This year, bucking the national trend, California Democrats repeated their hold on statewide offices, including the re-election of Gov. Jerry Brown to his historic fourth term. Both of the statewide initiatives that Jerry Brown championed passed by close to 70 percent of the vote: Prop 1, a $7.545 billion bond to improve the state’s water supply infrastructure, and Prop 2, to set aside half of annual state revenues to be used to pay off state debts, the other half a “rainy day fund” to offset emergencies and budget deficits.
Four years ago, in the 2010 midterm elections, which turned the U.S. House red and brought us Speaker John Boehner, the state of California turned four House seats blue, somewhat diminishing the impact of the overall national polling that President Obama famously called a “shellacking.” California also distinguished itself by electing a 100 percent Democratic slate of statewide candidates, and won substantial majorities in both the state Assembly and Senate.
Prop 1 did not raise significant controversy, especially as California is currently experiencing a crippling drought. Prop 2 raised some questions, however, as it failed to take into consideration the budget cuts to social services made in the leaner years of the recession. Another question that might well be on the table sometime in the future is: Why commit to bonds from commercial banks when, like the state of North Dakota, we could establish our own non-profit California state bank? Other critical propositions are discussed below.
The fears, wars and crises, even the threat of Ebola, which the right wing exploited in much of the country to turn voters away from the president and liberal ideas, seem far away on the West Coast. Rather than run from Obama’s record, as Democrats elsewhere tended to do this year (shades of Al Gore running from the Clinton record, and we all know how far that got him), California Democrats showed off a budget surplus, an improved employment picture, a successful launch of Obamacare in the nation’s most populous state (38 million), and the passage of numerous progressive bills in the legislature on environment, women’s rights, LGBT issues, etc., as proof to the nation that if given the opportunity to govern, this is what we can accomplish. In California, with an approximately equal 39 percent of its population white and Latino, plus significant Black, Asian and Native American communities, we hear not a word about voter fraud, or voter suppression.
Particularly satisfying was the re-election of Tom Torlakson as Superintendent of Public Instruction, running against another Democrat, Marshall Tuck, whose experience has been in banking, not in education, and whose campaign was bankrolled by outspoken proponents of charter schools.
In another example of big money failing to win the day, Sheila Kuehl, former state assemblywoman and state senator known for progressive values and positions, and an open lesbian, ran a vigorous campaign laced with touches of humor, for Los Angeles County Supervisor in District 3, against very well-heeled opponent (also a Democrat) Bobby Shriver, a nephew of John and Bobby Kennedy. Kuehl won 53 percent to 47 percent. Labor supported her enthusiastically, while real estate, the financial sector and the Chamber of Commerce threw their weight behind the business Democrat Shriver.
The Supervisor race was, apart from the statewide races, the most important in California this year. Los Angeles County just surpassed 10 million in population (more than a fourth of the state’s population): It’s not clear if that includes a possible million more who are undocumented, but in any case it’s by far the most populous county in the nation. There are five seats on the Board of Supervisors, meaning that Sheila Kuehl will represent a district of ca. 2 million people, a larger population than quite a few states (that send two senators to Washington!). Supervisors have critical authority over budgets and policy in every aspect of governance in a county with 88 separate municipalities, so this race was of great interest to labor.
Voters in San Francisco raised its minimum wage to $15, and Oakland hiked its minimum to $12.25.
In Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco, a “Team Richmond” slate including a new mayor and three council seats – one to be held by outgoing Mayor Gayle McLaughlin – swept past candidates backed by oil giant Chevron. Despite its $3 million in campaign contributions, Chevron will now face a city council tilted against it.
And Berkeley, also across from San Francisco, passed a one-cent-an-ounce tax on sodas, energy drinks and sweetened teas – a first in the country. Berkeley’s measure was approved by over three-quarters of voters; a proposal in San Francisco for a 2-cent tax received 54 per cent of the vote, but needed a two-thirds majority to pass.
Humboldt County’s Measure P will now ban growing of genetically modified crops in the northern coastal county. Neighboring counties already have such measures.
On the statewide level the Republican Party is virtually moribund. But in certain races, for the House and for the state legislature, it can still put up a fight in the more conservative areas. Think of California split lengthwise between the coastal and the inland counties: Historically the coast has been blue and the inland red. Many a statewide vote has been decided by the huge Democratic power of Los Angeles County, with its strong, well organized labor movement.
The GOP used its resources to defeat two House Democrats elected in 2012: northern California’s Ami Bera, and Scott Peters in San Diego. Peters lost by only 752 votes in a razor-sharp race against Carl DeMaio, a gay Republican with bundles of Koch Brothers cash and a couple of sexual harassment complaints against him. California is one place where the demonization of LGBT folk will not get you very far. In this case, the GOP now has its very own in-House homosexual to show off. (Yes, voting matters!)
But the Democrats did succeed in picking up a seat in the Rancho Cucamonga area of San Bernardino County after the retirement of Republican Gary G. Miller. Former Redlands mayor Pete Aguilar won that seat 51 percent to 49 percent against a government military contractor who ran on his veteran status and security fears. That seat is emblematic of demographic changes happening in the Inland Empire, where Latinos and Blacks have moved in recent decades in the search for livable homes at affordable prices. That area has been overdue for a political realignment.
The heavily Jewish Los Angeles 33rd District that sent Henry Waxman to Congress for forty years until his recent retirement announcement has gone to the equally progressive Ted Lieu, who won with over 58 percent of the vote against a Jewish Republican with pronounced pro-Israel sympathies. In other House races, Democratic incumbents were re-elected with votes ranging from 50.2 percent (Julia Brownley in a Ventura squeaker) all the way up to Janice Hahn’s 87 percent landslide in Los Angeles.
Another race between two Democrats took place in the San Francisco Bay Area, where longtime Congressman Mike Honda was challenged by Ro Khanna, a patent attorney and former Commerce Department official in the Obama administration. The Democratic Party, trade unions, and groups including MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee backed Honda. A range of Silicon Valley corporate moguls, including leaders of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and PayPal, supported Khanna. Honda won by a narrow 4 percent.
While the outcome was never in doubt, supporters celebrated the victory of progressive state Senator Mark DeSaulnier to succeed longtime Congressman George Miller, who in 40 years in Congress, championed progressive positions on labor, education and environmental issues.
More propositions: a loss and a big win
Huge contributions from the healthcare insurance industry dominated the debate over Prop 45, which would have enabled the state Insurance Commissioner to approve healthcare rates. Several years ago auto insurance companies campaigned against a similar measure enabling the commissioner to approve auto insurance rates. They lost, and rates have come down significantly. But this time money spoke loudly, and Prop 45 failed. Some voters were persuaded that with Obamacare in place, the need for the insurance commissioner to intervene in the market was non-existent. But of course not everyone qualifies for Obamacare.
In terms of national repercussions, perhaps the single greatest signal coming out of California this election was the vote on Prop 47, which reduces criminal sentencing on a number of nonviolent crimes from felony to misdemeanor. None of the generally celebratory report above is meant to gloss over California’s share of problems: The state is no paradise. Mass incarceration, police brutality, mandatory sentencing, racial profiling, prison labor, privatization of prisons, prisons used to house the mentally ill, and the whole gamut of issues under the rubric of the prison-industrial complex, are all familiar to California residents and voters. By an impressive vote of 58.5 percent to 41.5 percent, with a majority in every single county in the state, this forward-looking initiative passed, truly a huge people’s victory, especially for the large numbers of people of color who have been swept up in these latest forms of “the new Jim Crow.”
One of the arenas in which progressives are perhaps most favorably poised to make an impact in coming years is precisely the issue of injustice in sentencing, starting with punishment for truancy and minor infractions in the racist “school-to-prison” pipeline. This is a concern around which millions of Americans are already and can be further mobilized, so the eyes of the nation will be on California to see how Prop 47 plays out.
Needless to say, the rightward turn in both the Senate and House may well mean that when California congressmembers or local officials come calling for federal help on any number of projects and programs in the state, they may find a cold shoulder.
Marilyn Bechtel contributed to this article. Gordon is a member of the National Writers Union.
Photo: An inmate at the County Jail in Madera, Calif. In an effort to save money on state prison spending, lower-level offenses will be treated as misdemeanors. Rich Pedroncelli/AP