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Monday, Dec 26 2011 10:00 PM

Political reform 'godfather' ignites career in Bakersfield

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    By Courtesy of Robert Stern

    Robert Stern is widely considered the "godfather" of modern political reform in California. Stern grew up in Bakersfield.

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BY DIANNE HARDISTY Contributing writer dhardisty@bak.rr.com

Robert Stern might not be a household name, but legions of journalists and political wonks throughout California and beyond regard him as a foremost authority on elections and government ethics. Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag calls him "the godfather of modern political reform in California."

But in Bakersfield, the 67-year-old Stern may be remembered by old-timers as the kid who grew up on Alta Vista Drive, just south of Pacific Street, and cut his political teeth as the president of the East Bakersfield Young Democrats.

Until the organization closed its doors last month as a result of a funding shortfall, Stern headed the influential Southern California-based Center for Governmental Studies. The non-partisan think tank helped shape California's election laws for nearly three decades.

Stern's reputation as an election authority began in the early 1970s, when as a newly minted lawyer and adjunct professor at Stanford University, Stern teamed up with then-Secretary of State Jerry Brown to write legislation that became the foundation for Proposition 9, the ballot measure that created the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

When Brown became governor, he named Stern the FPPC's first general counsel and Dan Lowenstein its chairman. The two 30-year-olds became the teeth of the watchdog that voters in 1974 sicced on state and local politicians.

"We were two young guys given the job of taming a system that was a free-flowing river of political money," Stern recently recalled. Stern remained with the FPPC for nearly a decade, leaving to help form the Center for Governmental Studies.


Stern's interests in politics and government are deeply rooted in generations of political activism.

Born in Maryland, Stern, the oldest of four children, moved with his family to Bakersfield in 1956, when he was 12 years old and his father, Al, was transferred to help manage the downtown Fedway Department Store.

Stern recalls the most remarkable feature of the house the family rented on Alta Vista was a World War II-era bomb shelter the owner had dug into the backyard.

Life was pretty ordinary for the Sterns, with special nights out being dinner at Maison Jaussaud's, a South Union Avenue restaurant owned by a neighbor, or dinner at the Tam O' Shanter "up on the hill." Until he was elected to the Legislature and began his illustrious political career, the family's veterinarian was Dr. Walter Stiern.

It's hard to imagine living in today's Republican stronghold, but when Stern was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Bakersfield and Kern County voters elected Democratic politicians to represent them. Many, including Assemblyman John Williamson, rose to statewide prominence. Williamson created an agriculture land preservation program that bears his name today.

Although Stern's parents were "big fans" of Democratic presidential contender Adlai Stevenson and young Stern played Stevenson in a third-grade mock debate, Stern recalled that his parents' label would be "liberal," rather than Democrat.

Al and his wife, Betty, formed the Bakersfield chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, carrying on the legacy of Al's uncle, Arthur Garfield Hays.

Hays was a successful New York lawyer with a passion for fighting for civil liberties and defending the underdog. He helped found the American Civil Liberties Union and served as its general counsel in the 1920s.

With co-counsel Clarence Darrow, Hays defended teacher John Thomas Scopes, who was accused of violating Tennessee's ban on teaching evolution. The famous Scopes Trial ended in the teacher's conviction.

Hays' other high profile cases included Sacco and Vanzetti, in which two Italian anarchists in Boston were put to death in 1927 for a murder they denied committing, and the Scottsboro case, where eight black men from Alabama were condemned to die in 1931 for allegedly attacking two white women.


Stern says his childhood is filled with political memories, including watching his mother ironing his father's shirts while watching the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, which ended Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist "witch hunt" and led to his Senate censure.

Next door neighbor Dick Simpson, who worked in the Kern County Administrative Office, recalled the Stern family's passion for defending civil rights in Bakersfield.

The 1950s and 1960s marked the awakening of demands for civil rights for African-Americans in the South. The awakening -- and the resulting tensions -- also played out in Bakersfield.

"A key issue at the time they formed the Bakersfield ACLU chapter was the hiring of an African-American doctor at Kern General," the now 82-year-old Simpson recalled, explaining that when the doctor and his family moved into a white neighborhood, their house was vandalized and their children were roughed up at school. With the support of groups, such as the ACLU, and individuals, the family withstood the harassment.

"Al and Betty had a wonderful, practical sense of right and wrong," said Simpson, whose public service career took him to Northern California, where he retired in 1989 as the president of the California Taxpayers Association. Simpson remained a close family friend and worked with the younger Stern on government and political reform issues.

Simpson said because of Al and Betty Stern's influence, he is not surprised that Robert Stern dedicated his life to "improving our democracy and bringing fairness to elections."

At East Bakersfield High School, Stern learned to play tennis and the French horn, and ignited his political career with the Young Democrats. But before he could graduate with his class of 1962, Stern's father was transferred to Southern California and he finished his senior year in Pomona. From there, he earned an undergraduate degree from Pomona College and his law degree from Stanford University.

Stern focused his law classes on election and poverty issues. After earning his degree, he briefly taught law classes at Stanford, where he arranged to have his students help state lawmakers research and draft legislation.


Through this arrangement, he met Democratic Assemblyman Henry Waxman and witnessed first-hand the Legislature's 1971 redrawing of political district boundary lines. It was a process that seemed intent on reelecting incumbents.

"I became convinced that redistricting should be done by anyone, other than the Legislature," said Stern, who supported the voter-approved ballot measures that turned reapportionment over to a citizens' commission in 2011.

In 2000, state legislators once again drew a bipartisan incumbent protection map, which effectively protected all incumbents -- Democrats and Republicans. In fact, since that map was drawn, only one congressional seat changed hands, when incumbent Republican Richard Pombo lost to Democrat Jerry McNerney in 2006.

Despite the present court challenges, Stern believes the citizens' commission has performed well, with the result likely to be more competitive races in 2012.

Stern is not quite as certain about the benefits of another recent reform that he and his Center for Governmental Studies evaluated in advance of its adoption by California voters in 2010. An attempt to give voters more moderate choices, Proposition 14 enjoyed bipartisan support, including a big push from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Primary elections will now see all candidates for an office on a single ballot, regardless of political affiliation. The top two vote-getters (even if from the same party) will advance to the general election.

"I started out as a big proponent. But after I studied it, I was undecided. I barely voted for it," said Stern, who believes the "jury is still out" on the affect the top-two primary system will have on reforming the political process. "The affect is likely to be more on Democrats than Republicans."


Stern's focus is now drawn to the term limits California voters established in 1990 for state lawmakers. Assembly members are limited to three two-year terms, state senators to two four-year terms and a lifelong ban against seeking the same office once the limits have been reached.

"These limits have turned out to be not as good as people hoped for; but they are not as bad, either," said Stern, who favors adjusting the limits to still prevent entrenched incumbents from monopolizing the Legislature, but providing more stability and leadership.

An initiative will appear on the June 2012 ballot that would reduce the total number of years a politician can serve in the Legislature from 14 to 12, but allows the legislator to serve the entire 12 years in one house -- the Assembly or Senate.

"Being a legislator is not rocket science, but it takes time to develop into a leader," said Stern. "It will allow experienced leadership to emerge."

While his much respected Center for Governmental Studies has closed its doors, Stern remains the "go-to" government authority for journalists and political reformers.

He's long been a trusted source for balanced perspectives on all kinds of issues, but especially on political ethics and accountability, said Vic Pollard, The Californian's former Sacramento bureau chief.

"When writing an article about a complicated subject, it is a valuable service to readers to have a comment from a knowledgeable, credible source without partisan political ties," Pollard said. "Bob is one of the best at that."

After 40 years of trying to reform California politics, Stern remains optimistic. "It's not perfect. But it's better."

Looking back on the landmark creation of the Fair Political Practices Commission, Stern seems pleased. Certainly it didn't rid the state of all the slimy politicians. The recent scandals in the cities of Bell and Vernon can attest to that.

"But compared to 30 or 40 years ago (before the FPPC) the system is much more open. There is more public disclosure. Candidates are much more careful," Stern contends.

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