Policy-Makers Should Look to Californians for Decisions

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, July 20, 2006
By Tom Campbell and Leon E. Panetta
Heading into an election season in which California voters will decide the state’s next governor and legislative representatives, public attention is turning to how we might best realize our citizens’ hopes for the future.

California epitomizes the promise and problems of our nation. Home to cutting-edge industries, top universities, internationally renowned arts and cultural institutions, abundant natural resources, and an incredible diversity of people and places, California can seem to be a land of great opportunity.

Yet, there is much more we need to do for our education system, and for our state’s roads, water, and energy facilities. Quality jobs, able to pay the high cost of living in our state’s cities, require those investments. The strain on our state’s environment requires those investments, too, as long commute times deteriorate both quality of life and quality of air.

It is common to view California’s challenges as deep-rooted and unchangeable — as unfortunate but unavoidable results of other societal changes. Californians seem at times unfazed when public leaders do not deliver on their promises or when we, as a society, cannot make headway on important state concerns.

Seven individuals, recently recognized as the first-ever recipients of the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards, inspire us to think otherwise and challenge us all to contribute to a better future. The James Irvine Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California, selected these individuals because they are advancing innovative and effective solutions to significant state issues.

This group illustrates how dedication, optimism and collaboration can fundamentally shift communities’ prospects. For example, a San Jose recipient, Eric Weaver of Lenders for Community Development, is applying the concepts of micro-lending, proven effective in developing countries, to low-income families in Silicon Valley. By blending a social mission with sound business practices, Weaver has improved the lives of more than 6,000 households while investing in small business entrepreneurs that conventional lenders considered “unbankable.”

Other recipients include two former teachers and a former school district superintendent who are helping disadvantaged students succeed in school; a nun who helps young adults develop job skills and join the workforce; an attorney who is reversing disheartening trends in the juvenile justice system; and an environmental scientist who is improving water quality along our coastline. The successes of James Bell, Mark Gold, Eileen McNerney, Don Shalvey, Kevin Sved, Eric Weaver and Johnathan Williams are described further at www.irvine.org.

What can those running for public office this fall glean from the achievements of these people?

Policy-makers at all levels of government can learn from their overall approach as well as from the specific strategies they are successfully applying to issues that all Californians care about. These individuals have in common that they started with a great confidence in the possibility of transforming a complex societal problem; they have implemented their efforts in collaboration with unexpected partners from all segments of the community; and they have diligently tracked progress along the way, while remaining completely focused on achieving their ambitious goals.

Our democracy was founded on the fundamental belief that every citizen has an obligation to make life better for the next generation. The lesson of these citizens is that Californians in all sectors — private, public and non-profit — have a solemn duty to find effective solutions to today’s challenges so that life will be better for future generations.

In this election season, we should recognize the special opportunity and responsibility carried by those in public office to identify programs and approaches that are working to address California’s key challenges and to discern how such approaches might shape public policy-making and resource allocations in ways that capitalize on what is working in our communities.

In the past few years, California’s political climate has swung pendulum-like from constructive problem-solving to more strident political attacks and now back to bipartisanship. Certainly, our public leaders have accomplished a great deal more when they have worked across party lines to tackle Californians’ major concerns. At the end of the day, public leadership is about gathering and applying considerable knowledge and experience from all those who can offer it and then getting together with people of differing viewpoints to develop solutions. Those competing for public office this fall should look to Californians such as those celebrated through the Irvine leadership awards for greater understanding about California’s critical issues and inspiration on how to make a difference for California’s future. a former congressman and White House chief of staff, directs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU-Monterey Bay. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.
TOM CAMPBELL, a former congressman and director of California’s Department of Finance, is dean of the Haas School of Business at UC-Berkeley. LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House chief of staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.


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