Political Courage, California Style

A willingness to risk one’s political career.

Politicians love to talk about “courage” but few demonstrate it. One example of someone who did is President Jimmy Carter when he appointed Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve System in August 1979, 15 months before a re-election date. Carter knew Volcker would raise interest rates and that rising rates would harm his chances for re-election. Still, to tame the inflation he inherited and that was ravaging the US economy, he chose Volcker. Later, demonstrating courage of his own, President Reagan re-appointed Volcker even though the economy still hadn’t recovered. Eventually Volcker’s actions conquered inflation and the economy boomed. In sharp contrast, President Nixon instructed his Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns to lower rates before the 1972 election in order to boost Nixon’s re-election prospects. Burns did as he was told, helping to ignite the inflation Carter and Reagan later had to attack. A more recent example of courage is that of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo taking on her state’s most powerful political forces in order to save public services from out of control pension costs.

Examples of political courage in California include the following:

  • In 2004, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom started authorizing same-sex marriage licenses. Some argue his action wasn’t courageous for a San Francisco politician but clearly it was risky at that time for a politician with statewide and potentially nationwide aspirations.
  • In 2005 LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former public employee union organizer, angered his former allies when he set out to reform K-12 education. Bitterness remains and will be a factor in California’s 2018 gubernatorial race in which Villaraigosa is a contestant.
  • In 2006, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed greenhouse gas reduction legislation opposed by his party. Later, Schwarzenegger led the effort to move California to a Top Two Primary system opposed by both parties, proposed a temporary tax increase opposed by his party, and disappointed many Republicans by refusing to appeal a state court ruling overturning a citizen-passed initiative banning same-sex marriage.
  • More recently, Republican State Assemblywoman Catharine Baker is one of the few members of her party to support greenhouse gas reduction legislation and transgender rights and Democratic State Senator Ben Allen took on a groundswell of opposition and even death threats to craft vaccine legislation critical to public health.

Two counter-examples involve new US Senator Kamala Harris. As California Attorney General, Harris blocked an initiative that would’ve allowed governments to protect citizen services by reforming pensions and later she opposed nine poor and minority student plaintiffs in Los Angeles schools who brought the Vergara civil rights case. In both cases Harris satisfied the interests of the most powerful forces in her party, who are also the largest recipients of state, local and school spending.

It doesn’t take political courage to attack someone who was never going to support you anyway. Next time a politician talks about courage, find out if they have ever risked their own political advancement to do the right thing.

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