Wisconsin of the West, Part I

By Jim Miller/Cross-posted at OB Rag

A couple of weeks ago local Republicans held their unity night at the Kona Kai Resort where notables such as Jerry Sanders and Kevin Faulconer cheered as Carl DeMaio asked if they were ready to make San Diego “the Wisconsin of the West.” They, along with the Chamber of Commerce, the Taxpayers Association, the Lincoln Club and other luminaries of the local right were getting fired up and ready to go for a ballot initiative that would undermine collective bargaining rights for unionized public sector workers in San Diego.

Specifically, their measure would put all new workers into 401Ks, eliminating their defined benefit pensions without providing them with social security while also freezing wages for five years. (Why does your garbage collector need social security anyways? Greedy bastard). In essence, it is a de facto ban on collective bargaining for wages and benefits and the first step toward completely busting all of San Diego’s public sector unions. The police are exempted from the plan but that exception can be eliminated by a simple vote of the City Council. Despite all the window dressing about saving the taxpayers money, this initiative is far from a money-saving measure in that it would actually drive up costs and increase the unfunded liability the city faces.

It is worth noting that even the Democratic majority on the council, elected with much labor help, is currently refusing to even consider a resolution in support of collective bargaining rights. Only Marti Emerald has been principled enough to come out in favor of basic workers’ rights. With friends like these, many a San Diego progressive is wondering, who needs enemies?

Sanders, DeMaio, and their pals were probably being smiled on by the ghost of “the beige king” or “Mr. San Diego,” C. Arnholdt Smith, who, back in 1973, met with Nixon allies, bankers, real estate moguls, and some of the other central players in one of his biggest swindles during a charity dinner at the very same Kona Kai. He would later be busted for the “little Watergate” scandal. Now our current crop of right-wing power brokers figured this was a suitable spot to launch a different kind of swindle—political if not criminal. Nice choice of venue guys. But I digress . . .

DeMaio’s initiative represents a full-scale assault on workers’ rights by San Diego’s mostly Republican power elite (aided and abetted by feckless or complicit local Democrats and the lapdog local media). It is also the culmination of a long project that has deep roots in the world of right wing think tanks. As I observed in a City Beat piece back in 2006, Carl DeMaio’s agenda is connected to a larger, nationwide web of think tanks whose decades-long intellectual assault on unions, the public sector, and even the very notion of government is now bearing fruit from Wisconsin to California.

In “Indy by the Sea: California Dreamin’ with the Right Wing Think Tanks,” I pointed out that Carl DeMaio, then of the Performance Institute, had argued that San Diego could become a model for the right, nationwide. Thus as I wrote in 2006:

If you want to understand what’s really going on in San Diego politics, skip the local media as they trip all over themselves to fawn over new “strong mayor” Jerry Sanders and pick up a copy of the recently released Center for Policy Initiatives report, Target San Diego: The Right Wing Assault on Urban Democracy and Smart Government. It will be sobering reading for the swing Democrats whose votes were necessary to elect Sanders in a majority Democratic city and even for moderate Republicans who don’t think their party is aiming to roll back the great reforms of twentieth century. As Lee Cokorinos’s rigorously researched and thoroughly documented work notes, “The San Diego right has waged a series of intense ideological and political campaigns to undercut the role of the city council in favor of a ‘strong mayor’ form of government, developed anti-union messaging in the media and raised the profile of San Diego as a problem city in the national media.” They are, Cokorinos informs us, training activists and “developing and driving anti-government policy initiatives and research” through local, state, and national think tanks with the support of organizations such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist, who once famously said his goal was to cut government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” and who has said that “bipartisanship is another name for date rape,” counts San Diego County Republican Party Chair Ron Nehring as his San Diego “senior consultant.” Norquist is also an associate of David Safavian who, after being lionized by Performance Institute founder Carl DeMaio as “an ideal candidate to lead the Office of Federal Procurement Policy,” was eventually arrested in 2005 by the FBI for obstructing a Federal inquiry into Jack Abramoff’s affairs. Interested yet?

The right is indeed, very close to “starving the beast”

Flash forward to 2011 and while Nehring is gone, DeMaio is now on the City Council getting ready to run for mayor. And Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge has the minority party running the show in Sacramento, refusing to budge on a single new revenue even after $12 billion of cuts were passed by the Democrats. Should I mention the austerity budget passed by the House at the national level? The right is indeed, very close to “starving the beast.” For every Abramoff they lose, there is a tea party wing-nut with Atlas Shrugged in her back pocket to replace him. They’ve got the Democrats playing on their turf by their rules at all levels (indeed, in Massachusetts, the democrats and Obama’s pal Deval Patrick are aggressively taking Walker’s lead and attacking collective bargaining themselves). Their dream is so close they must almost be able to taste it. How’d they do it? Here’s how:

Cokorinos’s report carefully documents the intricate web of connections between the corporate funded think tanks at the national, state, and local level. Some of the key organizations include the aforementioned Americans for Tax Reform, Freedom Works, and the American Legislative Exchange Council at the national level; the Project for California’s Future, the Pacific Research Institute, the Claremont Institute, and the Reason Foundation at the state level; and the Performance Institute here in San Diego. This powerful, well-organized network of right wing think tanks is funded by the owners of the largest and richest companies in the United States such as Koch Industries, Amoco, Shell, Texaco, Coors Brewing, Nationwide Insurance, Pfizer, the National Energy Group, Phillip Morris, Verizon Communications, Inc., and a host of others too long to list. As the report indicates they are part of a “movement to reverse decades of progressive reform” that began during the early seventies.

An obscure reference in 2006, the Koch Industries folks are now in the national spotlight, whether they are calling the shots in Wisconsin, funding the Astroturf tea party movement, or trying to kill federal health care while accepting federal money, the Koch brothers’ moment is NOW.

More Locally, Mother Jones recently noted that, “In California, where a Republican lawmaker introduced a bill in February to repeal collective bargaining on retirement benefits for public workers, the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) has churned out a steady stream of reports and op-eds claiming that teachers unions use collective bargaining to ‘neuter school board authority, protect bad teachers, restrict principals, emphasize seniority over performance, and limit teacher evaluation and accountability.’ That is, bargaining is to blame for just about everything that’s gone wrong. A 2003 PRI paper recommended that policymakers ‘streamline or repeal’ collective bargaining for teachers.” So it isn’t about pension costs or governmental “reform” or any such thing. What DeMaio and crew are after locally is the same thing that corporate monied interests are after at the state and national level—to crush unions and gut the funding and organizational base of the Democratic party and/or any competing narrative to the corporate monologue which already dominates our politics. Anybody who thinks this is driven by anything at the grassroots level needs to wake up—and fast. For more on how this nightmare began, check next week’s column . . .


  1. avatarcruella says

    The fact that the media is attacking public employees only shows there ignorance.
    We as public employees ARE ALSO TAXPAYERS. The attack on public pensions are skewed to the point of being blown out of porportion. Private employees have social security, which is taken out of there paycheck. Public employees have pensions, which is also taken out of our paychecks, and like everyone who takes home a paycheck, good old uncle sam & your state have taken their share. The problem regarding pensions are the with the elected members, some of which will be double dipping. What’s that you say?
    Well lets look at Bernard Parks, who was chief of police and now a coucilmember. What do you estimate his pension pay will be? The same goes for our Gov Brown. This is his second go round as governor, was the state attorney general, Mayor of Oakland. Can you imaging his pension.? All state, county, and city elected officials who’s held more that one office, are the ones ripping off the system. Note to the media….it’s all there on record which can be looked at. Do your research and the math. Lets see what you come up with.