Donna Lucas’ political acumen has made her one of the most respected public affairs strategists in the nation and one of the most influential people in California state government. Her time in the halls of power has included stints as a deputy chief of staff for Govs. George Deukmejian and Arnold Schwarzenegger, California press secretary for President George H.W. Bush and chief of staff for first lady Maria Shriver. Now the chief executive for Lucas Public Affairs, she advises candidates, unions, corporations and campaigns of all stripes. We sat down with her recently to discuss the Golden State’s political climate.
Comstock’s: Some observers call you one of the state’s most powerful people and the political “insider’s insider.” Is that an accurate assessment?
Lucas: Well, I like what I do. I’ve spent 30 years working in politics. I grew up in politics. My parents met in the state Capitol, so it’s something I’ve been around. I hope the word powerful means for doing good things, not for just being someone in the back room. I love all aspects of California. I love the fact that I’ve worked up and down the state and know California really well. So that’s a compliment.
Comstock’s: The Capitol has been known for a long time as the “the old boys network.” But these days, many of the Capitol’s power players are women, including Susan â?¨Kennedy, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s chief of staff, who many people consider to be the most important person in California politics. Have things really changed?
Lucas: I think so. When I worked for George Deukmejian, there was really one senior woman on the staff and that was the scheduler. When I worked for Schwarzenegger in the beginning of his administration, the majority of his senior staff were women. So yes, I think it’s changed a lot. I think it’s just part of what’s been going on with women in the workplace in general.
Comstock’s: You were Maria Shriver’s chief of staff. She gets mentioned a lot as someone who would make a great candidate for governor, or perhaps senator. Is there any chance she will ever run for office?
Lucas: Well, she’d be fabulous in whatever she does. She’s the most inspiring, amazing person to work for, and the type of person that will set a goal and make it happen. She is a wonderful person with a great sense of humor and all the things you need to be a public personality, but I think right now she’s really focused on doing her issues, such as the Women’s Nation.
Comstock’s: A lot of people think California has become â?¨ungovernable. Is that true?
Lucas: Most people running for the job of course would never say that. But it is tremendously difficult with California’s fiscal realities. And it’s not just the recession; it’s our whole budget process. Our fiscal infrastructure is difficult, which makes it hard to do all the other things people expect of government. For someone to do that job, it takes strong leadership, someone who has the confidence to be able to try things that are new and who can work with other constituents. It’s also increasingly more challenging because of the politics around being governor.
Comstock’s: In hindsight, did the recall election make the state’s infamous hyperpartisanship worse, or is that so long ago in political years that it doesn’t matter?
Lucas: I think how the governor came to office is what you’re seeing again here and in places like Massachusetts. What happened in California with the recall is that people have become much more independent. They’re not Republican or Democrat. They’re Independent, and they’re mad. Who can blame them at 12 percent unemployment? I think we need to put some fundamental reforms in place, like an open primary or the top-two challenge. When you talk about this, most people’s eyes glaze over, but it’s ridiculous that we can’t vote for the top two people we want to vote for. Term limits are another thing. I really think term limits have been devastating. I certainly agree with a lot of Californians who get frustrated and say, ‘Throw the bums out,’ but in reality it is impossible to get elected and come in already understanding the complexities of the office, of making decisions on things like a $100 billion budget.
Comstock’s: You have advised numerous initiative campaigns from a variety of spectrums. Many observers complain now that the proposition process is out of control and should be changed, or even done away with. What is your perspective on that?
Lucas: The people of California overwhelmingly support the initiative process, so the chances of getting an initiative passed that would limit initiatives may be very challenging. But has the process been abused? Absolutely. Has it been used to go around the Legislature? Yes. Has it been used for special interest groups and their agendas? Yeah. But it’s also been used when people are frustrated about government’s lack of ability to move things forward. It’s been used to go to the people and ask for their approval for bond measures, which is an appropriate use. But yes, right now something like 90 percent of the state budget is locked up by constitutional amendments that say how we spend money. I think it is a big problem. That’s why reform groups want to fix this. But it’s not just about raising taxes or cutting the budget here. There is so much more to the picture than that. We need a two-year budget cycle. We need a much better planning process. We need to have an ability to say you can’t introduce a new program unless you have the funding for it. We need to have a reserve. So it isn’t just fixing the initiative process, it is fundamental reform.
Comstock’s: Do we need a constitutional convention?
Lucas: A constitutional convention sounds great, and people get excited about the right to participate in their government. But I don’t know if the convention is the right answer. First of all, you have to get approval by the voters, which requires an initiative. Then you have to decide who’s going to be at the convention. Who are the delegates? What are they going to talk about? What is the scope of what they’re going to do?
Comstock’s: Ronald Reagan used to say the object of a negotiation is to get a deal done. Everyone gives up something to reach an accord. It seems like that mentality has been lost. Is it still realistic to expect politicians, in the world of term limits, to have the political courage to do the things that need to be done to govern?
Lucas: I sure hope so. I love meeting with people who want to run for office. The first thing I say is, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ Because if it’s about your ego, forget about it. Your ego will be gone in the first month of office when you get the editorials in your district. But there are people who still fundamentally believe that they can come up here and make a difference, and they are pragmatic. I think some of those people are here now, and I think they will emerge as we go on because, as hard as we are having it now, it’s going to get worse. And that’s when leaders really rise to the front. I have seen a change in the people around the Capitol who, years ago, would have never agreed to a tax increase or cutting certain programs. Now they’re saying, ‘If we don’t do something, it’s going to be really bad.’ I think you see that a lot in the business community where they know we need to make California a stable place for our businesses, which means sitting down and looking at budget reform.
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