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Last Updated: Monday, 19 September 2005, 09:25 GMT 10:25 UK
'Invisibles' mar California democracy
Robin Lustig
By Robin Lustig
BBC News, Santa Ana

In a season of programmes called Who Runs Your World?, the BBC is examining the nature of power in the world today. Here, in the first of a series of five articles entitled Looking for Democracy, the BBC's Robin Lustig examines "democracy" at work in five very different ways around the world, beginning in California.

Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Voters know prominent political figures but not their local elected officials
Daryll Miller won 61,000 votes at the last election, yet no-one seems to know who he is.

He is the man voters chose to look after the water and sewage services in a large swathe of Orange County, California, one of the richest places on the planet, and, arguably, one of the most democratic.

I say arguably, because it depends how you define democratic.

Yes, they have lots of elections - not only do they vote for Mr Miller, who runs the Irvine Ranch Water District, but they also vote for the people who run the local schools, and for the judges who sit in the courts.

So if lots of elections mean lots of democracy, then Orange County comes top of the league.

But in Santa Ana, the biggest town in the county, things do not look democratic at all.

'Underclass'

A third of the town's 350,000 residents - some estimates put the figure even higher - are, to put it politely, "undocumented".

In other words, they entered the US illegally, smuggled across the border from Mexico. They have no papers, no official identity, and no right to vote.

When President Bush talks of spreading democracy and freedom across the world, is Californian-style democracy what he has in mind?

But they are illegal immigrants - why should they have the vote?

Yet Santa Ana - probably the whole of Orange County - would collapse without them.

They are the gardeners, the nannies, the cleaners, the cooks, the waiters.

They are a bit like the slaves of ancient Greece, where democracy was invented: they are, politically, invisible.

Applying for legal residence and, in the fullness of time, US citizenship does not come cheap - a $1,000 (555) fine to change your status from illegal to legal - and then another $390 to become a citizen.

Mr Miller and his fellow directors are elected because their company has no shareholders - it is owned by its customers, the voters.

But when I stopped a random selection of shoppers not far from his state-of-the-art water treatment plant, they had not a clue who he was.

They knew President George Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but not Mr Miller, who provides the water that comes from their taps, and takes the waste away from their kitchens and bathrooms.

'Immigrant-makes-good'

Miguel Pulido, on the other hand - well, that is a very different story. He is the mayor of Santa Ana: Mexican-born, smooth-talking and very much at home with the trappings of power.

On the walls of his office are photos of him with President Clinton and President Bush: Mayor Pulido is the Mexican-immigrant-makes-good story personified.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido with Robin Lustig
Pulido (r) is the Mexican-immigrant-makes-good story personified
But he is shrewd enough to acknowledge that democracy in Orange County does not do much for the poor and the undocumented.

And he is candid enough to acknowledge that life would be a lot simpler as mayor if he did not always have to stitch together coalitions to get his way.

When President Bush talks of spreading democracy and freedom across the world, is Californian-style democracy what he has in mind?

Does he want the people of Iraq to elect their sewage officials, the people of Afghanistan to choose their judges?

In his presidential inauguration speech last January he said:

"It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

So perhaps Orange County, California, or something like it, is the future.



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