 5: (The eclipse ends. Light shines everywhere. Golf carts filled with jumpsuited Democrats stream to the planet's surface. The Democrats pass a bill repealing parts of Proposition 13, returning greater taxing authority to counties. They pass environmental legislation stronger than anything Gray Davis would have signed. They repeal the Three Strikes law. The junior college system is re-funded, as are the state's primary schools and universities. Democrats remove their jumpsuits, revealing the suits, ties, blouses, and skirts of politicians boldly in control. They abandon their golf carts. To celebrate, they all order state-issued Cadillacs.)

Fade to dark.

Interview filmed with Migden for DVD Making Of video segment.

Migden (sitting at table in SFMOMA cafe): "I think he's a fairly Democratic guy, don't you, really? In other words, his policy and approach won't be so different from Gov. Davis'. I don't expect much departure. Whereas Davis may have been the most conservative of Democrats -- or the most cautious, I should say -- I expect the new governor will kind of be a moderate-to-lib kind of Republican, what with his movie star background and his Kennedy affiliation. So I don't see, you know, a great reversal -- at least I don't project one."

(Migden leans forward slightly. She's wearing faded jeans, and a blouse that fits close, but not tight. Her blond hair is wound in tight ringlet curls. Schwarzenegger may even be an improvement over Davis, she suggests.)

Migden: "In some ways, yeah, I think it could be improved. You know this last governor didn't ever parole anybody. This last governor was absolutely adamant and unopen to some kind of more progressive approaches with law enforcement issues, and I dare say Schwarzenegger will have the self-confidence to depart from some highly cautious positions Davis took. Davis polled and polled and hesitated to a fault. I think Arnold will get an idea, get his gumption, and do something. I don't know -- we'll see. I wouldn't necessarily conclude there might not be some openings for the kinds of things we are looking to do."

Scene 6: (Migden exits the SFMOMA cafe. She chats a few moments more with her interviewer, says goodbye, turns toward the parking garage, and takes six bouncing steps forward. Without breaking stride she twists her body a half turn, and her head a full turn back.)

Migden: "I love you."

(She continues on her way.)

Camera pans from Migden in a shot whose perspective rockets skyward, taking in first the South of Market neighborhood, then the city, then the state, before fading to credits.

Optimistic music plays in the background.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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