With Recession in the Rear View, a More Upbeat California Looks to Choose a New Governor
Standing beneath a radiant blue sky, Mary Cox set aside her broom and counted the blessings of living in California.
Sure, taxes are high — especially compared with Indiana, where she lived a few years ago — and there’s a lot of government red tape, as she’s learned owning a tavern in this charming bedroom community midway between San Francisco and Sacramento.
But crime isn’t a big problem here, the schools in Vacaville are better than they were in Indianapolis and the weather, the 47-year-old Cox said as she smiled at the crystalline morning, couldn’t be finer.
While Cox swept up, her sister and business partner, Anna Louzon, 37, wandered out to the parking lot and joined the conversation. “Certainly there’s a higher cost to living here,” she said. “But anywhere else you live doesn’t have the beach, the snowy mountains and the desert all within a two-hour drive of your house.”
As California chooses a new governor — one of just a handful in the last 40 years not named Jerry Brown — the state seems to be enjoying something unusual in these tumultuous political times: a feeling of relative contentment.
Not to say things are perfect.
Traffic is awful. Housing costs are crazy. Homelessness is acute.
The state’s 1 million-plus undocumented residents are a source of deep contention; some see a drain on taxpayers, others the victims of unwarranted scapegoating.
Still, more than 100 random interviews conducted over the length and breadth of the state — from Redding in the north to Santee in the south, from the Pacific coastline to the edge of the Sierra Nevada — found most saying things are looking up, at least so far as California’s direction is concerned.
Armand Werden sees things improving from his perch in the Central Valley.
“They’re fixing the streets,” said the 29-year-old community college student, who mans the taps at Dust Bowl Brewery, a sprawling restaurant and gathering spot in downtown Turlock. “The city itself is looking a little bit cleaner. A lot of businesses are opening up.”
Rob Schroeder said after years of upheaval, the entertainment industry is thriving.
“There are people shooting and for California’s economy that’s what matters,” the 45-year-old filmmaker said over a bacon-and-eggs breakfast in the Hollywood Hills. “How people watch it isn’t as important as how many people show up to work every day with a camera or a makeup chair.”
This is far from the angry electorate that heaved Democratic Gov. Gray Davis from office in a 2003 recall, gambling on the upstart Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the economically shell-shocked voters who elected Brown in 2010, doubting that he — or any politician, for that matter — could rescue a state in seemingly steep and irreversible decline.
Since then, the turnabout has been dramatic.
California faced a $27-billion deficit when Brown took office and unemployment was 12.2%, topping 25% in some rural areas. More than 1.3 million jobs were lost in the recession, as the housing and construction industries tanked during the worst economic downturn in 50-plus years.
Today, California is running a $6-billion surplus, thanks in part to two voter-approved tax hikes, and the most recent report put the state unemployment rate at 4.3%, an all-time low. Nearly 3 million jobs have been created since the economy bottomed out, a recovery that has outpaced the rest of the country.
Karina Sotto, 25, a community college student who lives in Lennox, just east of Los Angeles International Airport, pointed to the NFL stadium under construction in nearby Inglewood and the fact her father, a welder, made enough money these last few years to finally retire. “We’re on the right track,” she said.
The comparative good times, however, have brought their own set of problems.
More people working means more people crowding the roadways and packing public transit, turning the daily commute into a form of torture. A robust housing market means higher prices, and the yawning gap between rich and poor means some people are being priced out of their neighborhoods, or forced to surrender more of their paycheck to keep a roof over head. In the worst cases, they’re being shoved onto the streets.