Political Mailers Divorced From Reality

At the end of last year, I moved back to the San Gabriel Valley, where I grew up. So this is my first election season here, receiving all the political mail and fliers and hit pieces that arrive at my door.

It's enough to make me wonder. Did I return home? Or to another planet?

Most of the mail relates to a local Assembly race. There are warm family photos from one candidate who is promising he represents a return to "sanity," and who was famous in our local Little League 20 years ago for writing long legal memos of protest when league and umpire rulings went against him.

There's a local councilman who is building his campaign around pictures of the Gold Line, the pleasant if under-utilized arm of the LA subway system that reaches this part of town.

And then there is the blond, camera-ready businesswoman, new to electoral politics, who wears an unintentionally hilarious look of slightly beatific, slightly deranged joy in staged flier photos of children.

She reminds me of the Amy Poehler character in NBC's "Parks & Recreation."

But aside from the visuals, what's fascinating -- and frightening -- about the mail is what isn't it. What's missing is any real acknowledgment that the state of California is in a persistent budget and governing crisis.

These mailers are utterly divorced from our crisis reality.

The businesswoman, for example, pledges that she will personally stop all future cuts to education and that she will reverse California's standing at the bottom of state rankings in school funding.

There's not a mention of the fact that the Prop 98 funding formula sets education spending, not legislators.That California's decline in education funding has come since it got its constitutional protection.

So what's she really saying? That she would undo Prop 98? That she would remake the budget system, a boiling sea of formulas that has been forcing cuts? That she would hold out against all pressure from party leaders -- she's a Democrat -- when they told her to go along with education deferrals or Prop 98 suspension?

The councilman's mailers, when they are not mentioning the Gold Line, tout "solutions that work." He of course does not offer any such solutions, but he does tout his support for legislation backed by Assembly Speaker John Perez to provide more support for middle-class scholarships to California public universities.

Fair enough. But California's current budget system works to cut again and again into public higher education. It's that crisis that is the hard problem in higher ed. But the councilman's mailers and campaign don't have any plan for that.

In recent days, the mailers have turned negative -- with attacks focusing on the businesswoman.

The big question raised about her? Not her lack of any plan or thinking about how to deal with the California crisis. No, she's being attacked for not being a real Democrat and for not voting in "important elections" in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010, including Assembly races.

That's a terribly unfair charge. There were no important elections in California in any of those years. Because it doesn't matter much who we elect into this system -- unless they are people who are willing to fix the system.

And what the mailers tell us is that this election, at least where I live, isn't an important election either.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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