California Gov. Gavin Newsom looks out at rows of graves before a wreath laying ceremony in the cemetery at the Veterans Home of California on May 22 in Yountville. Photo by Eric Risberg, AP Photo/Pool

Historians often find lessons in the past, where others find only fog.  And historians spot legacies in the future, while others see only calamity.

What do the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 have to do with the current recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom and Assembly Bill 927?

Everything. The political, economic, and geographical similarities between 17th century Massachusetts and present-day California are striking.

First, the geography.

Look at the political map of California. The concentration of the pro-Newsom Democrats is mostly coastal, urban, educated, and financially better off than the state’s inland, rural and less-educated Republicans.

It’s a case of “Haves” versus “Have Nots.”

The divide is conspicuous and a modern mirror of Salem’s “town vs. village” geography at the time of the witch trials.

Those accused of being witches lived along the prosperous, and politically powerful coast. They were the “elites” of that time. Those doing the accusing lived in the interior, less prosperous, and less powerful farmland. They were the “have nots.” 

Granted this is a rough parallel between the “mass hysteria” in the colonial era and the “stubborn alienation” of the contemporary political landscape.

However, numerous recent studies demonstrate that the segregated nature of old Salem and modern California come down to where people lived and where they received their information.

Seriously, look at the map of California. Newsom wins the coast. The recall campaign hugs the interior.

Thus Newsom finds himself in the middle of a stubborn, volcanic cauldron that has been stewing for decades.

The Tea Party movement built on earlier anti-government forces, which then morphed into anti-vaxxers, and now constitute the dominant strain of the anti-science GOP coalition. 

Just add the religious ingredients of the Puritans (then) and the Evangelicals (now) and the thread of history shows itself. The economic gulf has always been manifest.

What can be done? The answer is higher education. Without that opportunity, the danger of the volcano erupting persists.

Enter Assembly Bill 927 authored by Jose Medina, who represents central Riverside County. The bill would allow California’s extensive community college system to offer BA degress.

AB 927 fulfills the dream of success via affordable education that began under former Gov. Pat Brown when he launched the statewide University of California system.

The Public Policy Institute of California found that to keep up with the demand for a college-educated workforce the state would need to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by 40%. Neither the UC or the Cal State systems can fill that demand.

It’s not a new idea. Over 20 states already offer bachelor’s degrees at the community college level in select workforce fields. 

This piece of legislation addresses all the needs and legitimate complaints of the inland California GOP strongholds, and it underscores political economist Adam Smith’s argument that “self-interest” leads to a collective common interest. That human labor, not the accumulation of gold and silver, constitutes the real “Wealth of Nations.”

The definition of success is growth, inclusion and respect created with education and jobs.

A survey of the graduates of similar programs in other states found that 75% were first-generation college students, struggled financially, experienced homelessness or housing insecurity, indicated a disability, or served in the military. And 83% of these graduates were employed within 3 months of completing their degree.

According to influential Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, this could even address the existential threat to the future of the Republican Party — the loss of the youth vote.

Newsom can master the history lesson of Salem, display the leadership of Pat Brown, and leave a legacy of turbo-charged educational opportunity for all Californians.

He should not just sign and champion AB 927, but add more colleges and universities to California’s landscape. Much as the newer UC Merced and UC Riverside campuses and every other existing California community and state college have bridged the divide, and enriched the state, so can others.

Newsom should grab the opportunity. Think big, bold, and brave. You will not just defeat the recall effort, but launch generational triumphs.

What a legacy that would be.

Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.

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