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California's Untapped Political Talent: Its Failures

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Opinion: Failures Should Run CA

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Angelo Mozilo, founder and former CEO of Countrywide Financial Corporation, appears during a 2008 hearing in Washington. Do his failures make him a good match for California's broken government?

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The ballot initiative fight has gotten stale and the presidential race isn't taking place in California, so political scuttlebutt has focused on the future, and on rising politicians.

Who will emerge as mayor of Los Angeles? Who might run for governor in 2014? Who might one day succeed Sens. Boxer or Feinstein?

There's one thing that all the people being talked about have in common: They are successes, or at least argue that they are successes. There are successful mayors and successful prosecutors and successful businesspeople and successful actors.

The advance of successful folks -- and the argument that success is a qualification for office -- is so common that we don't think about them.

So here's an important question we never hear: Does California in 2012 need successful people as its elected leaders?

Or to put it more pointedly: Is a success the best person to govern in a failed state?

California certainly is a successful place, by most measures. But in matters of government and governance, it's a failure.

The state doesn't work because it has a complicated system that is really a messy compilation of three contradictory systems (majoritarian elections, supermajority-mad legislative and budget rules, and an inflexible initiative process).

Since the state is ungovernable, its government is able to do less and less to meet challenges. And its major public institutions -- its prisons, its public schools -- are declining.

Governing such a state is not about success, since success isn't possible in the system. It's really about managing, and mitigating, failure. So that question again, asked in a different way:

Wouldn't a person with a healthy record of failure, and managing failed institutions, be the best fit for governing California in the 21st century?

I suspect the answer might be yes.

It's not a crazy idea. One of America's best presidents, Harry Truman, was, famously, a failed haberdasher. Ronald Reagan, revered by many, wasn't much of a success as an actor.

So if California needs failures in office, here's the good news: We have plenty of them.
Indeed, fortunately, California has plenty of people with recent, relevant experience of financial failure -- even bankruptcy. The state that was ground zero for the collapse of housing has any number of people with executive experience running enterprises into the ground.

So why not, say, Countrywide's Angelo Mozilo for governor?

He knows firsthand about all kinds of problem and issues: debt, unsustainable economic models, and the perils of political influence and corruption. (Remember all the elected officials who received special deals from Countrywide?)

And the actions of his company and similar firms are still a big factor in the state's housing troubles -- and its larger economic troubles. I'll bet Mozilo has well-informed ideas about how to deal with these problems.

And, at the grassroots, the state has no shortage of folks who know firsthand the folly of spending more than you take in. Maybe the folks who lost homes and took on mortgages they couldn't afford could bring those hard lessons to the state Assembly and city councils.

There's a moral logic here: Let the people who helped wreck things fix it. They should serve the public by helping clean up the mess they helped create.

Of course, failures aren't limited to housing. There are bankers and construction firms and small businesses out there. There are thousands of laid off public workers who have firsthand experience with the consequences of poor budget management and cuts. Could they turn that hard-won knowledge into smarter governance?

Now, many of these failures lost rather quickly with the coming of the Great Recession. But perhaps a slower, steadier failure might make sense for jobs -- like, say, presiding over the slow dismantling of the University of California and California State University systems.

In my own career, I know of one class of workers who are expert at presiding over long, slow, never-ending decline: newspaper editors.

Many of them are out of work. Maybe they should try the state Senate.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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