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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The California Legislature, controlled by Democrats for decades, will be even bluer when the new class is sworn in. Exactly how many more Democrats have been elected is still not certain, because it takes a long time to count votes in California. But all signs point toward growing Democratic caucuses in both the Assembly and the Senate—and a supermajority that sidelines Republicans to near-irrelevancy.

That means the prevailing tension in the statehouse probably won’t be between Republicans and Democrats—but between different shades of blue. It could make for some counter-intuitive outcomes—including a Legislature that skews more toward business on some fights.

The biggest shift appears to be taking place in the state Senate, which in recent years has been the more liberal of the two houses. It is poised to tick toward the center, with two business-backed Democrats winning Los Angeles-area seats previously held by labor-friendly Dems, and two rural Democrats apparently flipping Republican-held seats in the Central Valley.

“It’s very significant,” said Marty Wilson, executive vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies for major business interests. “We have an opportunity to have a more profound impact on the Senate.”

Business PACs including Wilson’s poured at least $6 million into electing Democrats Susan Rubio of Baldwin Park and Bob Archuleta of Pico Rivera, who secured solid wins on election night.

Two other Democrats—Melissa Hurtado of Sanger and now-Assemblywoman Anna Caballero of Salinas—pulled ahead of their Republican opponents earlier this week in updated vote counts, apparently assuring the Senate of a Democratic supermajority. Representing Central Valley districts that stretch through California’s farm belt, the pair would bring a different perspective to the Senate Democratic caucus, which is now dominated by representatives from big cities and progressive coastal enclaves. That means not only more potential interest in water and farm policy, but also on how proposals impact inland jobs and health care.

“The issues the Central Valley and other parts of rural California face will get more attention in the caucus, because there will be more advocates on behalf of those regions,” said Bob Sanders, a Democratic political consultant who worked on campaigns for Hurtado and Caballero.

Caballero gained a track record as a business-friendly moderate during six years in the state Assembly. Democrats poured more than $4 million into her Senate race against Republican Rob Poythress for a Merced-area seat that had previously been held by Anthony Cannella, a moderate Republican. Poythress was backed by $1.9 million from the GOP.

Hurtado is a health-care advocate who sits on the Sanger City Council. Democrats spent $2.4 million to help her wrest the Fresno-area from GOP Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford, who was helped by $428,000 from his party.

“What was different this time were the issues,” said Democratic consultant Lisa Gasperoni, who worked on Hurtado’s campaign.

Instead of focusing on water and agriculture, as most politicians do in the Central Valley, Hurtado emphasized health-care access and environmental health, Gasperoni said.

“Those issues were way more potent than I’ve ever seen them,” she said.

Wilson, whose PAC supported Vidak, said the Republican likely suffered from blowback by voters upset by President Trump.

“I think a lot of it was attributable to Trump going out there and railing on caravans,” Wilson said. “It does have a negative impact on California.”

With results still being tallied, Democrats have been cautious about declaring victory. But late ballots generally skew more liberal, so Democrats may pick up additional seats in the Assembly, where they have already flipped two.

With supermajorities in both chambers, Democrats—in theory—could pass taxes, change the state’s political ethics law, and put constitutional amendments on the ballot without any Republican support. In reality, however, it’s difficult to get all Democrats to agree on controversial proposals—a challenge that could complicate Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom’s agenda, which is ambitious, expensive and could require a tax increase. Many legislators are spooked by the successful recall this year of Democratic Sen. Josh Newman over his vote to increase the gas tax.

Still, with a union-backed governor-elect whose leanings are more progressive than Gov. Jerry Brown’s were, organized labor sees benefits to the growing number of Democrats in Sacramento, even if some of them come with backing from more conservative business interests.

“We’ve got a good situation with a very pro-worker Legislature in both chambers,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation, a union group.

But he acknowledged that with more Democrats come more factions—and disagreements that may not fall along traditional fault lines that, for example, pit environmentalists versus the oil industry. The gig economy presents new political issues that may divide Democrats next year, as tech companies will likely push to change a court ruling that limits the use of independent contractors, and labor unions work to hold it intact. Some Democrats who are progressive on environmental issues may skew more business-friendly when it comes to pressure from Silicon Valley or charter schools.

“This is not your grandfather’s labor versus business fight any more,” Smith said. “There are all kinds of layers that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Days after Tim Grayson won election to the Assembly, a Sacramento lobbyist greeted him at a reception with sheepish congratulations. Her client had supported his opponent during the campaign, the lobbyist explained, but now that he’d won, she told him she wanted to move past the election and forge a good working relationship.

Oh and by the way, did he need any money to cover costs from the campaign?

“Make-up money” is what it’s called in Sacramento—the contributions that flow to newly elected officials from interest groups that backed a losing candidate during the campaign. It’s a completely legal way of saying, in political terms, “Let’s kiss and make up.”

Grayson has not taken advantage of the offer; campaign statements to date show no contributions to the Concord Democrat from clients of the lobbyist who introduced herself in November. But conversations like theirs often occur in the months after an election, as interest groups shift from betting on a winner during the campaign to lobbying those who won a seat in the Capitol.

“The best way to make amends, fortunately or unfortunately, is a contribution,” said GOP political consultant Mike Madrid. “It’s not uncommon to have a strategy where somebody spent six figures against (a candidate), with approval to write them a check to rebuild the relationship” if that candidate ends up the winner.

In other words: make-up money is built into the budget for interest groups that spend big on politics. Those groups had a lot at stake in the 2016 legislative races, because it marked the last time for the next eight years that a significant number of Assembly seats would be vacant. A review of campaign finance reports from last year’s most contentious races shows plenty of make-up money in the mix. It came from trade associations, corporate interests and labor unions.

Some examples:

• In the race for a Malibu-area state Senate seat, the dentists’ trade association spent nearly $50,000 opposing Democrat Henry Stern. After he won, the dentists gave him $4,200.

• In the race for a San Jose-based Assembly seat, the Realtors association spent more than $483,000 attacking Democrat Ash Kalra. After he won—and landed a spot on the Assembly’s Housing and Community Development Committee—the Realtors group gave Kalra $8,500.

• Realtors made another losing bet in the Democrat-on-Democrat race for a Glendale-area Assembly seat, spending nearly $253,000 to support Ardy Kassakhian. After his opponent, Laura Friedman, won, the Realtors’ group wrote her a check for $6,800.

Friedman said she met with the Realtors after the election—just as she met with many other interest groups—for a version of the “let’s move on and have a good relationship” conversation. The money, she said, doesn’t impact how she’ll vote on their issues.

“I don’t feel like I’m holding a grudge, but I’m certainly not going to not work with them, not take their meetings or not take in their perspectives,” Friedman said. “My goal is to represent my constituents and my conscience.”

The dentists and Realtors associations are among the biggest spenders in legislative races, pouring millions into recent election cycles. Both groups declined requests for interviews. The dental association provided a statement saying its political action committee “puts a great deal of consideration” into choosing which candidates it supports.

Interest groups that spend smaller sums of political money have done some flip-flops, too:

• In the race for a Palo Alto-area Assembly seat, two local labor unions—one for firefighters, another for school support staff—that gave to the losing candidate have since written $5,000 checks to the winner, Democrat Marc Berman.

• PG&E and the pharmaceutical industry association both donated to the campaigns of the losing candidate for a Salinas-area Assembly seat. Weeks after the election, the businesses wrote checks to the winner, Democrat Anna Caballero.

• In October, the prison guards’ union gave $4,200 to Grayson’s opponent in the race for his Assembly seat. Two months later, the union wrote a check for that amount to Grayson.

Grayson, who previously worked as the chaplain for the Concord Police Department, said his relationship with the prison guards’ union stems from his own career in law enforcement—not from the money they donated.

For interest groups he doesn’t really know, Grayson said he finds offers of “make-up money” awkward. He said he never followed up to seek a donation from the lobbyist who introduced herself at the post-election reception.

“My first desire is to meet and have a conversation in which they can get to know me, who I am, what I am and how I am,” he said. “What they choose to do after that, that’s their business.”

There is nothing illegal about giving “make-up money” to a politician, said Jessica Levinson, a law professor who is president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. Political contributions break the law only when they involve a direct exchange of money for governmental action.

But, she said, giving money to the winner of an election—after backing an opponent—shows that donors are looking to curry favor with whomever has the power to make decisions.

“It brings into stark relief what we all know, which is that people give money to get something,” Levinson said. “You’re not expressing support; you’re buying access and influence.”

Laurel Rosenhall is a contributor to CALmatters.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics