Traditionally, criticism of public employee unions has come from politicians on the right. That's still true. But in Los Angeles and San Francisco, two progressive politicians have gained attention and prominence by taking on pensions and other expensive perks of such unions.
On paper, they couldn't be more different. San Francisco's Jeff Adachi, when he's not trying to rein in pension and retirement costs, runs the Public Defender's office, which represents poor people charged with crimes. Los Angeles's Bernard Parks, now a city councilman, made his name as a police chief dedicated to putting people in prison. Adachi is young and a progressive by any standard (save the wildly off-kilter standard of San Francisco, where one local pol explained to me once how Mayor Gavin Newsom was just like President George W. Bush). Parks, at 67 a senior citizen, has views on most broad economics and social issues that are liberal by most definitions, though on the labor-dominated city council he can seem like a conservative.
What binds Adachi and Parks together is their critique of public sector workers and their shared sense of alarm at the long-term threats to their cities' fiscal viability. Each argues that public employee perks must be reined in -- not in the name of lowering taxes or other right-wing ideological gains -- but so that there's enough money to protect progressive programs that benefit the public at large.
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That's a powerful argument. And while public employees unions have tried to make both men pariahs, so far each has survived. (Parks appears to have beaten back a union-funded challenge to his re-election this week). One wonders if these two men -- each of whom, like the majority of younger Californians, is non-white -- may represent the vanguard of California progressive politics: a party within the Democratic party that is committed to progressive institutions and programs first, rather than public employees who make their living from running them.