Heidi Hall: Let’s stay politically aware, engaged in a likely dramatic year
Last Monday was a big day for state politics, Democrats in particular.
Nine “constitutional officers” were sworn in to office after winning elections on Nov. 4. The governor began a historic fourth term, and eight other key offices with significant roles in running our huge state were inducted.
The Capitol was swarming with elected officials, supporters, enthusiasts and activists. Staffers checked you into receptions for food and networking opportunities; and diehards managed to time themselves in order to attend multiple ceremonies.
I was excited to attend the ceremony for Betty T. Yee, our new State Controller. This was my first swearing-in ceremony. I was impressed.
A color guard presided over a formal swearing in carried out by several former elected officials. Betty’s 91-year-old mother, an immigrant from China, was on stage with her.
Her friends and supporters from all over the state had flown and driven in for the event.
Betty’s election is special, for several reasons. As only the second woman to sit in this important seat, and a first-generation Chinese-American, she exemplifies the slowly shifting nature of politicians becoming more like the electorate.
She has a compelling and classic immigrant story, moving upwards thanks to hard work, smarts, and respectful relationships with her peers.
The office of Controller is a powerful one in California, the virtual CFO of the world’s eighth-largest economy. Responsibilities include investigative authority for every dollar spent by the state.
All we have to do is look at how Darryl Issa in Congress turned the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform into a six-year long political juggernaut while ignoring real issues in desperate need of being audited (military cost overruns, Wall Street lobbying influence, war powers, NSA overreach) to understand how powerful oversight and audits can be.
This is not a position you want just anybody to occupy.
Betty Yee took a stand — early and often — against big money influence in her campaign.
She ran a consciously ethical campaign, relying heavily on her personal ability to attract support, voter by voter.
She swore off corporate money, and refused to be bullied by insider power brokers.
She campaigned relentlessly and was one of the few state candidates to regularly visit the North State, speaking knowledgeably about the rural issues we face.
Her win is a shining example of people power in the primary race for the Democratic nomination. As a relative novice to party politics,
I got to see up close and personal the way human nature and character plays out in a competition that becomes far too personal for many people.
Fairness, competence, sisterhood, brotherhood, reason, unity, and even deeply rooted democratic values were tested in this campaign.
Raw power politics came right up against a campaign driven by heart, smarts and a passion for justice. In this case, justice won. It won by less than 500 votes. She went on to win the general election.
But it could have been different. Money could have won. Or partisan hackery. And this could have come from either party.
As we watch a new Congress and Senate take power in our nation’s Capitol, and an Assembly and Legislature in California with new leadership, this lesson should keep us alert.
Corporate influence, through lobbyists, PACs and sheer chutzpah by the powerful can too easily lay claim to a politician’s willpower. Some think they can resist the expectation for payback votes.
Others think they will just do it once. But this kind of justification is a dangerous place to be. Ego, committee assignments, a little power here or there, an easier climb to the next election, and you are sold.
It is up to us, citizens and voters, to elect people whose integrity we can witness on the campaign trail. And it is up to us to stay vigilant after our chosen officials have been elected.
Even the best of us can be tempted if we believe that no one has our back, and if we don’t think anyone is watching.
Let’s celebrate our good choices for the coming year, including that of Betty T. Yee, but let us stay vigilant in what is likely to be a dramatic year both in Washington, D.C., and here at home in California.
Heidi Hall lives in Grass Valley. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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