Politics

The Mod Squad

Two California legislators pursue long-shot reform
by | March 2006
 

If genuine lobbying reform looks like a mirage to some veteran doubters, genuine legislative bipartisanship looks even more improbable in some states. It certainly seems unlikely in California, where Democrats and Republicans have been exchanging incessant incivilities for years now. But two legislators--Democrat Joe Canciamilla and Republican Keith Richman--have refused to give up on the bipartisan ideal. They have spent five years in the California Assembly attempting to foster cooperation between their parties, and their ragtag band of moderates, known as the Mod Squad, has crafted serious proposals on a range of issues, from an infrastructure package that failed as a ballot measure in 2003 but anticipated what has since become a hot topic of debate, to an energy bill that influenced a legal settlement between regulators and Southern California Edison.

Still, Canciamilla and Richman have been pretty much on the outs within the legislature itself, getting bounced from committee leadership slots and usually failing to win even a hearing for their ideas on the budget, redistricting and term limits. Both men sound a little discouraged now; they characterize Sacramento's political culture as a pit of partisan despair. But they are devoting their last year in office to a new bipartisan idea: a plan to create a "citizens' assembly" to overhaul the state's electoral system.

They would draft random but interested citizens--one man and one woman from each of the 80 Assembly districts--to spend a year studying politics and in the end propose changes to any aspect of election law that they chose, except for those dealing with judicial contests. So far, their notion has caught on mainly with academics and think tanks. The one place it has been tried seriously is the Canadian province of British Columbia, where a similar citizens' group proposed to replace the current single-member legislative districts with multi-member ones. The plan received 58 percent of the province's vote last May-- short of the 60 percent needed, but good enough to ensure that a new campaign will be launched.

Canciamilla and Richman may never come that close in California. They certainly won't win much support from the political establishment in either party--something the Canadian reformers were able to get. If they want to make any progress at all, they'll probably need to bypass the legislature altogether and sponsor a ballot initiative. That doesn't look so promising either--Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's reform package went down in flames before voters last year. California has witnessed a long parade of commissions and blue-ribbon task forces over the years. Each put forward comprehensive reform packages but, as Canciamilla admits, "none of those recommendations have moved from print to action."

As they prepare to leave the Assembly at the end of this year, forced into retirement by term limits, Canciamilla and Richman may find themselves wondering just what their efforts have accomplished. What they won't need to doubt, however, is that they spent their time on behalf of some serious ideas that deserved to be heard.

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