California exports everything, it seems … except political leaders

In a few weeks, we California voters are going to have to choose for the country’s highest office between an incumbent from Chicago by way of Hawaii and a challenger born in Michigan who is the former governor of Massachusetts as well as the nation’s most high-profile adherent of a religion associated with Utah.

Last election cycle, you’ll remember, the Hawaiian/Chicagoan ran against a prominent senator from Arizona for the right to succeed the two-term incumbent from Texas – himself the son of a former president of New England stock – who back in 2000 won the most disputed election in American history against a guy from Tennessee who was the sitting vice president of an administration headed up by the Man from Hope – Arkansas, that is.

You see what’s missing here, don’t you?

It is a fact that California is the most populous state in the U.S. and it is a widely held belief, at least among those of us who live here, that it is also the most dynamic, diverse and innovative state as well. If all that’s true, then why isn’t it reflected in the country’s political leadership? I mean, shouldn’t California, of all states, be loaded with potential political superstars of both parties? Where the heck are all our star politicians?

We are a state chock full of business titans, technology innovators, entertainment superstars and sports heroes but we are so seemingly bereft of political talent that our two most recent governors are a 74-year-old retread who was a last an exciting political up-and-comer back during the age of the Betamax, and an Austrian-born bodybuilder, movie star and tabloid regular who – let’s be real here – is viewed the world over as something of a pop-culture clown.

Next year marks the 10th anniversary of one of the most surreal electoral events in American history, the California recall election that resulted in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s elevation to governor. The recall was brought on by a severe case of buyer’s remorse following the re-election of Gray Davis to the governor’s office. Yep, Gray Davis – talk about your 50 shades of gray.

The recall was essentially an open casting call for the highest political office in the most powerful state in the country, a paroxysm of desperation from an electorate seemingly ready to grab the first passerby on the sidewalk to become the state’s political leader.

I know it’s painful, but let me remind you of who exactly was on that ballot back in 2003 – the second- and third-place finisher to the Governator back then were Cruz Bustamante and Tom McClintock, fine men I’m sure but not exactly rock stars. Also receiving votes were the pornographer Larry Flynt, the on-line journalist exploiter Arianna Huffington, the TV child star Gary Coleman, the porn actress Mary Carey, the former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, the watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher and someone named Angelyne, a model well-known in Los Angeles solely for appearing on billboards, advertising herself.

Seriously. Larry Flynt, Gary Coleman and Gallagher. And we laugh at Texas?
It was not always thus. California famously produced the two most influential Republican presidents of the last half century – Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. And however much those two men are reviled by liberals, they were ambitious, serious, successful political figures who left behind meaningful legacies.

Democrats had their heroes too – the incumbent governor’s father Pat Brown, Supreme Court titan Earl Warren, the slain gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.

And who today from California is of that stature? Dianne Feinstein is admired, sure. But when you list the country’s most prominent political figures, how far down the list do you get before you get to DiFi? Nancy Pelosi was the country’s first female Speaker of the House, but now she’s useful mainly to Republicans for fund-raising purposes. Barbara Boxer fills in all the check boxes you would expect from a Bay Area liberal, but she’s widely unpopular on the right and her staying power in the Senate is largely a function of the GOP’s failure to find a half-decent candidate to beat her.

California’s most high-profile politician just may be our own former
Congressman Leon Panetta, now serving as Secretary of Defense. Panetta has had a magnificent career – I’ve interviewed him before – but he’s the same age as Jerry Brown.

And where are the Reagans and Warrens of the future? Nowhere in sight. The only Californians you’ll find on the presidential ballot this year are the Peace & Freedom Party candidates Roseanne Barr and Cindy Sheehan, and Roseanne’s claiming Hawaii as her home state.

Of the seemingly two dozen candidates that crowded the debate stages in the Republican primaries last winter, none were Californians. The names that graced the political conventions can be justly held up as a roster of present and future American leaders. The only Californian to speak at the conventions other than Condoleeza Rice was an old dude from Monterey who carried on a conversation with a chair.

Yeah, so a lot of states have less than stellar political talent these days. But this is California we’re talking about – the home of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the eighth largest economy of the world, one of the most fertile cultural laboratories on earth. Can’t we do better than this? To quote Casey Stengel, can’t anyone here play this game?

Because unless somebody steps up, our political image to the rest of the country will remain a governor whose claim to hipness was that he once dated Linda Ronstadt, and a cranky old movie star talking to an empty chair. You can’t like the symbolism of that.

Wallace Baine will appear live with Sentinel photographer Shmuel Thaler for an evening of words and pictures Saturday, Oct. 13 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. For more information, go to


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