If you want to serve the people of California, is public office the best place for you?
The question came up again as one of our most accomplished state legislators, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, resigned her seat to take a leadership role at the California Labor Federation, a powerful alliance of unions.
Gonzalez, best known for legislation regulating freelance work, had different reasons for leaving, from redistricting to her health. But there’s also this: She will have more power to shape California’s future in the labor movement than in the Legislature.
That’s because, in California, much of our governing power lies outside the government. Over generations, California has constructed a complicated governing system that prizes limiting the power of our public officials. Interest groups then fill the void, writing legislation themselves, and sponsoring ballot measures that impose their preferred formulas on taxation and spending.
Our representatives are left with little discretion and less control over state dollars than we imagine. And when politicians create a new program, they often must seek donations from companies, philanthropies, or individuals. Gov. Gavin Newsom has secured more than $200 million in such donations to support COVID relief and commissions on climate change and aging.
This state of affairs can be frustrating for the most creative and public-spirited minds in public office, who earnestly seek to use their offices to get things done. Add that to the increasing threats against public officials and the relatively lower pay of their jobs, and is it any wonder that accomplished public servants are open to better offers?
Even California Supreme Court Isn’t Immune to Departures
The departures come not just among the legislative branch’s term-limited members. For me, the most noteworthy resignation came last fall, when California Supreme Court justice Tino Cuellar departed.
Why leave a seat on a court seen as second in influence only to the U.S. Supreme Court? Cuellar was thriving in the job, But the justice, a 49-year-old legal and international affairs scholar previously at Stanford, agreed to become president of a leading international think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The post offers not just higher pay than state service, but the possibility of making a greater impact. A state supreme court is limited to the California cases that come before it. At Carnegie, Cuellar can work to address a tsunami of global challenges crashing down on all of humanity — from climate change to economic inequality, and from mass migration to technological disruption. And he doesn’t even have to leave California to do it. Carnegie is opening a Silicon Valley office.
Swearengin and Tubbs Unlikely to Return to Politics
Unfortunately, the most skilled politicians in some of our neediest places no longer hold public office. Take the San Joaquin Valley, where two former mayors and huge political talents, Ashley Swearengin of Fresno and Michael Tubbs of Stockton, seem unlikely to return to elected seats.
Swearengin did so well in her two terms as mayor of Fresno that Gavin Newsom publicly expressed relief when she decided not to seek the governorship in 2018. She opted for philanthropy instead. She leads the Central Valley Community Foundation, where she spearheads one of the smartest community investment efforts in the state, Fresno DRIVE (Developing the Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy). She also co-chairs the California Forward Leadership Council, which works to improve the state’s regional economies.
Put those roles together, and Swearengin looks like a public official without public office: the unofficial governor of the undeclared state of San Joaquin Valley.
Tubbs, elected Stockton mayor at age 26, was voted out after one term. But his record in office was so strong — including an innovative basic income program — that Newsom gave him a job and Macmillan a book contract. Tubbs, with a powerful poor-kid-to-Stanford personal story, would be a strong contender for any California elected position.
But Tubbs writes in a memoir, The Deeper the Roots, that holding political office could be a distraction from serving the public.
“I was often too busy with reality to worry about politics,” he writes. Now he prefers building a new social movement — to end poverty in California — to campaigning. In this, Tubbs is following the new conventional wisdom that social movements are better at moving public policy than politicians.
“I enjoyed my eight years in local politics,” Tubbs recently told a journalist. “But I’m enjoying even more not being an officeholder.”
California Needs Talented People in Public Office
Such comments may seem self-serving. But as tempting as it is to rail against public officials as a class — as Californians are prone to do — we ought to remember that the excellent public servants have other, better options than taking our abuse.
It’s a problem when politics become too dull or demoralizing for politicians. California and its governments can’t succeed if our most talented leaders conclude that serving in public office is not the best way to serve the public.
About the Author
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.