The Migden Chronicles

One of the last standing Democrats writes the treatment for a flick in which a befuddled sci-fi hero helps California to a better future

Dozens of cadavers lie piled in the rutted grass. One body stirs. Then another. Several push their torsos from the mud. It's unclear whether they've been killed, or they've just awakened from a dream. A few make it to their feet and stare blankly toward Sacramento.

Curious as to what happens next in this scene, I met last week at the SFMOMA cafe for a chat with One of the Last California Dems Left Standing, state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden. Migden, a former San Francisco supervisor, was until last year the all-powerful head of the state Assembly's Appropriations Committee. She's the likely replacement next year for John Burton, termed-out majority leader of the state Senate, where she would be one of the most connected and experienced members, making her a likely ringleader of legislative battles to come.

Initially, we had agreed to watch and then discuss the sci-fi movie Total Recall, starring Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I did my part, watching the video over the weekend. Migden's staff did its part, renting the movie, watching snippets of it during breaks, printing out a synopsis, and presenting it to the boss. Migden did not do her part.

"I kind of turned it on, saw something blow up, and kind of had a surmise of the kind of filmic illusion the governor-elect has in store for our state. I just wasn't constitutionally able to watch more," she said by way of excuse.

Migden made it to our appointment anyway. And after two hours of discussing the future of California politics, I realized she had done something even better than watch Hollywood's version of Total Recall.She'd drafted her own treatment, a dream-within-a-dream sci-fi flick in which committed rebels take back the planet from usurping overlords.

Migden's account mixes comedy, tragedy, a fanciful narrative arc, and a deadly serious subtext -- much like this summer's recall campaign. But in the end of this tale, California comes out OK. And that makes it a story I desperately wish to believe.

Schwarzenegger and his right-wing foil, state Sen. Tom McClintock, enlivened the campaign trail with stories about California's 1960s glory days. But back when we were building Space Age water and energy systems, the world's best schools, and futuristic infrastructure projects such as BART, we were a high-tax state -- No. 10 in the nation in taxing our citizenry.

During the one-third century of decline that ensued, Republicans controlled the governor's office two-thirds of the time. We're now about 20th in the rank of high-tax states when one accounts for California's relatively low university fees. Many of our counties are so poor they can't afford dog pounds or libraries. The most vivid symbol of California-style opportunity -- our once-enviable junior college system -- is overcrowded, run-down, and increasingly housed in ticky-tacky portable buildings and abandoned grammar schools. California's permanent gap between revenues and expenditures still sits at around $10 billion per year; cut the car tax, as Schwarzenegger has promised, and it's $14 billion. Republicans say they'll fix our problems without tax increases. What they're promising, tacitly, is decades more of California decline.

Myself, I'd like to cling to some sort of hope -- a Hollywood fantasy even.

To hear Migden's telling, the future has a sweet tinge to it. If the wiliest, most patient, and skilled of Democrats simply bide their time, events may play into their hands. Before anyone realizes what has happened, Democrats will have risen anew. They'll be more powerful than ever, without the stodgy, passionless, poll-driven Gray Davis weighing them down. They'll be working with a moderate, independent-minded governor who's not really all that interested in battling for mean-spirited Republican principles.

"Long term, do I think there's a prospect of hopefulness?" Migden asked rhetorically, before launching her elevator pitch. "Yeah, I do."

Scene 1: (Schwarzenegger sits alone in the governor's office. Gray Davis' old, abandoned polling reports litter the floor. The new governor opens and closes all the drawers in his desk, gets up and straightens a photograph of Ronald Reagan on the wall, turns and strolls to a window, gazes at the Capitol grounds a moment, then heads down to the Capitol lunch room and reads the Sacramento Bee comics section.)

Schwarzenegger (to himself): "The people want action. I want action."

Scene 2: (Schwarzenegger's still in the cafeteria. He glances forlornly at an attractive legislative aide who walks by. His face strains as if he wants to say something. But he's silent. He wrings his hands, then stares at them.)

Schwarzenegger (to himself): "I'm The Terminator. I'm The Running Man. He's The Predator.This is Total Recall. I'm The Terminator. I'm The Running Man. He's The Predator.This is Total Recall. I'm The Terminator. I'm The Running Man. He's The Predator."

Carole Migden, voice-over narration: "We've got right now, tomorrow, some problems, and suddenly he's talking about commuting home every night, keeping his kids in Brentwood schools. That's not the easiest approach to being the chief executive of the biggest state in the union. You kind of think he kind of thought it was fun to run, and, like Robert Redford in The Candidate, he says, 'Oh my God, what do we do now?' I kind of think that must be part of waking up to victory."

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