Cronyism is the governing principle of California’s political class

In the generation that passed between Jerry Brown’s two eight-year stints as governor, California became a high-tech powerhouse, with Apple, Google, and Silicon Valley serving as the flywheel of innovation for the United States and the world. Even so, before he left office last year, Brown noticed a problem: California was falling behind in online education, particularly for working adults looking to improve their skills and qualifications. Brown proposed a public online college that would operate through the state’s community college system. Lawmakers approved the plan, but after Brown left office, problems began to mount.

The online college, slated to open October 1, would offer programs in medical coding, cybersecurity, information technology, and other areas. “We want to move fast — but not break things,” said California Community Colleges Board of Governors president Tom Epstein. “We have the legislative mandate, and we’re doing our best to meet it.” But the project is imperiled by cronyism, the ineradicable California disease.

As Dan Morain of CALmatters reported, the director of the planned online college, Heather Hiles, “pushed to grant a no-bid contract of up to $500,000 to an executive recruiter who is a friend and long has been a part of San Francisco’s political scene.” Others sought to put this position out to bid, but Hiles lobbied for her friend, Carolyn Carpeneti.

Carpeneti and her firm, The Leadership Group, are tasked with recruiting top executives for marketing, finance, and administration, plus a “chief learning officer,” “chief of workforce programs,” “chief success officer,” and “chief people officer.” Taxpayers and students have a right to wonder what, exactly, such positions entail, and whether the new executives might have insider connections. Carpeneti certainly does. She previously worked as a political fundraiser for Willie Brown — the former San Francisco mayor, longtime State Assembly speaker, and perhaps most prominent shot-caller in California history. According to Morain, Carpeneti and Brown were also “romantically involved and had a daughter in 2001.” Nonprofits and committees controlled by Brown, he showed, “paid Carpeneti $2.3 million over a five-year period.” In the early 2000s, the multitasking Carpeneti performed consulting work for former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former governor Gray Davis, and former lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante, among others.

Hiles claims that her only concern was to find the best-qualified candidate, but questions linger. Morain, formerly with the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee, pointed out that Hiles also has connections to San Francisco politics, “having overseen communications for Governor Gavin Newsom while he was running to succeed Brown as mayor” in 2003. Hiles was subsequently appointed to the city’s Unified School District board. Even as California’s population approaches 40 million, the Golden State’s ruling class remains a small world, where the well-connected use supposedly innovative new projects as vehicles for expanding the bureaucracy and rewarding cronies. 

For example, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), established in 2004, promised lifesaving cures and therapies for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases, plus a steady stream of royalties for state coffers. After spending some $3 billion, CIRM has delivered none of the promised cures, but the state stem-cell agency did hire former state senator Art Torres as co-vice chairman. CIRM promptly tripled Torres’s salary, even though there was a better-qualified candidate, one with biotech experience, who was willing to serve for no pay.

Likewise, the state’s vaunted high-speed rail project brought on board Lynn Schenck, a former congresswoman and chief of staff to recalled-governor Gray Davis. The so-called “bullet train” initiative has three regional offices and a Sacramento headquarters, but has yet to carry a passenger.

The online-college project is worthwhile and overdue. Carpeneti believes that it can be “a beacon for the rest of the nation.” Yet, before serving a single student in California, the project has already loaded up on bureaucrats.

Carpeneti is hardly the only Willie Brown associate on the current scene. In 1994, Brown, then 60, met Kamala Harris, 30 years his junior. She became “the speaker’s new steady.” Brown appointed Harris to the state Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the California Medical Assistance Commission—lucrative sinecures that gave her a platform for her run for district attorney of San Francisco, followed by her ascents to the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Senate.

Now, Harris wants to be president. In California, a little cronyism goes a long way—unless you’re a taxpayer. 

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield. His most recent crime books include Sexual Terrorist, about the Golden State Killer, and A Shut and Open Case: A Double Murderer Mounts a Comeback in Davis, California. He has written for the California Globe, Los Angeles TimesOrange County Register, and many other publications.

This article was originally published by City Journal Online