Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




October 5 , 2007

The battle over Assemblymember Sandré Swanson’s AB45 Oakland school local control bill has gone inside, behind the locked doors of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office in the state capitol building in Sacramento, where all pretense at open government ends, and a polite, uniformed California Highway Patrol officer always guards the hallway entrance, keeping the public away.

How the governor deliberates while he’s considering whether to veto or sign any particular bill—who he talks to, which issues or facts he is considering and which ones he is leaving out—are one of California’s great secrets. Except where it accrues to his political advantage Mr. Schwarzenegger—as did his predecessors—almost never answers press questions, either before or after, about his reasoning to allow or not allow bills to become state law, and in the cases of vetoes, rarely, if ever, do the accompanying messages give us any special insight into what actually drove him in one direction, or the other.

So, since we are reduced to guessing, and one guess is as good as another, I’ll take a stab at it.

I think that political principle and considerations of public policy will have almost nothing to do with whether or not Mr. Schwarzenegger signs Mr. Swanson’s Oakland local school control bill, the issue, instead, to be determined by which one of the actions—signature or veto—will either gain or cost Mr. Schwarzenegger votes if and when he decides to run for the United States Senate.

Mr. Swanson’s bill is certainly not the swift return to local school control that Oakland deserves and most Oakland residents would like, but at least it takes such a return away from the whims and fancies of State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who once, we remember, served as the banker’s clerk who most recently tried to foreclose on large sections of Oakland Unified’s mortgaged property in order to pay the bank back the loan ahead of schedule. That sad, tawdry endeavor failed only as the result of the loud banging and clanging of pots and pans throughout Oakland, scaring Mr. O’Connell away.

Meanwhile, with Oakland Unified’s financial situation sinking progressively under Mr. O’Connell’s rapidly-increasing parade of appointed administrators (the district debt being considerably larger now than when the state first intervened), our Republican friends in Sacramento—like members of the old British parliament once did in regards to the American colonies and members of the later American Congress once did in regards to Africans held captive on Southern farms and plantations—have sought to justify the continued state occupation of the Oakland schools on the basis that they are all for the return of local control, only they want to make sure Oakland is “ready” for it.

Notable was Assemblymember Bill Maze, Republican of Visalia, who Katy Murphy and Steve Geissinger of the Oakland Tribune tell us said, during the final floor debate on Mr. Swanson’s bill, that said AB45 is “premature at this point. The state is ‘part way there’ in its effort to restore fiscal health and fix other Oakland school district problems. We're maybe 30 percent or 40 percent along the way. We're not over that mark where we can say we have a great degree of confidence in where you're taking this ship at this point.”

To which remark the chained Africans, having recently revolted and overpowered the crew of the old slave ship Amistad, might have answered, “we’ll take our chances, thank you. Considering where the captain was taking us, any change in direction looks good.”

There is no small irony, of course, in the people who attempt to manage local school districts throughout California being lectured by the people who sit in the state legislature. If a school district fails to properly manage its budget, it is subject to be seized by the state and shaken like a terrier shakes a rat. If the state legislature fails to properly manage its budget—well, actually, there doesn’t seem to be any consequences to the state legislature, either individually or collectively, if the budget is botched and held up for a month or more, as it was this year, while school districts and community colleges and the infirm and aged wonder when and if their payments will be made. The legislators simply go back to their respective districts, to be elected and re-elected, year upon year. As William Golding once explained in the point he was making in “The Lord Of The Flies,” yes, the adults in the Navy come in to rescue the boys on the island from their descent into violence and barbarism, but then, who is there left to come to rescue the adults in the Navy?

In democracies, such as we hold ourselves out to be, that source of succor is supposed to be the public, who can intervene with the power of the vote. Digging amongst all the arguments being made these days about why state control over Oakland Unified should remain for “a little while longer,” however, all mention of the Oakland public is pointedly absent except when, as in the above-mentioned Tribune article, we are lectured by AB45 opponents that Mr. Swanson’s bill was “engineered mostly to appease angry constituents of Swanson's district.” As if a legislator following the will of his constituents is a bad thing, and that the Republican legislators who oppose AB45 are not doing it, largely, because Oakland is such an easy target, and holding Oakland’s feet to the fire plays well to their Republican constituents in their largely-Republican districts.

And that, as we said earlier, takes AB45 out of the area of principle—where it never actually resided, except rhetorically—and into the area of politics.

And the political question is, will Mr. Schwarzenegger gain or lose more votes if he runs for the United States Senate by signing or vetoing AB45?

Answering the gaining part is easy. Although signing AB45 would be a popular move for Mr. Schwarzenegger in Oakland, it is not his bill, he was never the moving force behind it, and though many Oakland voters would be grateful, it stretches the imagination to believe that any would use that as the basis to vote for the governor over, say, Barbara Boxer when she runs for re-election in 2010, or Diane Feinstein (or any other Democratic party nominee, should Ms. Feinstein decide not to run again) two years later.

The entire Republican side of the equation is even easier; Mr. Schwarzenegger with neither win nor lose Republican votes, regardless of what he does on AB45. While opposition to the bill is popular among Republican legislators—scarcely a one of them voted for it, after all—it is hardly a big issue in Republican districts, and will likely be long obscured by other issues by the time the U.S. Senate race comes along. Even if Mr. Schwarzenegger signs the bill and Oakland’s education system were to completely collapse following the return of local control, the governor and his handlers would correctly point to the fact that AB45 does not automatically confer such local control, but gives the responsibility of deciding when Oakland is “ready” to the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT). Mr. Schwarzenegger’s hands would be clean.

The one area where signing or vetoing AB45 could have any effect on Mr. Schwarzenegger’s future California political prospects is in Oakland—if the governor vetoes the bill, the consequences from Oakland voters could be severe.

At first, this might seem like an odd position to take, since Oakland is one of the most liberal-progressive cities in California, where Republicans traditionally get a lower percentage of the vote in statewide election.

But the question if and when Mr. Schwarzenegger runs for another statewide office is: how pissed off will Oakland voters be about him, and how much will they go out of their way to promote the governor’s defeat? This “negative factor” is no small matter in political calculations.

To date, no politician has suffered in Oakland because of their collusion in the state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District. State Senator Don Perata, former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, former California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Alameda County School Superintendent Sheila Jordan, and former Assemblymember Wilma Chan—each of whom had a hand, larger or smaller, in stirring the takeover pot—have all been on the ballot since that time, with no apparent Oakland consequences.

But that may change.

Oakland being Oakland, there was always a vocal minority who actively opposed the state takeover, fighting against it at every turn. But while it is doubtful that a majority of Oakland residents supported the state takeover when it originally occurred in 2003, most residents—particular parents of school-age children—probably saw it as impossible to quickly overturn, kept quiet, and tried to accommodate themselves to the new situation under state control.

But that attitude took a noticeable change last year and this following the revelations that State Superintendent Jack O’Connell had long been secretly negotiating with east coast developers for the sale of OUSD’s administrative headquarters and five adjoining schools. Even former state administrator Randy Ward opposed that sale, a position that the East Bay Express’s Bob Gammon contends cost Ward his job. Mr. O’Connell’s proposed sale, in fact, invoked a rare political unity in Oakland, with all eight members of the Oakland City Council, all but one member of the OUSD school board, and the members of the Peralta Community College District all officially announcing their opposition. The deal collapsed of its own weight.

At the same time, public opinion in Oakland against the continued state takeover has appeared to enlarge and stiffen as the district has gone through three administrators in a matter of months—the last one on an interim basis, so we might soon see four—and various local media outlets have begun to publish what many local education activists have long known, that the district’s financial situation has worsened under state control, rather than gotten better, as was promised.

State Superintendent O’Connell—the immediate holder of the dungeon keys—has been the first and steadiest recipient of the resultant Oakland anger. If he runs for California governor in the 2010 Democratic primary, it is difficult to see how he could campaign Oakland without facing demonstrations, and his chances of pulling more than a smattering of Oakland votes seems nil.

One of the considerations facing Mr. Schwarzenegger in a veto of AB45, thus affirmatively keeping Mr. O’Connell in the position of imprisoning Oakland democratic rights at his whim and will, is whether or not it is worth the chance that in three years, Oakland residents and voters will forget.