The 2020 vote in California spelled qualified advancement—and some retreats
Students pictured here at California's UCLA are expressing disappointment that voters rejected an affirmative action proposition. | Damian Dovarganes/AP

American voters have had their say, and in more significant numbers than ever. Joe Biden racked up the most massive popular vote in the nation’s history, projected to be about 81 million votes.

That Donald Trump won about 75 million votes, expanding his total over 2016 by eight million, cannot be overlooked. However, Biden will likely have the second-largest vote margin since 2000 and greater than Trump’s disparity against Hillary Clinton. About four million of Trump’s votes came from California, where Biden took over 65% of the vote.

It’s not just the Democrats and broad alliance of democratic movements which got newly “civically engaged”: Republican and conservative turnout increased too. However, Democrats retained control of the House, and the results of the double runoff on Jan. 5 in Georgia will determine who controls the Senate.

Democrats lost at least half a dozen seats of their House majority. These losses were in traditionally conservative GOP districts that Democrats won in the 2018 blue wave.

Californians expressed contradictory sentiments in votes for candidates and ballot measures, resulting in progressive gains and losses. The threads of white supremacy and misogyny were at the core of the GOP’s ability to make gains.

The statewide initiatives

Prop 15, dubbed the “Tax the Rich” initiative, would have taxed commercial property at its current assessed value and funneled increased revenues into schools and local communities. Democratic Socialists of America boosted this measure, which failed at the polls 52-48%. As with Props 19 and 20, real estate interests made their influence felt, including a warning they would pass property tax increases to consumers.

Prop 19 allows seniors to carry their lower home tax assessments when they move and purchase a new home in the state—the measure passed by 52%.

The defeat of Prop 21 by 60% of the voters was a blow to progressive governance. It would have allowed localities to expand rent control. In an expensive ad campaign, the real estate industry made it sound like Prop 21 would result in apartments taken off the market and new ones not built. Gov. Gavin Newsom also opposed the measure, claiming it would hinder the construction of badly needed affordable housing.

Prop 16 would have wiped out the 25-year-old Prop 209, and allowed considerations of race, gender, and ethnicity in university admissions, public employment, and contracting. The vote—merely to allow them for consideration—trailed 56-44%. Some reasons the measure lost included confusing wording and its late placement on the ballot, which inhibited the campaign for its passage.

Voters approved Prop 17 restoring the right of returning citizens to vote and defeated Prop 20, leaving in place revised, more lenient parole and sentencing guidelines. Yet Prop 18, which would have allowed 17-year-olds who would be 18 by the general election to vote in primaries, was turned down 55-45%.

Prop 22 overturned state law, which classifies gig workers as employees, permitting companies to avoid paying guaranteed minimum wages and paying into the state unemployment compensation system. The app-based companies—Lyft, Uber, and others—funneled a record-busting $204 million into this campaign, which paid off handsomely: Voters approved it by 58%.

This measure contains a poison pill, which stipulates it can only be amended by an almost unheard-of seven-eighths vote in each California legislative chamber, virtually impossible. Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash vowed to introduce similar measures in other states.

On Prop 24, voters opted by 56% to expand internet consumer privacy in an attempt to rein in marketers’ access to personal information.

Prop 25 was an effort to affirm S.B. 10, a law that would have made California the first state to outlaw money bail. By a vote of 56%, voters opted to keep the previous cash bail system. The measure split civil rights advocates and progressives. Some argued the new system gave too much discretionary power to judges to determine how much risk of flight certain defendants might present. The lack of unity was an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. “Money bail is classist and racist,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, who was one of S.B. 10’s coauthors. “No one should ever be held in jail or released based on how much money they have. We cannot give up this fight and we won’t give up.”

House races

In the Blue Wave year of 2018, voters defeated seven of the 14 sitting Republican U.S. representatives in the state. Freshmen Democrats Katie Porter, Mike Levin, and Josh Harder held onto their positions handily.

Officials are still counting mail-in ballots, but GOP candidates lead in a few traditionally Republican districts that flipped to Democrats in 2018. Several GOP candidates benefited from a more massive than expected turnout.

In C.D. 39, Republican Young Kim, whom Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros defeated in 2018, leads. In C.D. 48, Michelle Steel is also leading against another member of the class of 2018, Rep. Harley Rouda (D). Both Kim and Steel are Asian-American Republican women and have attracted broad support from the sizeable Asian-American electorate in Southern California.

Unquestionably, the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in dampening Democratic outreach in those districts. In historically GOP areas, such as Orange County, some voters split their ticket: They could not bring themselves to support Trump any longer, but cast ballots for a Republican Congress.

In the 21st C.D., former GOP Rep. David Valadao is leading in a rematch against a class of 2018 Democrat TJ Cox.

In the 25th C.D., Christy Smith is still in her race against Raytheon Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, who narrowly won a May special election to replace first-term Democrat Rep. Katie Hill. Hill defeated a long-term GOPer in 2018 but then resigned in a sex scandal. Democrats did not pay enough attention to that special election, and the Trump-supporting Garcia sneaked in. The fast-changing city of Santa Clarita is turning blue, however, overcoming the redder town of Simi Valley in this district of northern L.A. County, a traditional GOP stronghold.

Another exciting race was in the 22nd C.D., where GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, a prominent water-carrier for Pres. Trump, again bested his Democratic challenger. Nunes’s opponent, Phil Arballo, wrote that we “shook up a conservative stronghold, gave Devin Nunes a run for his money, and proved that Nunes can’t get away with his lies and corruption. It’s a testament to our grassroots support that we came this close, and it’s obvious that the people of the Central Valley are ready for a change.”

Finally, former GOP extreme right Congressman Darrell Issa won in eastern San Diego County’s 50th C.D. formerly occupied by Duncan Hunter, who resigned in scandal in January. Issa retired in 2018, fearing he would lose his seat in a neighboring district but came back to vie for the seat.

The young progressive Ammar Campa-Najjar, who narrowly lost to Hunter in 2018, ran again and likely could have won had he not been up against a familiar GOP powerhouse in Issa—considered the richest man in Congress during his last tenure­-and his money. Like Hunter, Issa conducted a racist campaign that included accusations of disloyalty, socialism, and terrorism, focusing on Campa-Najjar’s mixed Latino and Palestinian background.

Local races in Southern California

Voters in L.A. County passed Measure J by an impressive margin of (at this writing) 57-43%. Endorsed by several progressive organizations, Measure J addressed many of the issues brought to the fore by the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests. Some activists responded with a demand to “Defund the Police,” which Measure J spins a little differently. It requires L.A. County to earmark at least 10% of its general fund for programs such as job training, treatment for substance abuse, youth development, and additional “alternatives to incarceration” efforts meant to keep people out of jail. It would generate an estimated $360 million a year. Without saying so, this investment level from the County’s general fund would profoundly affect its grants to the Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Probation Department.

In what was considered the “most important DA race in the country,” former policeman and nationally recognized criminal justice reformer from San Francisco, George Gascón, won a runoff against Jackie Lacey, the incumbent L.A. County District Attorney. Lacey, the first Black woman to serve in that position, was heavily backed by law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter protests and a fresh look at her eight-year record of not going after violent killer cops, opposing reforms, and defending the use of the death penalty, did in Lacey.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors was on this year’s ballot with an election for District 2. State Senator for California’s 30th District, and formerly a member of the State Assembly, Holly Mitchell ran against Herb Wesson, who represented District 10 on the L.A. City Council since 2005; for eight years, he was its council president. He is also a former Speaker of the state Assembly. Both are African American. District 2 has a long-established African-American population and political traditions, although, over time, its demographics have evolved toward a Latino majority. Both are popular politicians, but the decisive issue was corruption involving real estate interests at City Hall. The onus fell on Wesson’s shoulders, and the vote reflected that: 61% to 39% for the Bernie Sanders-endorsed Mitchell. Each of the five supervisors represents about 2 million L.A. County residents in 88 municipalities, with oversight of a $35 billion budget. It’s the largest County in the nation by population. With Mitchell’s election, the Board for the first time is all women.

In L.A.’s City Council District 4, urban planner and political newcomer Nithya Raman won her race against incumbent David Ryu. Raman, a member of Democratic Socialists of America-LA, was endorsed by Bernie Sanders. She is the first person to unseat an incumbent City Councilmember since 2003. Ryu, the first Korean-American elected to the City Council, had the endorsement of the Democratic Party and the L.A. County Federation of Labor.

Raman opposed laws criminalizing homelessness, supported a rent forgiveness program, and reduced funding for the LAPD by assigning many non-criminal issues to other municipal service departments. Ryu was hardly a reactionary, as his endorsements attest, but he did receive almost $45,000 in contributions from the Police Protective League. For the first-time, city elections were scheduled along with the presidential contest, increasing turnout five-fold. Raman’s earthshaking victory will force other councilmembers, even relatively liberal ones, to sit up and take notice that people are watching what they do.

In the all-important LAUSD School Board elections in two districts, one charter school advocate is pulling ahead, and another is a candidate backed by the teachers’ union. In District 3, Scott Schmerelson, supported by the union and the incumbent, fended off charter school advocate Marilyn Koziatek. In District 7, Patricia Castellanos lost to charter-backed Tanya Ortiz Franklin. Nearly one in five of LAUSD’s student population attends a charter school.

For the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, four of its seven seats were up for election. Three incumbents backed by the teachers’ union, the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, are ahead—Andra Hoffman, David Vela, and Mike Fong. In the fourth race, a new candidate, African-American teacher at Cal State L.A. Nichelle Henderson, was ahead in a race to unseat Scott Svonkin.

In the race for mayor of Oceanside, San Diego County’s second-largest city, the promising African-American labor candidate Rob Howard lost to Esther Sanchez, the first woman and first Latina elected to that position.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.