Since California added term limits to the political rule book in 1990, the piece of furniture occupied by the speaker of the California Assembly has become both a musical chair and an ejector seat. We've had nine speakers in 14 years. Karen Bass is the latest, a Los Angeles Democrat and the first black woman in the job. She was elected to the Assembly in 2004. She became speaker a year ago, and she'll have to pack up and be gone next year. When I first met her, she was a physician's assistant and a community organizer, crusading for foster care and against the myriad liquor stores in South Los Angeles. Sure, today she sits next to the governor in the "big five" meetings -- but with the ticking clock of term limits and the most hellacious budget in decades, I think of the speaker's job now as much like the Woody Allen joke about two women chatting at a resort: "The food here is so awful." "Yes, and such small portions." Bass dishes it out, and takes it.
Correction: The year of the car accident that took the life of California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass' daughter was incorrect in the June 27 Patt Morrison Asks. The accident occurred in 2006, not 2008.
When I was in my early 20s, I studied tae kwon do and hapkido. I earned brown belts in both of them. What it taught me was how to fight in a manner that is respectful; don't personalize, and get to the point. The goal of a martial artist is actually to not fight, [it's] to prevent the fight. If somebody attacks you, you're taught how to take their energy and use it against them. Remember those old Bruce Lee movies? When somebody who had watched a Bruce Lee movie would think they knew how to fight -- with no discipline, no control -- they would come in just flailing, swinging. You should have goals; it should be clear where the beginning, middle and end game is, and that's what I felt I was taught.
How has that helped in the speaker's job?
The discipline, the control of emotions and picking your fights -- not just fighting because it makes you feel good, but fighting with a purpose.
What do most Californians misunderstand about the mess that we're in now?
I think we have a state where people want a particular quality of life, but they don't necessarily want to pay for it. They want you to pay for it. [laughs] So: "Cut, but keep my parks open."
California is one of three states that [require] a two-thirds vote to pass a budget. That causes paralysis. I don't think people realize that the Legislature only has control over 10% of the budget, and that the people contributed to gridlock through the initiative process. People don't realize that we have a tax system that is outdated. People don't realize that it's not a matter of the deficiency of individuals [in Sacramento]. In some ways it's not even a matter of partisanship.
How do you think conservative talk radio has affected the Legislature's work?
The Republicans were essentially threatened and terrorized against voting for revenue. Now [some] are facing recalls. They operate under a terrorist threat: "You vote for revenue and your career is over." I don't know why we allow that kind of terrorism to exist. I guess it's about free speech, but it's extremely unfair.
Do you get especially exasperated when your own people -- Democrats -- don't agree with you?
You know, I was a community activist, so I'm used to standing out in front of an elected official's office and protesting. It's only been five years since I've been on the other side. I get frustrated when we're in the middle of the deepest recession since the Depression and people say, "You really shouldn't cut." This is very, very painful. I'm doing the exact opposite of what I ran for office for. But I do have to be an adult in this situation. My job is to protect [programs], but I can't be unrealistic and say, "We're not going to cut."
Some people on both sides say that we have to destroy state government in order to save it.
That's definitely a school of thought: Let the state fall and then we'll be able to convince the Republicans to vote for revenue. And some Republicans say, "Let the state fall and then we'll be able to shrink government." If we let government run off a cliff, what about the people who die in the process? I believe people are already feeling the pain. Do people need to see people dying? I'm not sure. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that says, "They voted down the initiatives, let's give 'em what they want" [i.e. a meltdown]. I think what voters said was, "We're sick of this, you solve it." I don't think voters said, "We want you to shut down schools and clinics."
What's our way out?
I do think that some fundamental reforms need to take place. I would be concerned about a constitutional convention, only because, as I understand it, if you open that door up, all kinds of things can be put on the agenda, like [abortion rights]. While we're trying to solve this budget crisis, we are also figuring out how to launch reforms that would address some of it. Things like the initiative process -- that was a wonderful idea 50 years ago. I think it needs to be changed. I don't think you should put an initiative on the ballot without bringing a funding source. We should be able to pass a budget [without] a supermajority. If it's not 51%, maybe 55% or even 60%. We should be able to raise revenue -- local communities should be able to raise revenue on their own. We need to modernize the tax system.
What happens between now and July 1?
I feel very proud of the plan [the Democrats] put forward. If it weren't for the Republicans who blocked the bill in the Senate, we would already have cash solutions on the governor's desk. It looks like there are people who are looking to hijack the crisis to use it as an excuse to eliminate the safety net and gut public schools. Democrats are continuing to work to prevent that.