TAMPA, Fla. — Californians typically embrace the notion that their state is so special that the normal rules don’t necessarily apply there. With population centers far from other states, and a climate and geographic variety unmatched throughout the nation, California residents don’t often seek political or other advice from beyond their borders.
As writer John McFarland put it, Californians “make few friends with their catalogues of grandeur: the economy that outranks Italy’s; the kitchens in which popular culture is cooked up and the skills at orchestrating national trends, all of this privileged by an asserted immunity from the demands history makes on more mundane beings.”
Yet the demands of history — a struggling economy, a coming wave of municipal bankruptcies, dysfunctional government services, and a union-dominated Legislature that has resisted, until this week, any semblance of pension reform — are taking their toll. It’s the rare Californian who denies that the state is gripped by some level of fiscal crisis, even if it’s even rarer to find widespread agreement among Californians on how to fix the problems.
The situation has become so dire that on Monday morning, at the St. Pete Beach, Fla., hotel where California’s Republican delegation is staying through this week’s GOP national convention, a large crowd boisterously applauded as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie assured us that we should cling to hope here in the Golden State.
What a bizarre turn of events. I grew up in Morrisville, Pa., across the Delaware River from New Jersey, but close enough to the Garden State to smell its factories. A main bridge across the river still sports a large sign with these words, “Trenton Makes, The World Takes.” We all thought the sign was ironic given how rough a town Trenton was in the 1970s, and how little the city now makes.
New Jersey isn’t nearly as bad of a state as critics make it out to be. But while Californians define our locales by, say, proximity of our homes to the Pacific Coast, the redwood forests, the Mojave Desert or the Sierras, New Jerseyans refer to their community by the number of the exit they live off of from the Garden State Parkway.
And there Gov. Christie was offering us comfort.
“My message to Californians is, ‘There is hope. There is hope.’”
Christie, known for his budget toughness in the face of union opposition and commitment to reforming New Jersey’s bloated pension system, told the assembled Californians that the state is indeed governable despite evidence to the contrary. California continues to face large budget deficits, and the final weeks of the legislative session in Sacramento are spotlighting the dysfunctional nature of state leaders who believe the answer to California’s problems is higher taxes rather than governmental reform.
“When I became governor of New Jersey they said the same things to me that I heard people in California say when I went out there to visit recently: We don’t know if it can be fixed,” Christie said. “The problems are too big. The challenges are now too grave. Maybe we just gave California away to the public-sector unions, to the masters of big spending and huge government.’ But it doesn’t have to be that way.” He mentioned that New Jersey is as much of a Democratic bastion as California.
Christie told the story of California Gov. Jerry Brown confronting him at a governor’s meeting. Brown told Christie to stop saying that Brown wants to raise taxes. Brown said he wanted merely to put the tax measure on the ballot and let the people decide.”
“That’s leadership!” Christie mused.
Christie was introduced by Meg Whitman, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who was defeated by Brown in 2010.
The rest of the talk was a stump speech for the GOP’s Romney/Ryan ticket.
But whatever one’s views about the national Republican candidates, there’s no question that Christie was on point — California’s leadership has failed to address the serious fiscal crises that are undermining public services and eroding California’s economy.
There’s much to be hopeful for, few problems that can’t be fixed, but only if our state’s voters eventually choose a reform-minded group of leaders.