Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Letter from California- The Quiet Power of Democracy

I walked across the hilly park across the street from my house this morning to a small building made of river rocks that was built during the depression. This is my local polling place, and today, it was busier than I’ve ever seen it. A micro traffic jam swirled around the place, and the line to check in to pick up the little paper ballot to punch was longer than usual.

Besides that, it felt the same. The same musty smell hung in the air, and I recognized the faces of some of the poll workers. I took the same archaic punch pin on a chain and made sure to avoid hanging chads. When I turned the ballot in, the poll worker handed me a little “I Voted” sticker for my lapel and stuck one on my 5-year old son’s school sweater. As always, I marveled at the mystery and glory of democracy. The people in this room, and thousands of others like it around California, were going to make an important decision today. The power was all theirs.

But tonight, as the returns came in, it felt as though something more than usual was happening. Not being a fan of Gray Davis, I had no heartbreak over seeing him leave office, but I did have some sympathy. After 20 years of public service, Gray got a pink slip from 35 million Californians, and it wasn’t even close. Worse than losing a normal election, it had to be humiliating.

As they flashed the picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger onto the screen with the words “Governor Elect” next to them, I finally got it. We, the people of California, had just done something big. Good or bad. Right or wrong. The course of the history of the state just changed at the hands of a lot of angry voters. I thought to myself as the numbers went way lopsided in Arnold’s favor that maybe this was how a peaceful revolution felt when it was happening.

It’s a little frightening when you think about that many people being so angry and not being afraid to do something about it. Californians wanted a change, right now, and they got it. It went across gender lines and ethnicity. Even a substantial percentage of Democrats voted to get rid of Davis. A lot of the opponents of the recall seemed to recognize this in the news coverage tonight. Perhaps they expected a “No” victory, but not a landslide. Art Torres, the firebrand head of the California Democratic party, congratulated Republicans and seemed very cautious in saying anything negative, bitter or angry. The voice of the people, when expressed this clearly, has a calm and menacing authority in it.

I’m optimistic about Governor Schwarzenegger. Yes, he’s an amateur politician with no experience in elected office, but, of course, he’ll have at his disposal the smartest and hardest-working experts in the world. He’s got a good track record as a successful executive, and has demonstrated that he knows how to succeed. He’s where most Californians are on social issues: in favor of abortion under some circumstances; tolerant of gays; in favor of some kinds of gun control; and not crazy about paying state taxes that makes it seem like a second country is taking its share of our income.

On the other hand, I respect those who didn’t want it to come out this way. Almost 9 out of 20 voters wanted Davis to stay, and since he hasn’t committed any crimes and was duly elected less than a year ago, that’s a reasonable position. Almost a third of us wanted the Lieutenant Governor to take his place, should the Governor be removed, and there’s a strong logic to that as well. Short of those who voted for Gary Coleman, everybody has my respect. It was a big decision, and for all the insanity, we Californians handled it with our usual fearless exuberance.

There is one other group that I can’t respect, and they are those who now wish Governor Schwarzenegger to fail. Some people are angry at the anger. They don’t think it’s fair that Davis should have had to defend himself at this point, and some of them will channel that anger into the hope that Arnold will not be able to do a good job. They hope Schwarzenegger will not rise to the challenge of office, because that will bring their political party advantage sometime down the road. I hope these people are few in number and I hope they don’t get their wish.

It is too early to say whether the outcome of this election is good crazy or bad crazy, but our nation loses when California isn’t at its best, and right now, we’re pretty far from that.

If we all work together, though, that could change, and in the words of our soon to be Governor, we’ll be back.


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