There’s a telling moment during the Modesto Bee interview with mayoral candidates Garrad Marsh and Brad Hawn. It comes when Bee publisher Eric Johnston asks Hawn whether he wrote his pension reform initiatives himself or had help from a campaign consultant. Hawn’s reaction is a study in waffling. He ultimately admits many things at once: his wife helped him, lots of people helped him, he wrote them himself. He never does answer the part about the campaign consultant.
Unfortunately, Johnston didn’t press the issue. If he had, it would have been interesting to see how long Hawn tried to avoid a direct answer. But the important point is that Johnston, like most people who’ve taken a few moments to consider the pension reform measures, obviously realized that the measures were an unnecessary expense and the product of the kind of political calculation that has contributed to an ongoing decline in the nation’s campaign discourse, both locally and nationally.
Wedge issues came into their own when Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater developed what thereafter became known as “The Southern Strategy.” Using race as a wedge to split traditional voting coalitions, Nixon and Atwater ushered in a new “solid south” that voted reliably Republican after nearly a century of supporting Democrats. Later, wedge issues involved everything from religion to immigration as campaign consultants became demographic savants, probing voter anger like surgeons looking for tumors.
Union bashing became popular when Ronald Reagan swept into office on a tide of anti-tax hysteria. Taxes and unions were seen as the root of all the nation’s problems. Since Reagan’s time, taxes have gotten progressively lower and most unions progressively weaker. Are we better off?
Close observers of the political scene know that when unions are threatened by their own success, union leaders are most often more than willing to compromise. This has been the case with America’s autoworkers, and is especially true of Modesto’s police and firefighters. They’d already begun addressing retirement age, “spiking,” and other problems of current contracts when Hawn decided to capitalize on wide spread discontent with public employees, who have become the latest scapegoats for the nation’s woes.
Wedge issues offer many advantages for politicians, not the least of which is their tendency to distract from more important concerns. While there’s no doubt public pension reform is needed, there are far more pressing problems for Modesto, especially those involving growth. And pension reform will happen no matter who’s elected mayor.
Brad Hawn has been endorsed by almost every sitting local politician, many of whom are the very people responsible for our poor record on growth and farmland protection. It’s no accident he’s chosen a wedge issue as the main plank in his campaign platform. And in the end, whether or not he did so as a result of advice from a campaign consultant is a moot point: The issue tells us a lot about the man, and it’s almost worse if he thought of it by himself.