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COMMENTARY: Letter from Little Wisconsin, California

By   /   May 29, 2012  /   No Comments

By Will Swaim | Special to Wisconsin Reporter

Welcome to Costa Mesa, Calif., known hereabouts — if you’re a public policy wonk — as Little Wisconsin.
In the fall of 2010, Costa Mesans fretted. Though just an hour south of Hollywood’s dream factories and about 25 minutes west of Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth, the voters were anxious, restive. Thanks to the recession, sales-tax revenue in the city had collapsed. Same for returns on the public-employee pension system’s Wall Street investments. Meanwhile, pension obligations — the amount city taxpayers owe to their retired public workers — were rising.
That mathematical pincer movement didn’t work in the city’s favor, and the unfunded liability on public-sector pensions was moving upwards to $250 million, or two and a half times the city’s entire annual budget.
In November of that year, despite a savage union-supported campaign against them, a Republican majority swept into office ready to take on the public employee unions whose pension programs had pushed the city near bankruptcy. 
Costa Mesa’s shiny new council majority weren't alone. They joined city officials around the financially strapped Golden State who, like them, struggled to manage budget crises generated by the rising pay and benefits of their public employees.
In the state’s far north, Vallejo had already gone bankrupt. Across the San Francisco Bay from Vallejo, San Francisco’s Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a liberal Democrat, had seen repeated cuts in his office; without a solution to the rising costs of public employee pay and benefits, he figured everything else progressives love about government — parks, roads, sanitation, public defense — would be sacrificed to the unions’ endless appetite for higher pay and benefits.
“What got me focused on the issue of pensions was that I saw, year after year, basic services slashed at the same time our pension costs were going through the roof,” Adachi told me.
When he tried to fix the problem with a ballot initiative, union leaders poured millions into a competing measure that does nothing. In the run-up to election day, they ran ads comparing Adachi to Scott Walker — concluding with the fairly banal observation that “San Francisco is no Tea Party town.”
The unions won.
Farther east, Stockton is on the verge of collapse. A couple of hours due south, in San Jose, Mayor Chuck Reed— like Adachi, a Democrat — is chin to chin with the powerful public-sector unions in that city.
Reed has told his constituents they have a choice: Fix the pension system now or adjust to life in a city that looks remarkably Third World: “A volunteer fire department, a mostly volunteer police department, and not much else,” he said. “All libraries except Martin Luther King would be closed. All community centers, most likely closed. You cannot manage the 10th-largest city in the country with 1,600 employees and a volunteer fire department. It is impossible. It cannot happen.’”
The unions’ spokesperson responded that Reed was bluffing, “taking a page from the Governor Scott Walker playbook.”
So, Costa Mesa could see the proverbial writing on the wall — in red ink. On St. Patrick’s Day 2011, within a few months of taking over the council, the Republican majority voted to consider outsourcing many city functions and issued layoff notices to more than 200 city workers.
Before he could receive his layoff notice, one of those workers climbed to the top of City Hall and leapt five stories to his death. An autopsy later found cocaine in the dead man’s body, but that hasn’t stopped the union from alleging that the Republican majority drove him to jump.
Things have gone generally downhill since, PR-wise. The unions hired Jennifer Muir, a former local newspaper reporter, to run public relations. On TV, radio and in print, she transformed the suicide of a deeply troubled man into a religious moment in the union’s crusade to protect families. She continues to spin out news releases condemning the reformers — alleging that the council majority spends money on lavish banquets for themselves while attacking workers, that they contemplated a luxury makeover of City Hall, that the city manager enjoys a $10k car allowance.
None of it was true. Nor was it precisely true that Costa Mesa was following Walker’s lead. Republican Jim Righeimer, the council majority’s philosophical leader, has a longstanding — and hereabouts well-known — antipathy for the influence of public-employee unions on politics. Ignoring that, Muir does her best to link Little Wisconsin with Big Wisconsin.
When the University of Wisconsin’s Badgers traveled to California for the Rose Bowl earlier this year, Wisconsin’s governor made the trip, too. That gave Muir her opening.
“The majority of Americans are disgusted with Scott Walker and his attacks on working families,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “He is facing a recall in his home state. So we as Californians are pretty lucky because he is leaving the Golden State after the Rose Bowl is over. Unlike us, the people of Wisconsin unfortunately are stuck with him for now.”
When Walker took a a couple of hours to raise money for local Republicans, local union supporters were there to meet him. Sort of: In a moment pregnant with symbolism, they showed up to protest in the wrong location. Walker never saw them.
Last week, Muir, who characterizes her job with the union as "advocate for working families," tweeted "Corruption investigation into Scott Walker. Can this guy be any worse? We're with you, Wisconsin!"
With you unless, of course, you happen to represent the majority of Wisconsin voters who backed the governor in 2010.
Muir’s “working families” meme is among the most important to monitor. Like their counterparts in Wisconsin, Muir and her associates at the Orange County Employees Association work overtime to connect pension reform to a wider “attack” on everyday folks. That’s because the union’s real goal — rising pay and benefits for union members whose dues fund the political campaigns of politicians voting for additional increases in those pay and benefits packages — is unspeakably undemocratic, even evil. It taxes middle-class families in order to preserve pensions for wealthier retirees. It is, in short, anti-family. In a city whose median per capita income is in the mid-$30k range, 446 out of the city's 450 full-time workers earn more than $65,000 in pay and benefits, and not even counting their Mercedes-Benz retirement packages. Speaking of which: 65 retired workers pull down pensions in excess of $100,000. Even in five-star California, that’ll buy you a little something-something.
There are differences. In Wisconsin, I’m told the unions are rigorous in their politics. Their union dues never, ever fund Republicans. Our unions, I’m proud to say, are more pragmatic. They talk progressive, but they’ll fund anyone who supports the only issue the matters: the rising pay and benefits of their members. That’s how ultra-right-wing Republican Costa Mesa Councilmember Wendy Leece — our own prayerful Rick Santorum in a dress — earned organized labor’s support in the last city election. She has validated that support, opposing any effort to reform Costa Mesa’s public-employee pension system. Is that progressive? Only if, like Leece, you think the most pressing need in Little Wisconsin is to have the words IN GOD WE TRUST carved into the walls of City Hall.
It should read GOD HELP US.
Similarly, the local union is caught betwixt its hatred of the rich and its dependence on them. Last Christmas, the local union’s president told his members they were part of the 99 percent — a bald attempt to link his union with the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s left to Nick Barardino, the union’s executive director and chief negotiator, to assure nervous city politicians that the bulls will run again on Wall Street — that no budget cuts are necessary because the unions’ investment will skyrocket, leaving the unfunded liability a distant, dark memory.
It turns out there’s no bigger believer in Wall Street miracles than the guy whose pension is invested in highly speculative stocks. Writing on the local liberal Orange Juice blog, “Mayor Quimby” handed out stock advice to Costa Mesans, sounding more like Mad Money’s apoplectic host Jim Cramer than an advocate of Occupy Wall Street: Keep your money in stocks, the Mayor admonished Costa Mesa: “you might find out that outsourcing will create a fiscal crisis for the city, by locking the city into losses that were incurred during the Great Recession, and missing the gains from the recovery.” That pitch — don’t leave before the miracle happens! — is how Wall Street locks in the losers.
It’s also a sure sign you’re dealing with a dead-eyed casino gambler, the sort of union official who runs confidence games in Madison and Sacramento. In the fight to keep the union con men and women from taking down our state, Californians — progressives like Jeff Adachi and Chuck Reed as well as conservatives like the Republican council majority in Costa Mesa — are indeed following your lead. You’re not alone, Wisconsin.
Will Swaim is national managing editor for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He can be reached at [email protected].