Strange goings on in the Golden State

As a Californian, I think I’m qualified to say that Californians are proud people. A lot of policy wonks like to take pride in California’s direct democracy systems, the product of several decades of reformist impulses. For example, just as in Switzerland, any citizen able to gather enough signatures can place a proposal up for referendum.

Using a similar mechanism, citizens can also recall elected officials, which is what’s happening now, where Governor Gray Davis faces a recall bid. Last night on the Jay Leno show (looking forward to seeing the CNBC rerun this weekend), Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he will run for the position, joining any number of other potential candidates, including child actor Gary Coleman (as Scott has pointed out), pornographer (ahem, adult media magnate) Larry Flynt, comedian Gallagher and TV pundit Arianna Huffington.

This is one of those events that would be really funny if so much weren’t at stake. The state is deeply in debt, and it’s mainly due to three things:

1) The Enron-engineered power crisis a couple of years back, where neighborhoods had their electricity shut off because Enron (and others) figured out an easy way to gouge the state.

2) The dot-com era, which first had state officials making ever-wilder projections of tax income, and then had them scurry to cover spending when the bubble burst.

3) Larger demands being placed on the state budget by voters, while the same budget is limited in its ability to raise taxes.

There are more reasons, I’m sure, but I’m not a political scientist.

Schwarzenegger entering the race will surely add another element of media interest, but I can’t really gauge the situation on the ground from my vantage point in Prague 6.

Of course it’s all absurd, and over the top, and a media circus. But to say that is to miss the point. The point is that there is a system in place that has numerous checks and balances. A permanent political elite has a harder time holding on to power when there are numerous mechanisms in place to “throw the bums out.”

At this point, any Californian can become a candidate. All you need is a couple of thousand dollars for the candidacy fee and a handful of signatures.

Will Schwarzenegger win? He might. Minnesotans fed up with their government sent Jesse Ventura, a pro wrestler and action film star, to the governorship for one term. Californians also sent Ronald Reagan to Sacramento, but at that point he was pretty washed up as an actor. But politics is a weird game, and unless Schwarzenegger is ready for the scrutiny that comes from running for office, he’ll be dismissed as a fraud.

Personally, I’m glad I’ve got a new telenovela to follow for the next couple of months.

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