State voters did the right thing

June 11, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — Several years ago, Fullerton Councilman Dick Jones cornered me at a political event, asked my opinion on the use of eminent domain by city governments, then began to lecture me about the value of giving government officials the power to push private property owners off their land on behalf of economic development projects. Since then, I’ve watched in amusement as Jones pontificated in his Texas drawl on one foolish thing after another.

There was the time he opposed a building project simply because he didn’t like its design, explaining that, as a plastic surgeon, he knows beauty. Here was a man who knew no limits on government power, who for years ruled the council based on personal edicts and his strange take on the world.

As you can imagine, I cheered when he was bounced from office in a historic recall Tuesday. Two other recalled councilmen — pension-spiking former police chief Pat McKinley, who defended abusive cops charged in the death of an unarmed homeless man, and “disabled” police officer Don Bankhead, who went along with virtually every tax-hiking, big-spending scheme on the council — had been in leadership positions so long they acted as if their prerogatives were the same as those of city residents.

The best the establishment Republican backers of this buffoonish trio could come up with was to charge that a local businessman, Tony Bushala, was trying to buy the council because he spent $200,000 to spearhead the recall campaign. But the reason for the defeat of Bankhead, Jones and McKinley, and one that ushers in what other observers have called the most libertarian city council in Orange County, was not the campaign cash, helpful as that was to the cause.

The reason was the clear issue that emerged and that these council members failed to grasp. After the brutal beating of Kelly Thomas — mostly recorded by a city surveillance camera, which forms the heart of the district attorney’s case against two of the police officers — the council majority went on TV, downplaying the incident, supporting the authorities, stating that they had no idea what actually killed Thomas. Jones was true to form, comparing his city’s angered citizens to a lynch mob.

‘Failure to lead’

A campaign-sign slogan captured the essence of the recall: “Failure to lead.” And the final hit mailer against the buffoons focused on the absurd city-worker compensation packages that exploded during their watch, reinforcing that these officials were not leading the city, but following the demands of union workers.

It was time for a change, and the pension-abuse issue, bolstered by these leaders’ duck-and-cover routine after the Thomas killing, was enough to spark the recall. They were bounced by nearly 2-1 margins, so it wasn’t a fluke. And the ground had been plowed by Bushala and his merry band of local-minded libertarians, thanks to their Friends for Fullerton’s Future blog. Granted, the three soon-to-be-ex-council members provided plenty of side-splitting fodder.

But the blog set the stage, using publicly available video to expose and mock what the city’s leaders did every week in council chambers. The bloggers — none of them professional writers — used humor to highlight the not-so-funny way the council majority mismanaged the city.

My favorite story: After Jones went on some tirade in which he misspoke and referred to a nonexistent country of Kharakastan, the Fullerton’s Future bloggers penned an apology to Jones, explaining that he was right, and they were wrong. There really is such a country, they explained, and they linked to a Wikipedia entry they created that listed Kharakastan’s most popular attractions.

I laughed hysterically but sensed that the city’s leaders were none too amused by the satire.

Model for agitators

Just as Jon Stewart’s wonderful “Daily Show” on cable provides useful news presented with a dose of humor, this blog — and other successful ones across the country — did the same thing. Previously, few people paid attention to the goings-on in Fullerton. Now everyone does, and the group has provided a model for other local agitators who want to take matters in their own hands and exert some control in their own cities. Other localities might not have a local businessman willing to fork over that kind of cash to pay for a recall, but blogs and lower-cost political activism can produce real results.

Other elections Tuesday also reflected voters’ moments of clarity. In Wisconsin, like California, another liberal state with a long progressive tradition, a Republican governor became the first in the nation to survive a recall, and the union recall activists appear to have gained only one seat they targeted in the state Senate. The liberal media depicted Walker’s victory as close, but it was closer to a blowout because the issue was framed as a reform-minded governor versus the union special interests that are concerned more about themselves than public service.

In two major California cities, the news was similar. In San Jose, a liberal mayor and a liberal council put a far-reaching pension-reform measure on the ballot and it passed with 70 percent of the vote, because they made the election a clear choice. In San Diego, a reform-minded councilman got top spot in the mayor’s race, and pension reform and an anti-union-only contracting measure also passed with flying colors.

If the choice is clear, the voting public often knows what to do. The bad news: Union ally Todd Spitzer, who helped ignite a bonanza of public-employee pension-spiking in Orange County as a county supervisor about a decade ago, won back a seat on the board, but even he had to profess support for pension reform.

All in all, a great election, and a blueprint for the future.

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