Walters: Incompetence Could Be GOP’s Opportunity
California’s ever-shrinking Republican Party will receive little, if any, good news from this year’s elections.
The inevitable question will once again rise: Could the GOP, which once dominated the state, ever regain relevance?
Probably not, but if there is any chance for revival, it wouldn’t be an ideological reversion but rather popular disgust with incompetent governance.
We’ve seen the seeds of such a revolt in the recent meltdowns of two state agencies that have personal contact with millions of Californians, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Employment Development Department (EDD).
Their chronic inability to provide rapid and efficient service — to simply do their jobs — has created boundless frustration and anger. Legislative hearings have been staged to allow venting, investigations have been ordered and Gov. Gavin Newsom has appointed “strike teams” to fix their problems or at least show concern.
Last week, EDD Director Sharon Hilliard symbolically walked the plank, announcing her retirement after nearly four decades in the department but only eight months in its top position.
But DMV and EDD are just two obvious examples of chronic failure.
Auditor Elaine Howle’s Staff Has Repeatedly Detailed the Failures of the State
Three days before Hilliard’s announcement, the state auditor’s office issued a highly critical report on the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s (DTSC) glacially slow cleanup of toxic lead wastes left behind in the closure of the Exide battery recycling facility in Southern California.
“In the early stages of its cleanup effort, DTSC identified 50 properties – including childcare centers, schools, and parks — where lead contamination posed a particularly high risk to children who frequently spend time at these locations,” the audit found. “Despite the risk these properties present, DTSC has yet to clean 31 of them. In fact, it has cleaned only one of these properties since May 2018.”
Moreover, the audit report continued, “The state has already provided $251 million to DTSC to complete the cleanup of the 3,200 most contaminated properties. However, we estimate that DTSC will exhaust this funding before cleaning 269 of these properties. Moreover, based on DTSC’s current spending rate, we estimate the total cost of the cleanup project will approach $650 million.”
Auditor Elaine Howle’s staff has repeatedly detailed the failures of the state to implement information technology that could improve the effectiveness of state agency services. Antiquated technology contributed mightily to the DMV and EDD crises.
There are broader examples of governmental failures weighing on California, such as the embarrassingly poor results in nationwide academic tests of the state’s six million K-12 public school students, blackout-causing gaps in electric power supply, and political gridlock on housing shortages and water supply.
With This Election Cycle Ending, Political Attention Will Shift to 2022
All of these issues predate Newsom’s governorship but he, unlike his predecessors, is prone to telling Californians that he can resolve them because, he implies, he’s more capable.
However, two years into his first term, Newsom had not demonstrated any particular ability to do so even before COVID-19 changed everything, and his handling of the pandemic has been uneven at best.
With this election cycle ending, political attention will shift to 2022, when voters presumably will decide whether Newsom deserves another term.
Businessman John Cox, Newsom’s Republican foe in 2018, is signaling that he wants a rematch, and San Diego’s outgoing Republican mayor, Kevin Faulconer, is implying that he may run.
Newsom still enjoys high approval ratings. However, if California’s governance shortcomings continue to mount, with more bureaucratic disasters like DMV, EDD and DTSC, with continued gridlock on such issues as water and housing, and with a stagnant economy, a Republican challenger just might have a longshot chance.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.