It is the best of times,
it is the worst of times.
Start by considering California's 1998 budget. For local police agencies, times are pretty good; they're getting a whopping $100 million windfall, with few strings attached on how they spend it. But life isn't so grand for the 500,000 folks recently dumped from the welfare rolls; Governor Pete Wilson won't spend $5 million to help them shift to self-sufficiency.
Good news: California's sick and dying now have the right to know which doctors will prescribe pain-relieving opiates. Bad news: That's important information if you're a woman with late stage breast cancer -- because thanks to Wilson, you can't demand an insurance company pay for treatment that would possibly save your life.
Those are just a sample of the bills approved and vetoed by California's Governor during this legislative year, with him approving 959 bills and rejecting 197. Bills tilted towards special interests were usually winners; on the losing end were proposed laws that protected individual medical, civil, or human rights.
Examples of other bills rejected by Wilson:
Note that many of these bills would have cost the state little or nothing, and were apparently rejected for reasons of ideology.
Like most post-Reagan Republicans, Wilson's determined to deal harshly with welfare, crime, and immigrants. Variations were heard in all of his political campaigns -- for mayor, senator, governor, president.
Even when times change, his ideology remains unbending. Now welfare's being dismantled, for example; how can he justify his veto of a program to help a half-million recipients -- mostly young mothers -- with the transition? It can only be explained as an ideological knee-jerk.
The program was worthy, and already reduced from the original $25 million proposal. The $5 million was little enough to provide urgently needed child care and new jobs. "Economists say [those opportunities] won't exist unless we create them," author Sen. John Vasconcellos (D - San Jose) said afterward, calling Wilson's veto "an awful failure of either knowledge or judgment."
Wilson also stopped a bill that would have restored the right of journalists to interview prison inmates face-to-face-- a freedom that the State Department of Corrections revoked in 1995. His reasoning was almost bizarre: That the news media interviews made "celebrities" of inmates, and that was "... a disincentive to inmates to focus upon remorse that is essential while in prison to prepare for any eventual release to society."
Prison media celebrities? Sounds a bit overblown. Perhaps the Governor didn't know about the September news conference on the issues, where it was revealed that prisoners suspected of snitching to the press were sent to "the hole." Supporters of the bill even provided a startling example: two San Diego prisoners sent to solitary, then crated off to distant jails for "impugning the credibility" of the prison -- revealing that they were required to rip out "Made in Honduras" tags from T-shirts and replace them with "Made in USA" labels.
The press conference made the need for this law apparent, and the bill passed easily in both the state Assembly and Senate; even the prison guards association supported it. With the only known opponent being the California Department of Corrections, why did Wilson reject it? Again, the veto of ideology.
Also sad was Wilson's blanket veto of all health care bills; he had promised to reject any legislation related to HMOs until a task force completed its report on managed-care issues. Lawmakers and health reform advocates angrily charged that the governor was using the committee as an excuse to protect the powerful insurance and hospital-care industries.
Wilson's own 30-member task force even asked him not to wait for their year-end report. Please, they wrote to him, consider bills on their own merits. Now. The Governor wouldn't budge.
The fight for breast cancer treatment was particularly bitter, and centered on an aggressive treatment called Autologous Bone Marrow Transplantation (ABMT). Here bone marrow is temporarily removed before a woman receives heavy chemotherapy. Although studies show that it significantly extends the life of half the women treated, California HMOs and insurance companies claim that it's experimental and rarely will pay for it.
Yet ABMT is approved in seven other states, and even women employed by the state of California or federal government are covered through their health plans. Other California women are forced to sue their providers for right to treatment.
The bill was supported by numerous scientific and professional groups, including the American Cancer Society, the California Nurses Association, and the Wilson-appointed California Commission on the Status of Women. "Does it mean nothing to this Governor that women's lives are on the line?" Protested State Controller Kathleen Connell after the veto.
Cynics noted that typically two years pass before legislation is ready again for consideration, and women with phase IV breast cancer that could be helped with ABMT aren't likely to be still alive by then.
Some also noted bitterly that Wilson killed the bill during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Who's to blame? Lobbyists share some guilt, of course; insurance companies and HMOs fought all medical reform bills. But as loathsome as their position might be, it's the same weary argument used by any fat cats: "Don't enact laws that are gonna cost us money." The bottom line is the bottom line.
What bothers more is that even when there were no (obvious) special interests tugging at his strings, he chose to do the Wrong Thing. Why? The state fiscal crisis has passed. This is no election year that requires a villain. With no real excuses available, Wilson seems to have a heart of rock ice. But I don't believe that; surely he didn't veto the ABMT bill because he wanted hundreds of women to die.
No, it's not the meanness of Wilson that scares me; it's that our governor can somehow rationalize the suffering of others. And what I really fear is that such views are becoming more common -- that many in our society now have unbending ideologies that make it easy to turn a blind eye to the results of their actions.
History teaches us that ideology-above-all thinking leads to savagery. Horrific examples abound: Think of Pol Pot's reign of terror in Cambodia. Think of "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski's alleged murders.
Think of the Humboldt County deputies bathing the eyes of young women in fiery, concentrated pepper.
It may seem a mockery to compare the Killing Fields with events here in California. In the pepper spray incidents, no one was killed; in Cambodia, more than a million -- a difference of magnitudes. But behind both are rigid ideologies that only vary by degrees.
What do the Humboldt videotapes show? The officers acted in a calm, methodical way; there was no rage in their actions. They were doing their job. The tapes show that no officer tries to interfere, no one questions the safety of applying the concentrate directly into the eyes. And apparently no one else in the department disputed the unusual use of pepper spray during the September 25 protest, because the police used the tactic again on October 3, and again at an October 16 sit-in.
In their actions, the Humbolt deputies (and, in the last case, the Eureka police) demonstrate a razor-thin ideology: Crime is crime. The women sitting on the floor with their arms locked inside pipes weren't participating in a non-violent political protest -- they were illegally trespassing. Obey the officer or suffer the consequences.
The police have their supporters, too. There's clearly no difference between the views of Rep. Frank Riggs (R- Scotia) and those of the Q-Tip cops. As we documented, Riggs defended police actions in an unusual speech on the House floor.
Long a foe of environmentalists, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat has chipped in with a predictable series of articles demonizing the protesters, and rushed to print many letters and comments also in support. "The troublemakers deserved what they got," snarl the vindictive correspondents.
Such voices are loud, but hopefully few; it's hard for most of us to think of a good reason for the methodical torture of human beings like that.
Here's where the line is drawn: Do you believe your ideology is more important than human life? Is it okay to risk someone's health or safety for the sake of your opinions? Once those beliefs are accepted, anything -- anything -- can be rationalized.
Riggs and the others have clearly crossed that line. Against mounting national outrage, Riggs continues his desperate bleat that the brutality was justified, most recently by claiming that protesters caused "extensive damage" by spreading sawdust on the carpet in his office -- a pathetic excuse that his rights were violated.
The Humbolt sheriff's department has also crossed the line. Like Riggs, they have repeatedly fielded excuses for their actions. The police made the tapes, remember; to them, it shows officers acting with professional restraint.
As for Wilson, I wonder: What flashed through his mind as he rejected that $1.75 million for illegal immigrant prenatal care? His veto comment was, "Legal residents and citizens should have first priority in the use of limited resources for health care." But he's a smart fellow; surely he must know that the result will be misery, with sickly babies requiring expensive attention in hospital emergency rooms.
Maybe Wilson was thinking that the feds would pay for those hospital treatments. Maybe he thought hatefully that it might "send a message" to illegal immigrants. But I'll bet he dived for his calculator, and rejected the bill because that saved him a goddamned three-tenths of a penny.
And that's the most evil reason of all.
-- Jeff Elliott,
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