California primary reveals anti-corporate currents

The June primary election, which brought mixed results, revealed deep anti-corporate and anti-establishment political cross currents among California voters.

No sooner the elections were over than Republican and Democratic victors for the U.S. Senate and governor seats launched what promises to be a slug fest with deep implications for the state and the nation as they head for the November general elections.

California is one of a handful of states with a Senate seat critical to the outcome of the November congressional mid-term elections. The elections could tip the legislative and political balance in the country in either a progressive or a reactionary direction.

After personally pouring millions into their own campaigns, two mega-rich, former high tech industry CEOs, Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard and Meg Whitman of eBay, ran away with the Republican nominations for U.S. Senate and for governor, respectively.

Fiorina poured $5.5 million of her own money during the primary, and is expected to personally contribute handsomely to her campaign during the general election. Whitman, who personally sank $71 million during the primary, is expected to do no less going into the November general election.

Fiorina’s net worth is estimated at $100 million and Whitman’s at $1.3 billion.

Incumbent U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and state Attorney General Jerry Brown, former governor running again for the same position, easily won the Democratic primaries with little opposition.

“We always thought this was going to be a challenging race, and now it’s clear this is going to be the toughest Boxer campaign yet,” the incumbent’s campaign manager predicted a few weeks ago.

The fight to re-elect Senator Boxer, a liberal in the Democratic camp, along with increasing the Democratic majority in the Senate and the House, is critical to moving the agenda of President Barack Obama and the progressive social movements backing him.

A loss for Boxer, if combined with Democratic losses in other contested congressional races in the country, could stall the progressive agenda, and open the right wing door to reversing the modest but significant legislative advances made over the last year.

While personal wealth and lavish corporate donations are expected to favor Republican contenders, Boxer and Brown will be counting on an army of volunteers generated by the labor movement and other progressive social movements, many of which already have declared their support for the Democratic candidates.

Both Republican candidates portray themselves as political “outsiders” and tout the innovative capacities of the high tech industry from which they emerged.

They say they can bring the industry’s efficiencies and inventiveness to a government overwhelmed with debt and partisan gridlock, trim government spending and its workforce.

At the same time, they promise to deliver jobs, as Fiorina says, “by creating the conditions by which business can flourish.”

The morning after the election, Boxer accused Fiorina of creating jobs “in China, in India, in Europe,” but not in California.

While paying lip service to the job concerns uppermost in voters’ minds, the Republican contenders are gambling that voters will fall for their arguments that somehow the culture of the high tech industry is people-friendly, unlike most other corporate culture.

But their logic may be a stretch that the Democratic candidates may well be able to use to their advantage.

The outcome of the vote on the propositions showed a marked anti-corporate slant among Californians, reflecting the national public disgust with big banks, energy giants and insurance companies.

Proposition 16, the deceptively called “Taxpayer Right to Vote Act,” went down to defeat despite a no holds barred advertising campaign by its promoter, for-profit private energy giant Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).

PG&E poured more than $46 million while the opposition raised a scant $101,400.

The initiative would have required a two-thirds majority vote of local voters before a local community could form or expand a public electric power utility, or purchase power from an independent operator, circumventing PG&E.

The super-majority vote requirement could have hampered the efforts of existing municipal districts to create and deliver clean, green and affordable energy, according to John Geesman, former commissioner with the California Energy Commission.

Also trounced was Proposition 17, which would have penalized car owners with higher premiums once they resume insurance coverage after a lapse of more than 90 days during the previous five years.

Mercury insurance, Prop.17’s principal promoter, tried to sell the initiative to the voter by emphasizing the “continuous coverage” discount car owners would receive when they switch to the new car insurer.

The passage of Prop.14, while reflecting the anger of a majority of people towards the political establishment, may well have the opposite effect to that intended by voters.

All candidates will participate in a single June primary, open to all voters regardless of party affiliation, in which the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election runoff in November. This would apply to candidates running for congressional, statewide and legislative offices.

Spearheaded by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the stated aim of the initiative is to elect more “moderates” to office and bypass the “partisan” wrangling.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Board of Directors voted overwhelmingly in February to oppose Prop. 14 “based upon the ACLU’s strong interest in the value and rights of political parties, including third parties, (and) the potential infringement upon these parties’ First Amendment rights of association.”

The measure is opposed by both major parties as well as third parties in California, all of which are considering legally challenging the new law, which would go into effect in 2012.

With the top two contenders, regardless of party, being the only ones competing in the November election, the measure will essentially knock out third party candidates given the financial and organizational edges of the two major parties.

Now that the measure passed, the Republican Party is considering deploying a primary caucus nomination system in which assigned delegates will select the party’s nominees for Congress, statewide offices, the Board of Equalization and the Legislature.

At least in the case of the Republican Party, voters affiliated with that party will be circumvented in the election process.

The nonpartisan Center for Government Studies concluded recently that more than a third of all congressional and legislative races could result in runoffs between candidates of the same party, and that nearly all of these would be between two Democrats.

In closely contested races between two Democrats, Republican and right-leaning, decline-to-state voters could conceivably swing the elections to the more conservative candidate.

While most experts are waiting to see how the law will play out, the actual effect may turn out to be not what the voters intended – to expand their democratic rights.

Photo: Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks at a construction site in Orinda, Calif., June 3. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP