The Abstainers

The North Bay’s state legislators sure know how to abstain. I’m not talking about refraining from sex, alcohol or drugs. I mean abstaining from crucial votes in the California State Legislature.

A champion abstainer is Assemblyman Marc Levine. After voting against a bill for farmworker overtime pay in early summer, he didn’t show up to vote when a similar bill finally got the Assembly’s approval in late August. Abstaining might seem evenhanded, but in fact it has the same effect as a “no” vote. Sounds nicer though.

Another member of the Assembly from the North Bay, Jim Wood, also abstained on the farmworker bill. But Wood has a lot of catching up to do if he wants to match Levine’s abstinence record. As the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gary Cohn pointed out, Levine has been at it since entering the Assembly in 2013, “when a bill to give the state Coastal Commission authority to levy fines against shoreline despoilers came for a vote.” At that time, Levine “sat out the single most important vote for his constituents that year—which helped doom the measure.”

Cohn reported that Levine went on to “abstain or skip votes on bills helping farmworkers and creating a bill of rights for domestic workers.” And he voted against other major progressive bills, which “should come as no surprise.” During two Assembly campaigns, Levine had received “hundreds of thousands of dollars from some of the state’s largest business interests.”

While serving those interests, it’s a challenge to pose as some kind of principled lawmaker. So the option of abstaining—in hopes of fogging up the choice—can be too attractive to resist.

Just ask our state senator, Mike McGuire, who’s getting the hang of abstaining. He went for the euphemism instead of a flat-out “no” vote in August when he abstained on the bill for farmworkers’ overtime.

Weirdly, in his formal statement about the matter, McGuire declared: “My stand was on principle. I’m never going to vote against farmworkers.”

He had just voted against farmworkers. Welcome to the corporate-friendly “progressive” world of the abstainers.

Norman Solomon is a co-chair of the Coalition for Grassroots Progress. He is the author of many books, including ‘War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.’ He lives in Marin County.

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