Last month, the Coro Fellows in Public Affairs participated in an intensive learning week focused on our state government in Sacramento. The question they were tasked with exploring: Who Governs California? Current Coro Fellow Henry DeRuff illuminates his takeaways.
Each year, the Northern and Southern California Coro Fellows gather in Sacramento for Government Focus Week. This February, we met — from Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, and California — on Zoom, in “Sacramento.”
We interviewed more than 50 guests from inside and outside the government: legislators and local officials, lobbyists and labor unions, journalists and strategists, and Governor Newsom himself.
Each had a different answer to our driving question, Who Governs California? “Unions,” said the business interests. “Business interests,” said the unions. “The people,” said those holding formal power. “The Governor,” said those without it.
The common theme? Everyone thinks someone else holds the power.
While each interview guest had a different answer to the who, there was implicit agreement on the how. For better or worse, relationships — from the personal to the institutional — rule the day in Sacramento.
One Democratic legislator keeps up with everyone in the legislature, Democrat or Republican; “It’s pretty hard to vote against your friend,” he said.
A business group and a labor union used to collaborate on policy but no longer do; a few years back, one betrayed the other’s trust. As a state, California is navigating a fraught relationship with high-income people: it depends on them for tax revenue and yet taxes them at the highest rate in the country, which threatens that very tax base.
As one interview guest shared, “Bureaucracy is not some big machine. It’s people.” People are flawed. We have strong interests. Most importantly, we’re totally dependent on our relationships.
We learned this not only from our guests, but, in true Coro fashion, from ourselves.
We had the week to investigate our foundational question about who governs the state — but by Thursday night, with our presentation looming the next day, we still had not arrived at consensus.
We competed for influence, waged alliances, deliberated, and voted. The best idea didn’t always win — because we’re people, too, the strongest relationship usually did.
Before us, our own challenge of democratic self-governance. And the result? People govern California.
Special thanks to our fantastic interview guests for sharing their time and expertise.
Henry DeRuff is a 2021 Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. At Claremont McKenna College, Henry engaged with the philosophies, politics, and economics that shape our society. Questions of justice — economic, environmental, and educational — were most interesting to him. Determined to grapple with those questions tangibly, he joined Teach for America in Colorado Springs, where he taught middle school English for two years. As a teacher, coach, and member of the school’s leadership team, Henry witnessed firsthand the systemic barriers that stand between his students and an excellent education. Henry aspires to use law and policy to help eliminate those barriers.
Below, the Fellows interview Governor Newsom.
Coro thanks our generous Focus Week Sponsor