California contributes plenty to the nation's coffers. So maybe we should hoard our electoral gold until candidates' interest rises.
- Adair Lara, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2004

It's happened again. Because everybody already knows that California will deliver its 55 electoral votes to Sen. John Kerry, this state will be watching from the sidelines Tuesday. California is again -- what's that word they like to use? -- irrelevant to the election.

Yeah, a bunch of other states are warming the benches too. But this is California. Leading California Democrats and Republicans, at each other's throats over other issues, agree that the state is getting a raw deal.

"It's crazy that we don't count! If they make the Electoral College proportional to the population, we'd be worth 12 states!" said political consultant Joe Cerrell, founder and chief executive of Cerrell Associates in Los Angeles and a key player in several presidential campaigns, including Al Gore's.

Not only do more Americans live in California than anywhere else, but there is more money here. "In terms of economy, we equal France," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "My old boss Pete Wilson used to joke that if California became a nation, we'd kick Canada out of the G7."

According to Richard Riordan, head of the state's Department of Education and the former mayor of Los Angeles, California sends 15 or 20 percent more money to the federal government than it gets back.

And where does the money go? Sean Walsh, a top consultant to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who lives in Oakland, grumbled, "We're paving roads all over Iowa and Nebraska so corn huskers can go to football games on weekends. That giant sucking sound? That's our millions taking the jet stream east. If you count up how much dough's taken a beeline over the border, California counts an awful lot."

Cerrell sighs. "Politically, we're just an ATM machine. Both parties drop by and make their withdrawals."

Experts offer reasons for the disrespect shown California. Cerrell chalks it up to envy. "We're No. 1," he said. "Everybody wants to be No. 1."

Others point out that those east of the Sierra seem to misunderstand and fear the people of the Golden State.

Those who have never been to California -- who have only seen it on TV -- "think of us as throwing Molotov cocktails at Red Cross buildings," said Riordan, 74, a refugee from Queens who now calls himself a typical Californian ("blue jeans and a nice shirt -- but no beads or ponytail").

Anecdotal evidence from the Iowa caucus, said Dan Schnur, one of California's leading Republican political and media strategists, "suggests that Howard Dean's California volunteers scared the living daylights out of those people. There's no better way to motivate a Republican turnout than to talk about California."

Schnur, from Whitefish Bay, Wis., the state where the TV sitcom "Happy Days" was set, now lives in Sacramento and teaches political science at UC Berkeley. He thinks some of the mistaken impressions could be cleared up with a glance at the map. "When people think of California they don't think of Bakersfield or Riverside. They think of Berkeley and West Hollywood."

Where there is envy and misunderstanding mixed, you get animosity. "The people who think we're irrelevant -- they want to take a huge saw, carve us off and watch us float off into the Pacific,'' complained Cerrell.

"If we weren't part of the United States," said Steve Martin, the former mayor of West Hollywood (not the actor-writer), "they would treat us with the same disdain they have for the French." When he travels, "People say, 'What do you mean, you don't surf? Didn't you say you're from California?' There's probably a suspicion that closer to 70 percent of California is gay and lesbian rather than 10 percent."

Other experts concede that people here are no better at understanding the other states (except maybe the ones they are from). But some wonder if that matters. Others go so far as to ask what California needs the 49 other states for.

There's tobacco settlement money, snakeskin cowboy boots, hanging chads, poems about snow, beans (L.L. and baked), plays, Motown, the New Yorker and all that parking. What else?

When asked, Cerrell paused, then said, "They have lakes. Fish."

"You move to Nevada, you get cheaper taxes and no fog," offered Whalen, the Hoover fellow. "And no ocean, unless something big happens that we're not anticipating."

Martin was trying to remember the name of some nip-and-tuck sitcom set in Miami. "There they do liposuction. Here we're at least willing to try the fad diets and work out." He looks at other states as benchmarks "for what we have been and where we don't want to be."

What California needs most from the rest of the country "is those children," Cerrell said. "Without meaning to, we steal the best people from the other states. They're irritated with us for that."

Mark Baldassare, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco, said that was right. "We need an educated labor force in California. Although we have a great university system, we need to draw on the best talents. Their schools are better."

Some of those who come are refugees from weather, something California clearly thought out better. Martin said that in the '50s, his father borrowed a car and drove here from Chicago. "He came out, saw what it was like in the fall, and never went east of the Rockies again. He never even took the car back."

What use California makes of its people, whether natives or those who got here as soon as they could, is astonishing, said Whalen. "The future is on display here; be it through the military technology, the arts, the cinema or biotech, California is always pushing the envelope as to what tomorrow's application will be."

It's not only movies, computer chips, high tech and valley talk that California exports to the heartland but also expertise on preserving the environment, observed social thinker Ernest Callenbach. Thirty years ago he wrote "Ecotopia," a novel about Northern California and Oregon and Washington seceding from the union.

"We are moving toward trying to create a more humane and sustainable society out here," he said, particularly in this region. "It is said that hardly anybody gets elected in the Bay Area without the Sierra Club endorsement." He said it's because Californians are out in the landscape so much. "It makes us militant about saving it."

Innovation extends to state politics, according to Whalen. "Look at what's on the California ballot. As usual, we're having conversations other states aren't." He mentioned ballot measures on a slew of issues -- among them medical humanities, measures to fund children's hospitals, stem-cell research, the size and scope of Indian gaming.

The experts point out that many California laws go beyond where the federal government will go. California imposes its own limits on greenhouse- gas emissions. The gun lobby is shooting blanks here -- California allows individuals to sue gunmakers under product liability laws; the minimum wage is $6.75 an hour, while the federal minimum is a miserly $5.15.

Given California's role as an incubator of ideas, from high-end raw food restaurants to the microchip, Schnur sees some irony in the fact that California is now so cut off.

"California today is a paragon of what made America great: a land of immigrants, opportunity, entrepreneurship and hope," he said. "There's always been a sense that California offered one last chance. If you can't make it here, you can't make it."

For Martin what distinguishes Californians is their optimism that they can make it. "We have faith that we can change ourselves, our political system and our environment."

Whalen agreed. "The guy in charge is California in a nutshell," he said. "Besides being a movie star and an immigrant, and fit, he is an optimist. Schwarzenegger sees a pile of manure and wants to know where the pony is."

In 1920, H.L. Mencken said of San Francisco: "What fetched me instantly (and thousands of other newcomers with me) was the subtle but unmistakable sense of escape from the United States." That comment could just as easily be made today about the entire state. Are Californians prisoners of an ideologically and culturally foreign power? Do they need the feds?

"We are a nation unto ourselves," said Walsh. "We generate our own culture, technology and food." He's not ready to go it alone, though. "Washington needs us, and we need Washington. We need the federal cash for the Bay Bridge. I don't want to pay a $10 toll." But, he added, "Protecting the ethanol distillery in Kansas City is not as high a priority as protecting Diablo Canyon."

Chris Lehane, a Democratic Party strategist who worked on the Kerry campaign and lives in San Francisco, said, "California is a sanctuary, with a number of city-states like San Francisco that can be safe havens if you're a progressive who enjoys good food, good culture, a beautiful part of the world, diversity and excellent people. That's why California attracts so many expats from D.C. and the political world. It's like Paris was for artists in the '30s. "

He paused, and said thoughtfully, "A revolt would work. Instead of dumping tea we could just keep Napa's wine for ourselves."

Walsh has an idea for future presidential elections. "We should consider passing a referendum holding our 55 electoral votes from going to anyone unless we deem them worthy of our support. We'll make them come out after the election to campaign specifically for a few months out here.

"Alternatively, we could just break away altogether and be our own utopia. "

E-mail Adair Lara at