How to move California – its government, its economy, its people – forward

150 150 Jim Mayer

CSU Monterey Bay, home of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. (Photo Credit: Ultimate Universities)

California Forward President/CEO Jim Mayer spoke to a group of student leaders at the Panetta Institute recently. Here are his observations.

The photos on the wall of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy have always been impressive.  But they have taken on a different dimension now, after the second tour of duty.

“We have added a few pictures to the wall,” Leon Panetta says casually, walking past a photograph full of dark green steel – and the Defense Department’s top civilian leader addressing soldiers in computer- generated camouflage.

In the conference room, 30 university students – 30 young leaders feeling the call to public service – are waiting for another session with the Secretary.  It is the 14th annual session of the student leadership seminar.  Another class eager to be inspired, challenged, encouraged by a statesmen equally called to oblige.

The Panetta Institute is on the campus of CSU Monterey Bay, on the sprawling, ice plant covered dunes of the former Fort Ord. A substantial number of new buildings have sprouted since the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute opened here in 1997, when the Panettas returned from the first tour of duty – nine terms in Congress, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and chief of staff to the president.  Still, some relics of the World War II era remain, now mostly fenced off to protect the curious.

At the Institute, student leaders from the other California State Universities drink in lectures and engage in discussions on a range of political, policy and governance topics.  They are smart and confident.  Some are in suits, others in polo shirts.  They have business cards.

The subject for this afternoon is how to move California – its government, its economy, its people – forward.

A walk through CA Fwd’s strategy touches on political reform – which triggers an exchange on the possibilities of publicly funding campaigns.  The Secretary is candid about the influence of money in policy-makers, along with the inability to effectively regulate that influence, and the unlikely prospects for balancing private contributions with public funding of campaigns.

Heads nod in agreement that the State needs to better manage tax dollars – to prevent the kinds of decisions that over two decades significantly increased funding for prisons while university budgets were cut and tuition and fees raised.

And all hands go into the air when CA Fwd’s Transparency Portal is explained.  The students want to know what data can be found there. They have data they want see there. They want their own sites – so they can share data across campuses, and agenda for their Senates.

The student leaders turn the conversation to online  learning.  Their experiences, insights and concerns flow – where are  the data? Where’s the research?  This might be a good way to increase access for students.  But it might also be a way for professors to avoid the classroom.

Then comes the statesman’s moment:  Governing requires human interaction.  It requires relationships and learning how to understand each other and finding agreement among people with different views.  Washington used to work that way, before strident partisanship eroded the nobility of compromise.  You can’t learn everything you need to know, he cautions, over the internet.

This is not a new perspective for Panetta.  His first tour of duty taught him that “governance” is a combination of rules and tools – like PayGo and citizens redistricting – as well as leadership.  It is why he had signed on as founding co-chair for CA Fwd, and other bipartisan efforts.  It is why – even now – he prioritizes time for these student leaders.

Surely the second tour taught its own lessons.  But his focus is on the future, literally sitting in front of us.

He closes the session with a story.  When he first ran for Congress, from the district that includes the family farm started by his parents, he had to unseat an eight-term Republican.

He gets to Washington and the first vote is to raise his salary.  He can’t do it, he tells the Speaker.  The Speaker tells him not to worry.  There is a reason why it is the first vote of the session and not the last.

Still, he votes “no” – and subsequently writes a check to the Treasury every payday for the difference.

The students applaud. He blushes, smiles, and says that’s not the purpose of the story.

“I knew I was going to vote for some things that would be unpopular in this district.  But they would be important, and I would want to support them.”

Even as a freshman he had political capital in the district.  It was not going to be spent raising his own salary.

Leadership is essential to good governance. And so is service.  CA needs to continue its reinvention of government.  The leadership and service aspects need to be modeled and taught – by those who have, like Leon Panetta, to those who will lead going forward.


Jim Mayer

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