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California's Speaker Asks the Candidates to Speak with California

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California's Speaker of the Assembly, Fabian Nunez, today inaugurated Courage Campaign's ATM WATCH, an attempt to invite presidential candidates to enter into a conversation with California voters, not just take our money and run. The purpose of having such a conversation is not simply that California has the most diverse, largest population and by far the biggest economy of any state in the nation. And it's not simply to try to force candidates to slow down a bit while they buzz through to grab a few million and run to Iowa. Both of those alone are good reasons to have an early primary in California, as Russell Goldsmith said here last week.

The most important reason, though, to start this discussion about "California issues" is that most of us here in this state that focus on politics much prefer to talk about national issues. It's more fun - sexier - to engage in influencing a presidential candidate or being at a soiree for a gaggle of senators than it is to hang out with an assembly member. The next night's cocktail party is so much more interesting if you can say, "last night, I told (insert name, such as Hillary, Barrack or Nancy) that we simply must get out of Iraq now." But say you were at dinner with the highest ranking Democrat in the state, the Speaker of the Assembly, the man who sets the state's legislative agenda? Your dinner mates quickly ask about the latest movie.

Somehow, state politics seem dirty, beneath us, not worthy. Arianna has actually shown us that both state and national politics matter keenly. Four years ago, she plunged into a free-for-all for governor to make the point that we must care about our own state and we must be willing to ask the tough questions. And then she focused like a laser beam on the war in Iraq. She proves that one person (all right, one person who seems as if she's about 1,000 persons) can shine light on the thorniest issues and through persuasion, can change the way people think about those tough issues. The lesson here is that anyone of us can make a difference on issues, especially local ones. But do we?

While Iraq occupies the headlines, we have a country that is practically falling apart. The California experience is emblematic of the series of problems that face the nation. A high percentage of the military executing the president's war in Iraq is a product of a public school system that offered those now serving few choices beyond the military. To put a fine point on it, about half of those who enroll in the ninth grade in LA public schools drop out before graduation. And unfortunately, a fair number of those who graduate are not well-equipped for a job or a higher education, the latter of which is now unaffordable for many in California, a sad post script for a state that was built on the guarantee of excellent, free education for all.

If you are rich enough to send your kids to private schools, which most who write on this blog are, then the public school debacle seems other worldly. For those of us here in LA, that other world is about to collide with the cosseted west side in ways we only imagine. Hundreds of thousands of kids, now in their twenties, have no education, no jobs and no hope. How long can that human catastrophe continue to grow without it erupting into a crisis that feels like an earthquake?

The cost for deferred maintenance on infrastructure in this state is conservatively estimated at $90 billion. The levees in the Sacramento area are failing; a large storm or earthquake there would be a new Katrina. But where's the money to fix the levees? And where's the will? Californians must demand funding for (and be willing to pay for) the unsexy, but most important issues in our lives. (Think what we could do with a month or so of the Iraq war budget.)

The Public Policy Institute of California today issued a sweeping survey on Californian's attitudes about their state. Not surprisingly, about half of Californians think the economy getting worse. Beyond international relations, which Californians overwhelmingly think Bush has bungled, we care about immigration, jobs and education. So here's the connection to the presidential race. Every single candidate for president will be here many times, if for no other reason than to take our money. Let's build a dialogue that actually engages Californians in the issues about which we most care, which are the very issues that brought most people to California anyway. Let's build a statewide on line town hall that uses the flash of the presidential campaigns to focus ourselves on our state.

ATM WATCH is all about asking people in our state to tell each other what they think candidates should discuss. And at its best, it's all about asking each other what we care about. Only through a dialogue among family, friends and neighbors can we hope to rebuild a state that has been choked by thirty years of perverted policy that has led us to where we now are. During the last four years, California exported about $500 million in campaign contributions to federal candidates. What did we get in return? I think nothing. At least this time around, with an early primary, we have a chance to make the candidates listen to us, talk to us and tell us how they are going to address the issues that affect our lives daily.

Is that too much to ask of someone who wants to lead the nation?