Is Public Office the Best Place to Do Public Service?

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Is the Latest to Join an Exodus of Talented California Leaders in Search of Real Impact

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez speaking at a rally at the Capitol in Sacramento, California, on Aug. 28, 2019. Courtesy of AP Images.

If you want to serve the people of California, is public office the best place for you?

The question came up again as one of our most accomplished state legislators, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, recently resigned her seat to take a leadership role at the California Labor Federation, a powerful alliance of unions representing millions of workers.

Gonzalez, best known for legislation regulating the gig economy and protecting warehouse workers, was reported to have many different reasons for leaving, from the redistricting of the part of San Diego County she’s represented since 2013 to her personal battle with cancer. But here’s another rationale for the switch: She will almost certainly have more power to shape the future of California as a labor movement leader than as a state lawmaker.

Gonzalez’s resignation should focus more of our attention on a chronic condition in California: much of our governing power lies outside the government. Over generations, California has constructed a strange and complicated system that limits the power of the public officials we elect. Interest groups, corporations and the wealthy have filled the void, writing much legislation themselves, and sponsoring ballot measures that impose formulas to determine spending and taxation.

Our representatives are left with little discretion and less control over state dollars than we imagine. That’s why, when politicians create a new program, they often must seek donations from companies, philanthropies, or individuals. Governor Newsom has secured more than $200 million in such donations, or “behested payments,” to support everything from COVID relief to state commissions on climate change and aging.

This state of affairs can be frustrating for the most creative and public-spirited minds in public office, who earnestly seek to use their offices to get things done. Even worse, public officials are increasingly the target of threats and harassment from people angered by social media posts or conspiracy theories. Add to this mix the relatively lower pay of their jobs, and is it any wonder that some our most accomplished public servants are open to better offers?

It’s not just the legislative branch’s rotating cast of term-limited members and their ambitious aides dreaming of consultancies, either. For me, the most noteworthy resignation came last fall, when California Supreme Court justice Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuellar announced his departure.

Why would anyone leave the security of a seat on a court seen as second in influence only to the U.S. Supreme Court? Cuellar was thriving in the job, and has said he enjoyed the work. But the justice, a 49-year-old legal and international affairs scholar who was on the Stanford faculty before his 2015 appointment, accepted an offer to become president of a leading international think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez’s resignation should focus more of our attention on a chronic condition in California: much of our governing power lies outside the government.

The post offers not just higher pay than state service, but the possibility of making a greater impact. A state supreme court is limited to the cases and California issues that come before it. At Carnegie, Cuellar can work to address a tsunami of global challenges crashing down on all of humanity—from climate change to economic inequality, and from mass migration to technological disruption. And he doesn’t even have to leave California to do it. Carnegie is opening a Silicon Valley office.

Unfortunately, the most skilled politicians in some of our neediest places no longer hold public office. Take the San Joaquin Valley, where two former mayors and huge political talents, Ashley Swearengin of Fresno and Michael Tubbs of Stockton, seem unlikely to return to elected seats.

Swearengin did so well in her two terms as mayor of Fresno—including solving a major budget deficit and decreasing unemployment—that she might be the only Republican in California with a real chance of winning statewide office. But she has declined to run. Gavin Newsom, noting her record and skills, publicly expressed relief when she decided not to seek the governorship in 2018.

Swearengin has opted for philanthropy instead. She leads the Central Valley Community Foundation, the largest philanthropy in the region. There, she spearheads one of the smartest community investment efforts in the state, Fresno DRIVE (Developing the Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy), and has helped put together an innovative participatory budgeting process to let Fresno residents determine how to spend climate change funds. She also serves as co-chair of the California Forward Leadership Council, which works to improve the state’s regional economies and governance.

Put all those roles together, and Swearengin looks like a public official without public office—the unofficial governor of the undeclared state of San Joaquin Valley, which has more people than the state of Oregon.

While Swearengin left Fresno city hall after two terms, Tubbs, elected to the city council at 22 and to the mayor’s job at 26, was voted out in Stockton after one term. But Tubbs’ record in office was so strong—with big improvements in city finances and a novel basic income program that has attracted global attention—that Governor Newsom hired him as an advisor and Macmillan gave him a book contract.

Tubbs has a powerful personal story—poor kid from Stockton, with a single mother and incarcerated father, graduates from Stanford—and would be a strong contender for any number of elected positions. But Tubbs seems more interested in building a new social movement—an effort to end poverty in California—than in returning to elected office.

In this, Tubbs is nodding to the new California conventional wisdom that social movements are more impactful than politicians. “The only thing that really moves public policy into being is power,” USC sociologist Manuel Pastor, author of the book State of Resistance, has said. “And power, in fact, comes from social movements.”

The demands of holding and winning public office became a distraction from actual public service, is how Tubbs describes it in his new memoir, The Deeper the Roots. “I was often too busy with reality to worry about politics,” he writes.

“I enjoyed my eight years in local politics,” Tubbs told a journalist while doing publicity for the book. “But I’m enjoying even more not being an officeholder.”

Such comments may seem self-serving. But as tempting as it is to rail against public officials as a class—as Californians are prone to do—we ought to remember that the excellent public servants have other, better options than taking our abuse.

It’s a problem when politics become too dull or demoralizing for politicians. California and its governments can’t succeed if our most talented leaders conclude that serving in public office is not the best way to serve the public.


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