Last week, I watched a debate between Los Angeles mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, and a clear winner emerged: Warren Olney, the moderator. I’m not saying that Olney’s fine grilling made the experience worthwhile, though, because nothing could. The California political debate is dead. When was the last time you heard one with an argument that convinced you of anything? Heck, when was the last time you heard an argument made in any political debate anywhere? The exercise is merely an exchange of tired sound bites and attacks—especially in our state, with its endless, expensive campaigns and frequent runoff elections between candidates who agree on all but the smallest points of contention.
But here’s the good news. After an extensive study of this question, up and down the state, I can report that California has no shortage of alternative contests that would reveal the knowledge, character, and judgment of competitors. We simply need to apply them to the political process. Here are the five that would be most useful:
1. The Academic Contest
Too many candidates dodge detailed questions. But it’s hard to dodge a written exam. My favorite is the 50-question quiz given to prospective contestants on the TV game show Jeopardy!, which is filmed in Culver City. It asks questions about an incredibly broad array of topics, making it a good test for politicians who will be asked to address all kinds of challenges. If candidates balk at this, they could take something easier: the California high school exit exam. (Politicians require it of students, and what’s good for the goose …) State legislators should also be forced to take California’s legendarily difficult state bar exam. Failure wouldn’t be disqualifying—a former Stanford law school dean failed the test—but the attempt might teach our lawmakers to be more humble, and careful, as they create new laws.
2. The Job-Interview Contest
Politicians love to talk about jobs. But how many of them could get a job at an iconic California company? Google has done as much hiring as any firm in the state, and its job interviews are legendarily tough, with questions designed to see how you solve difficult problems. Here’s a genuine example:
You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and your mass is proportionally reduced so as to maintain your original density. You are then thrown into an empty glass blender. The blades will start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?
Come up with a smart answer for that, and you’ve got my vote.
3. The Social Cohesion Contest
A California leader must bring together diverse peoples of different cultures. What better test than the Great Garlic Cook-Off at the mid-summer garlic festival in Gilroy? Just as a fine politician makes new coalitions and unifies them in service of a greater goal, a successful dish combines familiar foods in new ways, in the service of a greater enjoyment—or, in the case of Gilroy, in the service of garlic. Among recent winners: Spicy Garlic Butter Cookies with Garlic Goat Cheese and Honey and Walnut-Garlic Tart with Garlic-Infused Cream and Chili Syrup. Politicians can’t complain that they’re up against garlic pros; the Gilroy chefs are amateurs. Candidates must also make a meal of what they cook and wash it down with garlic milkshakes. After all, politicians too rarely eat what they serve up for the rest of us.
4. The Building Contest
California’s aging infrastructure has nearly $800 billion in projected needs over the next 10 years. Our elected leaders need to know how to design and build, on a budget, up to the state’s standards of beauty. The appropriate test would require candidates to lead the construction of a Rose Parade float. Candidates could spend no more than $300,000 (the cost of the very best floats), and they must honor the Rose Parade’s elaborate maze of regulations, which mimic the complexity of state law and local building codes. Teams of inspectors would review the work. If you survive the Pasadena mandarins, dealing with the California Environmental Quality Act is a piece of cake.
5. The Herding Contest
Any true leader knows that bringing other politicians and intransigent interest groups into alignment is like leading a bunch of mules. Fortunately, one of California’s great public events—Mule Days in the town of Bishop each Memorial Day weekend—includes just such a test of leadership. At last, our candidates could stop being critics and fulfill Teddy Roosevelt’s famous ideal of the person “who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” In an event called the “Packer’s Scramble,” mules are unloaded and untethered from their teams, and cowboys scatter them around an arena. Wouldn’t you want to elect the packer who can reassemble his or her team of mules in the chaos and be the first to lead the team, in triumph, face marred, out of the arena?
Once you see the packing scramble, you’ll agree with me: We should cancel next year’s election and simply appoint the winner governor.
Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square.