Labor-backed candidates, not self-declared leftists, propel progress in California
Gov. Gavin Newsom meets with students at Melrose Leadership Academy, a TK-8 school in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, one day after defeating a Republican-led recall effort. The recall election that once threatened Newsom's political career has instead given it new life. (AP Photo/Nick Otto)

LOS ANGELES — Voters already have their primary election ballots in hand. Unlike many states where regressive legislators are limiting absentee and mail-in ballots to suppress the vote, California mails a printed ballot to every registered voter.

California has its share of problems, and cannot afford the luxury of getting too smug, but if you look at the ethnic and minority makeup of its state leadership, you will find a diversity that would be hard to match in any other state. This is a visible testament to the overall forward-looking disposition and struggles of its citizens, who have not elected a Republican to statewide office since 2006, and to the people’s movements that have given rise to such leaders.

The top officeholders in the state at present include two Chinese-American women; one Filipino-American immigrant male; one gay male, the son of a formerly undocumented factory worker and seamstress from Mexico; two African-Americans, one male, one female; one U.S.-born Greek-American woman (not so long ago people from Southern Europe were not considered so “white”); and one male Caucasian. Plus two U.S. Senators, one Jewish woman, and one U.S.-born son of two Mexican immigrants.

Today we’ll look at the statewide elections, and we’ll follow up with more local election news in the next survey article. The general liberal profile of the state is not expected to shift in the 2022 elections, either in the June 7 primary or on November 8 for the general election. But still, the stakes are extremely high.

California can set an example for the rest of the nation reeling under inflation, unrestrained gun violence, racial and religious incitement, the imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade, a war in Europe the U.S. is driving to the detriment of the crying needs at home—and not a slow drift anymore, but a headlong rush toward white male supremacist fascist-like governance in any number of other states.

First, some thoughts about “third party” voting

The fight for unity of all democratic forces against the ultra-right is the pressing demand and has been for years. It will continue to be as long as the increasingly dominant corporate class overrides democratic norms and relies on unconstitutional thug and vigilante law.

The main allies in that united front will embrace labor, both organized into unions and not, women, ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants with and without papers, the mainstream religious groups, the LGBTQ+ community, students, the poor, and anyone else, even the odd Republican, horrified by the evaporation of basic democratic rights.

The various little leftist groups styling themselves as “parties” contribute almost nothing to that fight. If their leaders think these are the seeding beds for the great, necessary ideas for moving forward, the place right now for that excitement is at the base, in those communities, not every two or four years when elections roll around and they can “make a statement” by running their divisive candidates.

It can be highly destructive in cases where the more liberal candidate, whatever their flaws, is running a tight race. I recall all too well the year 2016, when our local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), three weeks before the election, sponsored a book talk on False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

That kind of thinking, which encouraged voters to sit on their hands, or vote for some outlier like Jill Stein, lost that election with horrific consequences. Trump won the Electoral College by a slim margin of votes in three states that would literally fit into one big university football stadium. How “principled” or “left,” how “radical,” “revolutionary” or “people-oriented,” or whatever you want to call it, were those diversionary campaigns? Thanks a lot.

So are all those components of what we could call a new united front against fascism patsies for the Democrats? In no way. It matters greatly who gets elected to offices and legislatures from town hall to statehouses up to the federal level. In California—and this may be true in other states too—we basically have three parties: far-right Republicans, “centrist” business Democrats, and progressive labor-backed Democrats. The “top two” primary system was instituted to enable business Democrats to get into the general elections so they could coalesce with Republicans to block progressive legislation. It may sound cynical—though nothing could be too cynical for these times!—but that is the real dynamic of California politics.

Our movement needs to lift up the leadership role played by elected officials who come from the ranks of labor and other people’s organizations, not the self-proclaimed lefties who crawl out of the woodwork every election cycle, representing no one but themselves, only to sow confusion and disunity.

Even where the outcome is clear cut, such as in many of these California races that will surely be won by the Democrat, their dramatic victories in a massive voter turnout will speak much more loudly in the fight against the ultra-right than the “principled” but useless ballots cast for an individual who really should be applying skills and talents to building more class and social unity. The voting in the California primary that ends June 7 will surely influence political development far beyond our state.

In this election cycle, there is a new “Left Unity Slate,” a consortium between the Green Party of California and the Peace and Freedom Party with some support from DSA, running nine candidates for statewide office. In light of the need for unity not just on the left, which the general population knows or cares little about, we are more concerned with a broader small-d democratic unity to stop the right-wing onslaught. It should be kept in mind that the “Left Unity” types have never pulled out large numbers of voters of color.

The Larry Elders, Kevin McCarthys, and their down-ballot colleagues around the state aren’t giving up. Some participated in the unprecedented January 6th Insurrection of 2021. It only feeds them ammunition to pit one progressive constituency against another. And in some races, as we have seen, that disastrous divisiveness can throw an election. The GOP is not dead in California, and with for all practical purposes no Republicans openly repudiating the party’s essential authoritarianism (read: fascism), all hands must be on deck to give the ultra-right a thorough drubbing.

Governor fought back a recall

Sitting Gov. Gavin Newsom fought back a recall vote last October with an impressive 62-38 spread. Despite that impressive rout of the right wing that tried to overturn his election by recall, this year for his reelection he is facing a roster of at least 25 others, mostly Republican, mounting campaigns that can only be called capricious. The GOP-endorsed candidate is State Sen. Brian Dahle, and the runoff will likely be Newsom-Dahle. An even more demonstrative vote for Newsom this time around will be noticed nationwide.

In the race for Lieutenant Governor, Eleni Kounalakis is the widely endorsed incumbent, with fewer opponents than Newsom (only seven), but all of them hopeless aspirants.

It should be noted that in all these primary elections, anyone capturing over 50% of the vote must still compete with the runner-up in the general election.

Vote twice for the U.S. Senate seat

Now here’s something of an electoral anomaly. If you want sitting U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla to stay in office, you need to vote twice for him, since he’s running in two elections! One vote is for him to complete the current term (filling out the remainder of Sen. Kamala Harris’s term when she became Vice President and he was appointed by Gov. Newsom). Then you need to vote again for Padilla for the full six-year term beginning in January 2023. If you want to vote for someone else, you have 23 choices on the ballot, none of them with any chance of defeating Padilla on Nov. 8th.

Controller race open

The race for Controller is open now that long-timer Betty Yee is termed out. Four Democrats, one Green, and one Republican are vying for the position. The GOP candidate, Lanhee Chen, has a far greater profile than the usual GOP contender in California and has been endorsed by the L.A. Times for his fiscal watchdog approach critical of unaccountable state spending. Affiliated with the right-wing Hoover Institution at Stanford University, he was a policy advisor to the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio and refuses to state if he voted for Donald Trump. With a numerous slate of candidates to his left, he is positioned to win one of the top two. Political analyst George Skelton says (L.A. Times, May 23) he “is likely to finish first.”

The Green, running on Left Unity, is Laura Wells, whose Official Voter Information Guide statement is a short recitation of righteous sloganeering: “Tax the super-rich; stop billionaires from buying the media and politicians.” Perhaps she doesn’t merit much ink here, but if you look at her campaign biography, this is someone who in 2018 mounted a Green Party write-in campaign “against her local Congressperson Barbara Lee, who was running unopposed [emphasis in original].”

Barbara Lee is one of the most radical and principled Congressmembers in all of American history. Yet with all the work needed toward uniting as many people as possible at that moment halfway through the Trump presidency, Wells had nothing better to do than waste her time on a divisive assault on Barbara Lee! This is the folly of this so-called “Left Unity.” In the Controller’s race, Left Unity is playing the same game, though much more dangerously, setting out the welcome mat for a Republican shot at this critical statewide office.

Ron Galperin, who served as Los Angeles City Controller, has an impressive list of endorsements that include unions, a large roster of civic organizations, and both Betty Yee and the former State Controller John Chiang. As “Los Angeles’ first LGBTQ citywide elected official”—part of his official biography—he has widespread community support.

Another Democrat is Yvonne Yiu, an investment company owner serving as mayor of Monterey Park who, according to a DSA electoral survey, “ducked a symbolic vote for a resolution supporting abortion rights in Monterey Park.” The third Dem is State Sen. Steve Glazer from Northern California, who has picked up some good newspaper endorsements though seemingly none from prominent organizations or individuals. He styles himself a solid left liberal, yet the labor movement opposes him for asking the state legislature to ban strikes by BART and other transit workers (more on him below).

Most of the excitement seems to be centered on Malia M. Cohen, Chair of the California State Board of Equalization from the 2nd District, who also claims endorsements from Betty Yee, and a host of unions and leading political figures. She would be the first Black female Controller. She is recommended, though weakly, by DSA (props to them for bucking the Left Unity nonsense in this case), and is also the officially endorsed candidate of the California Democratic Party, and the California Labor Federation. That alignment of support is rare and to be celebrated.

A runoff between Cohen and Chen can be predicted, with a victory for Cohen, but it won’t be a shoo-in.

Attorney General race

Rob Bonta, the incumbent attorney general, was appointed to his position by Gov. Newsom after the latter appointed Alex Padilla to the U.S. Senate to complete Kamala Harris’s term. Bonta is now running for his first statewide race. He is endorsed by the United Farm Workers, California Labor Fed, and the state Democratic Party. The two Republicans are Nathan Hochman, running a scare campaign about public safety, and Eric Early, whose statement reads like a Trump manifesto “against the growing Socialist/Communist threat.”

In this race, one other candidate trying to unseat Bonta is Ann Marie Schubert, Sacramento District Attorney, a longtime Republican who left the GOP in 2018 and now considers herself independent. She is a hardliner on sentencing, and with no real voter base is not at all likely to finish among the two top contenders. The fact that she is openly lesbian and would be the state’s first LBBTQ+ attorney general was not enough for her to secure the endorsement of Equality California, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization.” It has endorsed Bonta.

Superintendent of Public Instruction

The incumbent Tony Thurmond has all the standard endorsements: California Teachers Association, the Democratic Party, Equality California. He won a hard-fought campaign last time around fighting off the “privatizers,” the charter school movement. That issue is not on the agenda this time. His work has largely been consumed with dealing with the COVID epidemic throughout the 1,000 school districts in the state. He has six opponents. One is George Yang, running to “empower parents” and “keep schools open,” code words for the right wing, along with his support for partnerships with private companies on after-school programs. He may get traction among Republicans, but in a possible runoff, he has no chance of winning. An outspoken progressive, Marco Amaral, running with Left Unity, actually has some professional credibility as the board president of the South Bay Union School District in San Diego County. His platform is admirable: better pay for teachers and other school workers, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, ethnic and gender studies, dual-language teaching for all, etc.

Insurance Commissioner race

This race reveals certain fault lines in the CDP. Lara has been identified as “America’s only LGBTQ+ person of color to hold statewide office.” When first elected, Lara accepted campaign money from insurance companies, which, when challenged, he returned, but Marc Levine, who served a decade in the state legislature, uses this history to assert “a new approach: hold insurance companies accountable, no conflict of interest, and only the highest ethical standards.” But it’s not at all self-evident that these two Democrats will emerge as the top vote getters. Former Republican Robert Molnar, a close associate of the previous Insurance Commissioner, Steve Poizner, could appeal to the right and to some centrists with his argument that this is not a “partisan” job. Still, even if he came in second, he would surely lose the general election in November.

Secretary of State race

Six candidates are running to try and defeat the incumbent, Shirley Weber, but none of them will gain much traction. The Republican Rachel Hamm has the gall to declare that she intends to “work closely with election officials from around the state to make California the Gold [sic] standard for free, fair, and honest elections.” Save us from Republicans who want to make elections “fair!” Maybe her capitalization of the word “Gold” is a Freudian font if she means money is going to be the standard for elections even more than it is now!

The Left Unity candidate is Gary Blenner, who also wants “to fix our election system and expand democracy” through proportional representation, ranked choice voting, public financing of campaigns, and ending corporate personhood. But is a race by a newcomer for the job that supervises elections, who cannot alone impose these systems, really the right approach when the laws are not there, or could these healthy ideas be better advanced in the legislature and in local governance? Another example of posturing at election time without having done the groundwork among mass citizen organizations.

Race for Treasurer

Fiona Ma has been doing a good job and is running for reelection, endorsed by the state Labor Fed and the CDP. Two Republicans are challenging her, only one, Jack M. Guerrero, with a candidate statement containing a lot of platitudes about financial stability, exposing “mismanagement by reckless politicians,” eliminating fraud, and “policies that place citizens first”— all substantially at odds with current and predictable GOP practice.

Board of Equalization

This body concerns taxes and assessments on property and collects the alcoholic beverage tax, among other responsibilities. There are four Board members, representing 1, the conservative inland counties of the state from the farthest north down to and including San Bernardino in the south; 2, the more liberal coastal counties from the far north down to Ventura County; 3, Los Angeles County; and 4, the four southernmost counties with a corner of San Bernardino. Not surprisingly, District 1 is the only one represented by a Republican. He and two of the other Board members are running for reelection, but not District 2’s Malia M. Cohen, running for Controller. These positions are competitive, of course, but the Board of Equalization remains a rather obscure entity that attracts little voter attention.

In Dist. 1, Equality California endorses Braden Murphy. In Dist. 2, the California Labor Fed and L.A. Progressive both endorse Michela Alioto-Pier and Sally Lieber (who also gets the Equality California nod). In Dist. 3, Tony Vazquez has been endorsed by the Labor Fed and L.A. Progressive; and in Dist. 4, with seven candidates vying for the seat (two Democrats, five Republicans, most of them on the far right), Mike Schaefer ought to be able to hold on.

Those “voter guides”

Before closing our California statewide analysis, a word should be said about certain “voter guides” that get mailed out. Many of them are from groups with benign names like “Senior Advocate,” whose political orientation may not be easy to discern, or less benign such as “Cops,” which are more upfront. The appearance of certain candidate names is almost always because they paid to be listed (marked *), and maybe the simplest explanation is they just want to get their names out in front of people.

Yet if these guides are even a little bit of a kind of “slate” for appearing on the same sheet, it can be revealing and instructive to see who lists whom. Cops, for example, lists Steve Glazer* for Controller, who on paper sounds pretty liberal, but here it is written: “CA Police Chiefs Assn and state’s largest front-line Law Enforcement org (75,000 members) support public safety champ Senator Steve Glazer.” This is rather sobering! Incumbent Tony Vazquez* on the Board of Equalization is named here, too, with a bland statement about “fair representation for all taxpayers.” The big kahuna for the Cops is candidate for L.A. mayor Rick Caruso*. Sometimes I get the feeling these guides are quite arbitrary and exist mostly to promote one or two of the sponsors’ highest priorities for election. The Cops definitely want Caruso (more on that in the follow-up article).

The “Senior Advocate” tells a similar story, and also promotes Rick Caruso*. It recommends some truly fringe candidates on the state level for races discussed above, such as Jenny Rae Le Roux* for governor: “a business owner, mom, and entrepreneur who will revive the California Dream…to pursue freedom and prosperity,” and career banker Angela Underwood Jacobs*, who without a statement in the Official Voter Information Guide, stirs up anger and fear on her website against sitting Lieutenant Gov., Eleni Kounalakis, “a liberal Sacramento politician who is completely out-of-step with California’s working families.” This guide also recommends Jon Elist* for U.S. Senate, again with no statement in the Information Guide. “An outsider, entrepreneur, and successful businessman,” “I’m running as a business owner, a taxpayer, a parent. It’s high time for a new chapter for California,” he says on his website, definitely one of the “business Democrats” we spoke of earlier. And this guide also promotes Steve Glazer* (here wearing his liberal suit—“will ensure big corporations pay their fair share of taxes”) and George Yang* for Public Instruction.

At the same time, the “Senior Advocate” asks voters to choose Ricardo Lara* and Tony Vazquez*. A potpourri of random paid* recommendations? Or something like a slate? Maybe somewhere in between.

Be sure to vote!

Election observers have already attested to the noticeable scarcity of polling stations and ballot drop boxes in predominantly Latino neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles County, a form of voter suppression. And don’t forget, Louis DeJoy is still creating havoc at the USPS. Common Cause’s Election Protection project is once again training poll monitors, hotline and text volunteers to help voters get past difficulties casting their ballots as well as training social media monitors to tag and correct online election misinformation.

The centrality of the Black and Latino vote is crucial. Not only are Latinos the majority “minority” player in the outcome of these races but they are mostly working-class, union-oriented, and Democratic voters. The Catholic and evangelical influence in this community is strong, however, so this vote is not monolithic. It will take concerted effort to bring out the Latino vote.

Voting in elections is hardly the only arena of struggle for better conditions for working people (go Amazon and Starbucks workers!). But it is one tool and we must use it wisely.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.