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Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on Wednesday, March 13, putting a moratorium on the death penalty in California and shuttering the execution chamber at San Quentin—a move that overrides a decision the state’s voters made in 2016 to maintain capital punishment.

While campaigning for governor last year, Newsom said he was fervently opposed to the death penalty but didn’t “want to get ahead of the will of the voters” and wanted to “give the voters a chance to reconsider.”

On Wednesday, he said he changed his mind because his decision whether to permit executions had become more urgent. The state’s lethal-injection protocol was getting closer to being finalized, and two dozen death row inmates had exhausted their appeals.

“I’ve had to process this in a way that I didn’t frankly anticipate a few months ago. It was an abstract question. (It became) a very real question,” Newsom said at a press conference in the Capitol.

“I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings.”

Under the governor’s reprieve, all 737 people on death row will remain in prison and, on paper, sentenced to death. But executions will be halted as long as Newsom remains governor. A future governor would have the power to change their fate.

Newsom’s executive order argues that the death penalty is unfair, applied disproportionately to people of color and people with mental disabilities. It says innocent people have been sentenced to die, including five Californians since 1973 who were found to have been wrongfully convicted.

His move is part of a larger swing away from tough-on-crime policies in California. In the last decade, Democrats who control state government and the state’s largely liberal voters have embraced policies to eliminate the use of money bail, reduce some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors and legalize marijuana.

But the death penalty so far has been politically untouchable—repeatedly favored by voters despite their progressive tendencies on other issues. In 2016, California voters passed a ballot measure to expedite executions and defeated a measure to end the death penalty. Voters also defeated a 2012 measure to end the death penalty.

A leading supporter of the death penalty said Newsom’s action is legal but “contrary to basic democratic principles.”

“The decision of whether we will have the death penalty or not is one the people have made over and over again through the initiative process,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment. “It’s improper for an executive to use the reprieve power to frustrate the people’s position.”

GOP Assemblyman Tom Lackey said Republicans were looking for a way to reverse Newsom’s action but hadn’t yet figured out how. He criticized Newsom for changing his position from the campaign but ruled out an effort to launch a recall.

“He’s said conflicting statements. That’s how you lose trust,” said Lackey, of Palmdale.

It appears Californians may yet have another chance to weigh in. Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine has introduced a measure that would, if approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, put the question on the ballot in 2020. He said having a governor campaign against the death penalty could make the difference in convincing voters to repeal it.

“We’ve never before had that type of leadership on one of these initiatives,” said Levine, of San Rafael. “We are going to learn from those failures. … How do we do this right? How do we administer justice properly?”

Death-penalty opponents urged Jerry Brown to grant a reprieve when he was governor, but he never did, despite his personal opposition to capital punishment. They have been lobbying Newsom to do the same since he was sworn-in in January.

Now they have their sights set on the next goal, said longtime anti-death penalty advocate Natasha Minsker: “The next step would be to go further and convert death sentences to life without parole.”

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

Published in Politics

On March 10, 1997, Rodney Patrick McNeal went home during his lunch break, around 12:30 p.m., to take his wife, Debra, to a doctor’s appointment.

Instead, the San Bernardino County probation officer found Debra, who was six months pregnant, dead in their bathtub. Submerged in water, she’d been beaten and stabbed before being strangled to death. The words “Nigger Lover” were written on the mirror (Debra McNeal was a Native American), and the house had been ransacked, with several firearms stolen.

Patrick and Debra’s marriage had been rocky at times, and police visited their home following domestic disputes at least twice in the months leading up to Debra’s death. According to a 2009 court document, a San Bernardino County deputy sheriff went to their residence in December 1996 after a domestic-disturbance call. Patrick and Debra appeared upset at each other, but no arrest was made, although two handguns were taken for safekeeping. In January 1997, a deputy responded to another domestic disturbance, after Patrick reportedly took Debra’s purse to prevent her from leaving.

Tension was high on the day of the murder, too. According to Debra’s son, Marcus Frison, the day before, Debra got upset with Patrick regarding some leftover pizza, and she took a knife to the family’s sofa. On March 10, Debra decided it was time to seek some professional help and called Kaiser Permanente to schedule a counseling appointment. On that day, she and Patrick spoke on the phone three times. They discussed the appointment, and apparently had an argument over money, although Patrick’s co-workers never heard him with a loud or hostile tone of voice.

The last known person to see Debra McNeal alive was a friend, Terrylyn Walker, who went to visit Debra around 9:15 a.m. At 10 a.m., while Debra was on the phone with Kaiser, someone she apparently knew entered the home, according to the Kaiser clerk.

Patrick McNeal got to his office somewhere between 7:30 and 8 a.m. that morning, and from 10 a.m. to noon, he met with clients. Patrick’s computer records show him working on a report shortly before noon; records also show he made a phone call to Debra around that time to find out the location of her appointment. The call was not answered.

Two of Patrick’s co-workers rode in an elevator with him at approximately 12:10 to 12:15 p.m. He then made the 2 1/2-minute walk through the parking lot to his car, and the eight-minute drive to their home.

Police arrived on the scene, after Patrick McNeal called 911, at 12:32 p.m.

There was no forced entry into the McNeal residence. There was a blood trail leading from the master living room through an entryway, into the kitchen and then into the master bedroom. The waterbed was punctured and leaking water, and there was an odor of bleach and/or other cleaning products in the master bedroom and bathroom. A bloody footprint on the carpet came from a dress shoe that did not match any of Patrick McNeal’s shoes. Hairs and fibers on Debra’s body also did not match anything from Patrick.

Yet in 2000, Rodney Patrick McNeal was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder. He’s been in prison ever since—and his case has captured the attention of the California Innocence Project.


Since it was founded in 1999, the California Innocence Project, a clinical program at California Western School of Law in San Diego, has helped free 30 wrongfully convicted inmates, and it currently is working on the cases of 13 people who remain behind bars, including that of Patrick McNeal.

“(Debra McNeal) was strangled, beaten, stabbed and thrown in the tub,” said Raquel Cohen (pictured right), an attorney representing McNeal with the California Innocence Project. “For years, all the evidence has shown the timeline doesn’t add up giving Patrick enough time to commit this crime. He still got convicted.”

Cohen said the domestic disputes between the McNeals helped the prosecution make their case against Patrick.

“They had some marital problems and some domestic-disturbance calls, but nothing that was too serious,” Cohen said. “They had arguments resulting in the police saying, ‘Hey, you guys need to calm down.’ Juries are unpredictable; Kim Long’s case was also very similar, where they attack the character of the defendant and say, ‘They are a very violent person, and there’s only one person who could have committed the crime,’ and (prosecutors) don’t have any other suspects.”

Kimberly Long is a California Innocence Project success story. The Independent first covered her case back in 2015; she was convicted of the 2003 murder of her boyfriend, Oswaldo “Ozzy” Conde, in Corona. In 2016, a Riverside County Superior Court judge reversed her conviction—which, like McNeal’s conviction, was largely based on the couple’s history of domestic strife.

“That’s really the evidence they had against him during his trial,” Cohen said about the McNeal case. “There was a bad relationship, and he found the body. But there’s a timeline issue, and it becomes, ‘Where were you at what time?’ Patrick had a lot of hard evidence—the last time he modified a document on a computer, and co-workers riding down (with him) in an elevator. The worst-case scenario has a neighbor placing him at home at 12:15 p.m.—and that is the worst case for him and best case for the prosecution. That’s not enough time for him to commit the crime, clean up—and (Patrick McNeal) had no blood or bleach on him—and then call the police.

“It just doesn’t add up.”

The California Innocence Project has put forward another suspect in the murder of Debra McNeal—Patrick McNeal’s half-brother, Jeffrey Todd West.

“A few people have come forward saying that (West) confessed to the crime,” Cohen said. “He was a very bad person. He had killed other people and served time for it in Nevada; I believe he might be locked up somewhere right now. He has a history of choking people. He poured gas on his ex-wife, and there are chemicals involved in this case. … He told people that he killed Debra after it happened, because he was worried about Patrick’s future. We presented that to the court … and unfortunately, they found the witnesses were unreliable for a number of reasons.”

In 2005, West pleaded guilty to a double-homicide in Nevada. Both West’s ex-wife, Janice Williams, and Charlotte Lazzie, an ex-girlfriend, testified regarding West’s violent nature. Ebony Grant, the half-sister of both Patrick McNeal and West, also talked about violent attacks by West, including an incident during which she was choked. Grant said West told her a week before the murders of Debra McNeal and her unborn child that he believed Debra was destroying all of his stuff, and that he would “kill the bitch”; according to the California Innocence Project’s website, West also confessed to Grant after the murder. Cary McGill, a co-worker of West, said that West confessed the murder to him, stating that Debra was ruining Patrick’s future and that he had to “handle the bitch.”

However, the court denied all of this new evidence—and Patrick McNeal remains behind bars.

“We are kind of at a roadblock, but we’re still investigating whether or not West told other people who might be more credible, or whether or not West will confess—which would be ideal, but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” Cohen said.

“There were a lot of issues at the evidentiary hearing with the witnesses who said West confessed, (whom) the judge found not to be credible. For instance, Cary McGill, who came forward saying that West had confessed to him, failed to appear on the first day; he had some issues with work and didn’t appear. When he showed up to testify, the court threw him in jail. When he got on the stand, he was in custody and was pissed—he tried to help somebody and ended up with a failure to appear (charge). The court found him not credible because his demeanor was just irritated.

“There were a lot of bad things that happened at that hearing that turned the case to deny the petition and keep Patrick in prison.”


The Independent was given about 10 minutes to talk via phone to Patrick McNeal, who is currently serving his sentence of 30 years to life at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. During the phone call, he expressed extreme frustration with his conviction.

“It’s so hard for me to believe at times,” McNeal said. “I told them during the interview that I made phone calls that day that were on the phone record, and I walked out with other probation officers from my job. I can’t make all that stuff up. … My phone-call records make it impossible for me to be at the murder, along with the probation officer I walked out with. They were ignored, or there were excuses made for phone records.”

McNeal said his attorney failed to adequately defend him during his original trial.

“He told me that he was going to question them on the timeline and do all of this and that. He didn’t do anything that he told me that he was going to do and just said, ‘The defense rests,’” McNeal said. “When I asked him about that, he said, ‘Oh, well, that’s just how I like to do my cases, and there’s no need for me to do it. The prosecution didn’t present their case.’ I was completely blown away.

“By that time, it was too late.”

Cohen said that even though McNeal’s case is currently at a standstill, they remain hopeful that he could be freed one day soon.

“He’s very optimistic; he checks in on his case regularly, and he knows that we’re sort of at a dead end,” Cohen said about McNeal. “We have a clemency petition pending with the governor, where we’re hoping (Gov. Gavin Newsom) sees this evidence and commutes his sentence or grants him a pardon. That’s one big hope he has going forward. Obviously, we talk about other ways we can break this case open. But … we all know West is very dangerous, so we’re all very cautious about it, and we’re hoping there are other people who will come forward. All of our (main) hope right now is with our governor’s office, and we’re hoping the new governor will take action on this and see there’s no way for (McNeal) to have committed this crime.”

Patrick McNeal said he wants more than just his release from prison.

“Getting out is, of course, the No. 1 goal, but I wouldn’t be satisfied just by getting out,” he said. “I can’t believe that a reasonable person would look at the case with all of the phone calls and the blood evidence (and think I did it). If you put everything together along with the fact no one ever said that I was the one who did this, along with where I worked as a probation officer—I would have to have had a co-conspirator in the Probation Department for someone to make phone calls from my office to my home and not tell the police about it—it’s like nothing makes any sense. Would I really tell a fellow probation officer, ‘Hey, I’m going to go kill my wife. Just in case the police come after me, can you make these phone calls from my office?’”

For more information, visit californiainnocenceproject.org.

Published in Features

A month after being inaugurated, Gov. Gavin Newsom used his State of the State speech on Tuesday, Feb. 12, to make his strongest showing yet that Jerry Brown is no longer in charge.

He proposed scaling back two of Brown’s legacy projects—a high-speed train and a pair of tunnels to move water from north to south. He rescinded Brown’s deployment of California National Guard troops to the Mexican border. He voiced support for education and housing policies from which Brown stayed away.

All leaders want to distinguish themselves, so it’s no shock that Newsom is carving his own path. California’s last several governors took office vowing to right the perceived wrongs of their predecessors. Brown himself, in his first term, was a change agent.

But they were Democrats replacing Republicans, or vice versa. Newsom is the first Democrat to follow a Democrat into the California governor’s office in more than a century—and the friendship between the Brown and Newsom families goes back generations. That creates a challenge that other recent governors have not faced: Newsom must pay homage to the legacy of his predecessor while also establishing his own vision.

It’s not an easy needle to thread—as evidenced by Newsom’s response when asked if he is breaking away from Brown’s course:

“We’re building on a lot of the work that’s been done,” he said in a brief interview after the speech. “We’re just being more sober about it, more deliberative about it, more focused and more transparent.”

At this early stage in his governorship, here are five key ways Newsom is differentiating himself:

Border Patrol: Early last year, President Donald Trump asked border-state governors to beef up their National Guard troops along the Mexican border. Brown responded by saying California troops wouldn’t enforce immigration laws or “build a new wall.” But he agreed to add 400 troops, saying they would focus on combating transnational crime.

Newsom rolled back Brown’s order this week, reassigning most of the troops from the border to areas threatened by wildfire and illegal marijuana grows. Those remaining at the border “will focus on stopping criminals smuggling drugs and guns through existing border checkpoints,” Newsom said in his speech. “This is our answer to the White House: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism.”

High-speed rail: Since his first stint as governor in the 1970s, Brown has advocated for a new high-speed train to connect northern and southern California. He took steps more recently to support the project by negotiating funding for it from California’s signature climate change program. “I make no bones about it,” Brown said last year. “I like trains, and I like high-speed trains even better.”

Newsom said Tuesday that he has “nothing but respect for Gov. Brown’s and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision.” But he derided the current plan for a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, saying it “would cost too much and take too long.”

Instead, Newsom embraced a more limited rail line, from Merced to Bakersfield. He also announced a new chairman for the rail authority, Lenny Mendonca, and a plan to post rail spending publicly online, a step meant to hold the administration accountable for cost overruns.

Republicans, long opposed to the new train, welcomed Newsom’s tack. State Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, who will soon take over as the Senate Republican leader, thanked Newsom for scaling back the project and making spending on it more transparent. “That was very responsible,” she said. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Water: Newsom also wants to scale back Brown’s controversial plan to carve two massive tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to move water to Southern California. Instead, as he said during the campaign and reiterated in his speech, he wants to build one tunnel.

The idea was quickly embraced by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who said he’s “been skeptical of the two tunnel approach for a while. Rethinking it and retooling it makes a lot of sense.”

To help carry out Newsom’s vision, the governor appointed a new chair for the state water board, replacing Brown’s pick, Felicia Marcus, with his own: Joaquin Esquivel.

Education: When it comes to keeping track of how students are performing at California public schools, Newsom and Brown have very different views. Brown repeatedly rejected the idea of developing a database to track student performance over time, saying he disagreed with a focus on test scores and feared the data could be abused to support prejudice. Newsom is embracing a long-term student database as a way to measure which programs advance student learning.

“We need clear and achievable standards of transparency, more information sharing, and accountability for all public schools,” he said.

Newsom used the speech to announce his pick to lead the state Board of Education, naming Linda Darling-Hammond to the post. A former Stanford professor, she is an expert in teacher training and has chaired the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing for the last eight years.

Housing and homelessness: Tackling California’s extraordinarily high cost of housing—and the related epidemic of homelessness—was never a top priority for Brown. Even as he left office, he said he didn’t think there was much the state could do make homes more affordable.

Newsom wants to change that by holding cities accountable for building affordable housing. He already sued the city of Huntington Beach for not building enough, and said in his speech that he wants to meet with 47 other cities that aren’t meeting their housing requirements.

Newsom also announced that he is establishing a new commission on homelessness, to be led by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

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

Published in Politics

California already has 109 laws on the books that regulate the use of firearms—more gun-control rules than any other state.

More, it seems, are on the way.

On Feb. 4, a Democratic contingent of lawmakers announced plans to send a raft of new gun-related bills to the governor before the end of the legislative session. The 16 lawmakers were joined by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a gun-control advocate and mass-shooting survivor, along with representatives of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

With Democrats now wielding unprecedented political power in Sacramento, including the recent election of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who embraces his role as public enemy of the National Rifle Association, the time seems ripe for a new legislative push.

“We have expanded Democratic majorities in both houses; we have a bright and ambitious new governor with a real track record on this issue,” said Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel of Encino, who helped form the “gun violence working group” with Berkeley Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks. “We have a special opportunity here in California to draft some forward-thinking, meaningful, evidence-based legislation that is going to help end mass shootings and end gun violence.”

Among the legislative proposals introduced:

AB 165, by Gabriel, which would call for standards to be developed to teach police officers how to temporarily remove guns from people a court has decided pose a threat to themselves or others. That may include those charged with domestic violence. After a man shot and killed 12 people at a Thousand Oaks bar last November, it was reported that police had paid a home visit to the shooter prior to the incident, but decided not to seek a “gun violence restraining order” against him.

• A proposal by Wicks (yet to be formally introduced) to boost funding to the California Violence Intervention and Prevention grant program, which funds local programs that strive to reduce gun violence.

• A proposal by Assemblyman Mike Gipson from Carson (yet to be formally introduced) that would regulate certain metal components that can be assembled into firearms. A similar bill of his was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

“America’s love affair with firearms has got to end,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson from Santa Barbara. “I am hopeful that we are going to take our country back.”

But as lawmakers ramp up gun control legislation in California, the judicial winds seem to be blowing against them.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to a New York City law that strictly limits where gun owners can carry their firearms. That decision was widely taken as a sign that the current court may take a more expansive view of the Second Amendment—perhaps at the expense of California’s strict gun control laws.

“We, as a state, have the right to protect our citizens, to protect our kids and to protect our schools and so we think we can accomplish both of those things while being consistent with the second amendment and also doing big things to prevent gun violence,” said Gabriel.

To learn more about gun policy in California, explore CALmatters' in-depth explainer.

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

Published in Politics

Emelyn Jerónimo is only 12 years old, but she already has $3,000 saved toward college. Socked away by her mother in chunks of $100 or less since Jerónimo was in kindergarten, the money may not seem like much, but it’s helped fuel the San Francisco sixth-grader’s dreams of becoming a pediatrician.

Jerónimo’s nest egg is part of a first-of-its-kind program that automatically sets up college savings accounts for every kindergartner in San Francisco’s public schools, each seeded with $50 from the city treasury. If Gov. Gavin Newsom gets his way, the model could soon roll out to other cities across California.

Newsom launched Kindergarten to College as mayor of San Francisco in 2010, and recently proposed spending $50 million on similar pilot projects around the state as part of what he’s calling a cradle-to-career education strategy.

“You want to address the stresses, the costs of education?” Newsom said at a press conference unveiling his 2019-20 budget. “Let’s start funding those costs when people enter into kindergarten.”

Fans of so-called child savings accounts say they help children envision themselves attending college from a young age. Families of San Francisco public-school students, many of whom are low-income, have saved a total of $3.4 million of their own money in the Kindergarten to College accounts, according to city Treasurer José Cisneros.

Only about one in five students have contributed money beyond what the city supplies. That still outpaces the percentage of U.S. families contributing to 529 plans, tax-deferred accounts that provide another option for college savings—as Cisneros is quick to point out.

“To me, when you have millions of dollars saved for college, and it’s coming in part from the poorest families in the city, that’s a huge win,” argues Cisneros, who said Newsom has told him he wants to model the California program on San Francisco’s approach. “This is sending a signal to thousands of kids in our city that college is something that’s going to be part of your future.”

While individual 529 accounts can require savers to fill out complex paperwork, pay fees or navigate online management tools, parents learn about the Kindergarten to College accounts through a letter from their children’s school. They can make deposits in cash at bank branches or school campuses, and because the program is universal, they don’t need to provide proof of income or citizenship status to participate.

A number of other states and cities have also established child savings accounts, funded with either public or philanthropic dollars. It’s a relatively new idea, so most accounts haven’t been around long enough for researchers to study long-term outcomes.

Still, there are some signs the programs may be working. Researchers in Oklahoma studied 2,700 families with children born in 2007, randomly selecting half of them to receive $1,000 in a college savings account at the child’s birth. They found that children with accounts scored higher on measures of social and emotional development than those in the control group. Their mothers were more likely to report higher educational expectations for their children, the researchers found, and even exhibited less depression than those in the control group.

One reason the accounts may appeal to policymakers: They’re relatively simple to supply when compared with addressing systemic inequities that affect educational success, such as access to social networks and family wealth.

“Social capital is really important for people but hard to give to them,” said William Elliott, director of the Center on Assets, Education and Inclusion at the University of Michigan. “But we can give them money in their account.”

Getting parents to trust the process can pose a challenge. Jerónimo’s mother, Erika Sierra—an immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico—was unnerved when a bank teller in her Mission District neighborhood asked for her Social Security number in order to deposit money in her daughter’s account. For months, she stopped saving, only resuming when an outreach worker from a local nonprofit, Mission Graduates, explained that she could use a different form of identification.

Now, she and her two daughters gather up cash from birthday presents and bring it to the bank—her daughters filling up the envelopes themselves.

“It’s a good option for teaching them the habit of saving,” she said. But many parents at her daughters’ school opt out of using the accounts, she said, either out of fear or because they don’t understand how. The city tries to combat those doubts by taking kindergartners and their parents on field trips to local bank branches.

Cost is another hurdle, especially in cities less flush with tech industry cash than San Francisco. In Lansing, Mich., city leaders decided to offer child savings accounts—modeled on San Francisco’s—with just a $5 initial deposit.

A state investment in college savings accounts could support places like Oakland and Long Beach that are developing their own programs. But those dollars could also be spent shoring up California’s financial aid system. More than 200,000 eligible students applied for the state’s Cal Grant scholarships last year and didn’t receive one. Newsom has called for a modest increase in the number of those grants, along with boosting the amounts awarded to student parents.

Advocates for the savings accounts, however, argue that investments in financial aid are better made earlier in a child’s educational career. Some even say that federal Pell Grants—need-based scholarships for higher education—should be divided into two chunks, with one given out during childhood.

“Financial aid is, in many ways, kind of too late,” said Cisneros, the city treasurer in San Francisco. “It’s not there early enough to send a message to 5-, 6- or 7-year-olds that college is something you have every right to have access to.”

Researchers are also studying whether rewards cards could help parents who are living paycheck to paycheck save for college by giving them cash back on grocery purchases, and whether universal child savings accounts counteract implicit bias among teachers by encouraging them to see all students as college-bound. California could become a laboratory to test those ideas if the legislature signs off on Newsom’s plan later this spring.

Meanwhile, Sierra, a stay-at-home mom who never went to college herself, says her daughters’ savings accounts have given her an excuse to talk to them about higher education.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t worry about what we have or what we don’t have,’” she said. “'Just keep studying, and you’ll get to college.'”

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

Published in Local Issues

What would you do with a $21.4 billion windfall?

That’s essentially the question California is confronting amid record surplus projections during Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first year in office.

On one hand, the former San Francisco mayor showcased his progressive agenda by setting ambitious goals for universal preschool, expanding health coverage for undocumented immigrants, and proposing the nation’s most-generous paid family leave program.

On the other, Newsom made the case that he’s still being fiscally conservative by projecting a modest growth rate of 3.2 percent, socking billions more into the state’s rainy day fund, and paying down debt and public-employee retirement liabilities.

“I think, arguably, it’s even more conservative in that respect than previous administrations,” Newsom said of his overall $209 billion state budget.

The governor’s finance department broke the $21.4 billion surplus into three buckets: roughly $3 billion for ongoing spending, $8.5 billion in one-time spending, and $10 billion to build what Newsom is calling “budget resiliency.”

The initial $3 billion bucket would be used to expand ongoing services for the poor, particularly the in-home supportive services program and CalWORKS for working parents. A portion of that would be used to boost higher education to stave off a tuition hike in the state's university systems, and fund a second year of free community college.

The second bucket of $8.5 billion would be targeted toward Newsom’s ambitious push for affordable housing and to confront California’s homeless epidemic; to lay the groundwork for extending full-day kindergarten to all Californians by providing money to build or retrofit classrooms; and to provide school districts much-needed relief by contributing an extra $3 billion toward the districts’ teacher pension payments.

With the remaining $10 billion surplus, Newsom wants to pay off debts, which he says would help the state weather a potential economic downturn. Specifically, he would finish paying off Brown’s so-called $28 billion Wall of Debt that had accumulated from years of internal borrowing; undo a 9-year-old accounting trick that pushed the June state payroll into July so it looked like the state was spending less; set aside $2.3 billion for operating reserves; and most significantly, make an extra $3 billion contribution to the state’s main pension fund.

So how did California wind up with an extra surplus? Essentially, the sales and income taxes passed during Gov. Jerry Brown’s tenure coincided with an economic recovery. One week after Newsom won the election, the Legislative Analyst’s Office announced that state finances were in remarkably good shape, with a $14.8 billion expected surplus for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Newsom and his finance director, Keely Bosler, say there are two reasons the surplus grew by $6.6 billion. One comes from positive balances state accounts carried over from past years, and the other is that the Newsom administration is choosing to project less growth in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for the poor.

“We’re projecting more modest growth in the Medi-Cal budget, which makes sense, because we’ve seen this big ramp-up on the expansion of the (Affordable Care Act), and it’s beginning to level off,” Newsom said. “That affords us the opportunity to make these historic investments, and pay down debt and unfunded liabilities.”

Bosley, who also served under the Brown administration, said she was hesitant to modify assumptions about Medi-Cal caseloads and costs, but ultimately felt it remains adequate. That’s because the state has seen the number of uninsured Californians drop as the state aggressively signed people up for private insurance plans offered through Covered California while also expanding Medi-Cal coverage for the poor.

On Monday, the legislative analyst weighed in with its assessment of Newsom’s budget and commended him for paying down debt, a move it called prudent. The analyst, however, now projects the state will have a $20.6 billion surplus, nearly $1 billion less than the governor’s figure, and included a word of caution.

“The governor’s budget proposal reflects a budget situation that is even better than our estimates,” the analyst wrote. “Largely as a result of lower-than-expected spending in health and human services programs, we estimate the administration had nearly $20.6 billion in available discretionary resources to allocate. That said, recent financial market volatility poses some downside risk for revenues.”

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

Published in Politics

In one of his first official actions, Gov. Gavin Newsom has directed state agencies, including the one that oversees Medi-Cal, to negotiate as a block to demand prescription drug-makers lower their prices.

The move will make California the nation’s largest negotiator with pharmaceutical companies, and could become a model for other states—if it works.

“Right now, with all the gridlock in Congress, we are seeing quite a bit of state action on prescription-drug pricing—and we hope that advances as much as it can until we can see some change in Congress,” said Peter Maybarduk, who specializes in medicine access at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

“California government has power,” he continued. “It is a large enough economy and large enough state to influence pharma behavior and dictate terms.”

It’s such an attractive idea that it seems to have united the progressive Newsom with his political nemesis, President Donald Trump. Both have espoused the wisdom of the government consolidating its massive purchasing power so it can bargain hard with drug companies and cut the best deal for taxpayers.

Trump campaigned on the notion of harnessing the federal government’s bargaining power to reduce drug prices for programs like Medicare, but the idea went nowhere, because it’s prohibited by federal law: Congress specifically barred the federal government from negotiating Medicare drug prices—a restriction defenders describe as free-market protection and critics deride as a giant pacifier to Big Pharma.

Still it remains a simple and appealing idea in a nation confronted by rapidly rising prescription drug costs. A recent Harvard/Politico poll found the No. 1 priority voters have for the new Congress is reducing the cost of prescription drugs.

There’s a reason it’s top of mind. A study released this month in the Journal of Health Affairs found that the cost of brand-name drugs rose each year between 2008 and 2016—by more than 9 percent per year for oral medicine, and more than 15 percent for injectable medicine. Specialty drug prices soared even higher each year.

In his executive order, Newsom said California has seen prescription drug prices rise 20 percent annually since 2000—and that the 25 most expensive drugs account for half of the state’s spending on pharmacy costs. So far, Newsom’s office has not released any estimates of how much it expects the new bargaining plan to save.

“We will use both our market power and our moral power to demand fairer prices for prescription drugs,” Newsom said during his inauguration speech Monday.

That same day, he told the state’s Department of Health Care Services to begin negotiating the purchasing of prescription drugs for all 13 million recipients of Medi-Cal, the state’s health-care system for low-income patients. Currently, the state only represents 2 million of them, while the rest are on managed health plans that negotiate their own drug rates.

“The governor is the only one that can do this; he is the only one that can force everybody to the table,” said Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood of Healdsburg, who heads the state Assembly’s health committee.

He said the consolidated bargaining power is vital to address skyrocketing drug prices. With nearly one in three Californians on Medi-Cal, and its budget of $250 billion, even small savings could be significant.

“The savings we’ll be able to enjoy from less spending on prescription drugs,” Wood said, “will help offset some of the additional costs that we’re going to be incurring to expand coverage for other people in California.”

Massachusetts was the first state to enact a “bulk Rx buying plan” in 1999. States eventually started joining forces, and now there are five bulk-buying programs that include multiple states, with some reporting significant savings. Three of those are focused on buying drugs for Medicaid recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The oldest one, focused on Medicaid pooling, was created in 2003 with four states and has now grown to 10, including Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York and North Carolina. It represents 3.8 million Medicaid recipients—still less than a quarter of the Medi-Cal recipients California will be bargaining on behalf of.

In its last session, the California Assembly approved a bill that would have created a prescription drug bulk-purchasing program for the state, but it was then held by its sponsor, San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu. His office cited a lack of support from then-Gov. Jerry Brown. And nearly two decades ago—in another effort to decrease drug expenses—the state authorized the Department of General Services to buy prescription drugs for state or local agencies through a bulk purchasing program, but the program hasn’t been used much.

The governor’s plan also calls for eventually giving private employers the option to join the consolidated purchasing block, although how that would work is still vague.

As for the expected drug-industry opposition, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said it’s reviewing the proposal.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with the governor and his administration on comprehensive solutions to the problems patients are facing accessing and affording their medicines,” said spokeswoman Priscilla VanderVeer.

Gerald Kominski, senior fellow at the UCLA Center for Health Policy, lauded the idea of using market power to obtain the lowest prices possible, but predicted that drug-makers would unleash a campaign against it inside and outside of California.

“They will start running ads that are going to scare people—that if you are on Medi-Cal, you are no longer going to get this drug or this drug,” he said. “There will be dark music and maybe a doctor in the scene shaking their head 'no' saying you are no longer eligible for this or for that.”

For the health plans that currently serve the majority of Medi-Cal patients, efforts to get better prices are welcome, said John Baackes, CEO of L.A. Care Health Plan. With 2.5 million Medi-Cal patients, it is the largest Medi-Cal managed plan in the state.

“We are supportive of investigating the idea, because logically it says if the state is negotiating for 13.5 million people, they can do a lot, maybe more than what we can do for 2 million people,” he said. “It’s worth it to see if it will produce better pricing.”

But the details are going to matter, Baackes said. There has been no information yet on how it will be administered or how the state would handle customer service.

Even California, with super-sized buying power, can only bargain so far. Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, called Newsom’s approach “promising.” But he noted that the state can’t walk away from a negotiation, because it has an obligation to make sure that Medi-Cal recipients can access the drugs they need.

“Leveraging the purchasing power of the state is certainly a smart move,” said Sacramento Democratic Senator Richard Pan, chair of the Senate Health Committee. But he added a caveat: “We want to make sure it’s done in a way that ensures that people have access to the medication they need.”

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

Published in Politics

You’d never know Eleni Kounalakis was taking an oath of office for an afterthought of a job that has been occupied by men who generally become answers to political trivia questions.

As U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, four other members of Congress and numerous legislators looked on, Gov. Gavin Newsom swore Kounalakis in as California’s 50th lieutenant governor—the first woman to be elected as governor in waiting.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm served as master of ceremonies for the event at a packed Sacramento Public Library auditorium that bears the name of Kounalakis’ father, developer Angelo Tsakopoulos.

No governor in recent memory had sworn in a lieutenant governor. In fact, most governors look upon lieutenant governors as upstarts to be kept at arm’s length. Governors and California’s independently elected lieutenant governors “don’t always see eye to eye,” Newsom noted.

“That’s about to change,” Newsom said.

Exactly what duties Newsom might cede to Kounalakis remain to determined. There was no promise.

As “lite guv,” Kounalakis’ duties—at least when Newsom is around—are limited to serving as a University of California regent; a California State University trustee; a member of the State Lands Commission, which has oversight over beaches and offshore oil drilling; and presiding over the hazily defined and sporadically funded California Commission for Economic Development.

She also will be acting governor when the governor leaves the state. Newsom quipped that she should not “start appointing judges,” a reference to Mike Curb, who was lieutenant governor when Jerry Brown was governor the first time and attempted to fill judicial openings.

Two of California’s four most recent governors—Gray Davis, who also attended her swearing-in, and Newsom—served as lieutenant governor. During his tenure and itchy with ambition, Newsom would joke about the job, repurposing the old witticism by another ex-lieutenant governor, John Kerry, that his post mainly required its occupant to “wake up every morning, pick up the paper, read the obituaries, and if the governor’s name doesn’t appear in there, go back to sleep.”

Once in 2013, when a mother and her son asked Newsom to pose with them for a photo, the boy asked him what a lieutenant governor does. “I ask myself that every day,” the guv lite replied though a Hollywood smile for the camera. 

But clearly Newsom made the most of the post, and over the years came to see it more generously. And Kounalakis, a longtime Democratic activist and fundraiser, campaigned hard for it, pumping $9 million of her own money into her campaign, besides an independent expenditure of more than $5 million by her father and other major donors.

“It ain’t such a bad job,” Newsom said on Monday.

Kounalakis, 52, was U.S. ambassador to Hungary under President Barack Obama. She defeated Democratic state Sen. Ed Hernandez with 56.6 percent of the vote in November.

Kounalakis paid homage to her father, who arrived in Lodi from Greece at age 14 not speaking English, worked his way through Sacramento State College and became a major developer, a Democratic donor and a philanthropist. He sat in the front row as she took the oath.

Kounalakis vowed to block any attempts to expand offshore oil drilling, and work to expand access to public universities, calling it the “the best way to address our rapidly changing digital economy.” UC President Janet Napolitano was in the audience. 

In 1999, then. Gov. Davis took umbrage at one of the early actions of then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Bustamante’s staff suddenly lost preferred parking privileges, though Davis’ staff at the time called it mere coincidence.

“Pay no attention to the critics who say the job has no influence,” Davis said when asked what advice he would offer to Kounalakis.

Davis suggested that she use her position as a UC regent and CSU trustee to work at each campus to “help solve their problems.” Davis noted that the colleges are the most important economic engines in most cities where they’re located.

Importantly, students, faculty, administrators, university donors and alumni vote. That can be useful for, say, a future political campaign.

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

Published in Politics

Don’t hold regular press conferences. Reward loyalty. If you’re a Californian with presidential aspirations, move to New York.

Are you taking notes, Gov-elect Gavin Newsom?

In the final days of his fourth and final term as California’s chief executive, Gov. Jerry Brown spoke at the Sacramento Press Club, offering parting, and remarkably candid, tips on how to best govern the Golden State.

The hour-long conversation, in the ballroom of the Sacramento Masonic Temple, was moderated by Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, and Miriam Pawel, author of the family biography The Browns of California.

Brown, now 80, drew upon experience gleaned over 16 years as governor, plus job experience as attorney general, secretary of state and mayor of Oakland—and three presidential runs.

Tip No. 1: “Avoid overexposure”

Pawel asked Brown if he had learned anything from his father, Pat, who served as the state’s governor between 1959 and 1967.

“One thing I learned was not to have an open-ended press conference every week,” the governor said. The reason: Reporters have the nasty habit of calling you out when you contradict yourself.

“It’s hard to be consistent in the face of an ever-complex, ever-unfolding story,” he said.

Appropriately, this was Brown’s first visit to the state Capitol’s reporters’ club since returning to Sacramento as governor in 2011. When Skelton asked whether the governor planned on commuting the sentences of any of the 739 people on death row in California, Brown made it clear that he was not there to provide fresh fodder to the reporters in the room.

“If I said something, that would give you a story,” he said. “I’m not here to make news; I’m here to enlighten.”

Tip No. 2: Don’t try to make everyone happy.

Ever since running for governor in 1974 on the promise to introduce an “era of limits,” Brown has cultivated a reputation as being willing to buck his party’s big-spending tendencies.

Apparently, there is political logic to being a budgetary tightwad.

“The idea that you’re going to make people happy and build a lot of support by doing a lot of stuff—frankly, it turns out that there’s a downside,” he said. “The more that you do, the more that people are empowered to demand that you do even more.”

Tip No. 3: Do try to make some people happy

As a politician known for sprinkling Latin into his speeches, Brown paid tribute to the wisdom of the phrase quid pro quo.

“In politics, you should take care of your friends,” said Brown, noting that both Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, and Rose Bird, former chief justice of the California court system, started out working for his various campaigns.

“Loyalty is important. Keep the meritocracy within limits.”

But there are limits on repaying loyalty, too.

“Politics is a difficult business,” he said. “You need to raise massive sums of money from people who all want something, and if you give it to them directly, you’ll go to jail. But if you don’t give it to them in some form, you won’t be elected to the next office.”

“So you square that circle.”

Tip No. 4: Don’t get distracted by ideological labels

Brown was Oakland’s mayor between 1999 and 2007. That stint taught him that just because someone claims to represent a particular viewpoint that you happen to share, that doesn’t mean they have the best idea.

“People show up to City Hall and argue for the stupidest things in the name of all good things,” he said. “Environment, labor, historic preservation, ethics, police accountability—everybody’s got a good story.”

Tip Number 5: If you’re running for president, don’t do it out of California

“Nixon paved the way” for Californians running for the White House, he said. “He moved to New York.”

With so many early primary states located on the East Coast, and the daily news starting three hours earlier, “proximity is a key issue that works against Californians.” Part of that could change in 2020: Last year, California legislators voted to bump up the 2020 state primary to March 3.

Brown tackled other topics, all the while honoring his pledge not to say anything too newsworthy.

On the state’s high-speed rail, he assured Skelton that it will be built. “I think at our age we shouldn’t be driving,” he said.

On the recent court ruling out of Texas that declared the entirety of the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare to be unconstitutional, Brown said that he was “not really worried about it,” confident that the ruling will be overturned. And if it isn’t, there will be electoral hell to pay for the Republicans, he said, allowing Democrats to replace Obamacare with “something even better.”

On his imminent departure from elected office, he said he will miss the constant activity that comes with the job.

“I like sparring with the press; I like raising money; I like attacking my opponents; I like being attacked by my opponents,” he said.

But come Jan. 7, he will be giving that all up and heading up to his ranch in Colusa County, where he said he’ll have to deal with “real rattlesnakes.”

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

Published in Politics

Sporting starred and striped jackets and Make America Great Again hats, the California Republicans who gathered on election night in the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego were in a remarkably chipper mood.

They cheered when the results came in from Florida, showing the GOP candidate apparently won the narrow race for governor. They lustily booed and jeered when the face of San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, appeared on the monitor.

If the assembled party activists were disappointed by the fact that, closer to home, they had lost their bid for every statewide office in the state, most seemed to take it in stride. Certainly, no one seemed particularly surprised.

Just as the polls predicted, John Cox, California’s Republican candidate for governor, lost the job to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fact, none of the five Republicans vying for statewide office this year won their races. In the contests for the two remaining statewide offices and the U.S. Senate, a Republican candidate didn’t even make it onto the general election ballot. That leaves GOP voters without a single statewide representative for the third election cycle running.

Adding insult to injury, the only right-of-center candidate to mount a realistic statewide campaign was former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who got as far as he did after ditching the Republican brand entirely and running as a political independent.

With votes still being counted, Democrats also were within striking distance of reclaiming supermajorities in both the state Assembly and the Senate.

Maybe most painful of all was the fate of Proposition 6. This was the effort to repeal a recent increase in the gas tax—or, at the very least, to tap into the California voters’ historic dislike of higher taxes and expensive commutes, and convince them to once again vote Republican. The measure failed, and Republicans were quick to blame the defeat of Prop 6 on Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat whose office was responsible for writing the text describing the measure on the ballot.

“A lot of people are going to wake up tomorrow very angry because they were tricked,” said San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric. He pointed to polling that showed voters approved of repealing the gas tax, but not Proposition 6. (An alternative explanation offered by Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare: Voters approve of the low gas taxes in concept, but worried about the specific consequences of repeal).

“We won on the issue,” insisted Carl DeMaio, who chaired the “Yes on 6” campaign. The lesson he took from the election wasn’t that the message itself was flawed, but that the party simply needs to fight harder.

“Every single election, every single race, we are going to make the fraudulently stolen gas-tax-repeal initiative a main issue in regular elections, and, yes, I predict, a couple recall elections very soon,” he said to the crowd. DeMaio has vowed to recall Becerra, as well as Democratic state Sens. Anthony Portantino and Richard Roth. He then led the crowd in a cheer: “We will fight!”

It was a cheer of defiance in the face of the declining fortunes for the GOP. That, of course, is not a new story. Earlier this year, Republican registration among California voters dipped below those of political independents, making the party of Ronald Reagan the state’s third-most-popular political affiliation, behind Democrat and “no thanks.”

But as national Republicans secured their grip on the U.S. Senate while surrendering control of the House, for California Republicans, the 2018 midterms feel like a new low.

It’s been more than 130 years since Californians replaced a Democratic governor with another Democratic governor. And while Gov. Jerry Brown was a fiscal conservative by Sacramento standards, Newsom can be considered the stuff of Republican nightmares: a San Francisco progressive who supports single-payer healthcare, picks Twitter fights with the president and has flirted with the idea of reforming Proposition 13, the property-tax-capping ballot measure that helped give birth to the modern conservative movement and the Reagan revolution.

“This will be the third time that higher taxes have won as an argument at the ballot in California,” said Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30’s “millionaire’s tax” and then voted to extend it again four years later.

The fact that the average California voter elected not just to stick it to millionaires this time, but agreed to pay higher taxes at the pump, might suggest that “taxes are not the third rail” of California politics that they once were, he said.

“I think Republicans forgot that it’s not 1978 anymore,” added Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, referring to the year that voters approved Prop 13 by a nearly 30-point margin. “That was a different time and a different electorate.”

For sure, California has changed a lot over the last 30 years. But even as the state has become more ethnically and racially diverse, the profile of the typical Republican voter has stayed relatively static: relatively white, old and affluent. Fortunately for the state GOP, this is the same demographic niche that most predictably turns out to vote. But in the absence of a message that might begin to convince Democrats and independents to switch parties, that may only postpone the inevitable. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, millennial voters are more likely than their elders to identify themselves as liberals, favor single-payer healthcare, and oppose the president. 

“This is a failing franchise,” said Whalen. He argued that the state party has two fundamental problems: “message and messengers.”

Cox put the blame for whatever messaging shortcomings his own campaign experienced on the press, at least in part.

“I wanted to have a dialogue and a discussion about what we needed to do to get rid of that money in politics,” he said. “At some point in time, the message has got to get out, and it’s got to be the media.”

But according to Whalen, the party put itself at a disadvantage when the most-prominent state Republican on this year’s ballot, Cox, was relatively unknown to most California voters prior to the final months of the campaign. Those further down on the ballot were—and likely still are—largely anonymous to all but the most politically engaged. With the exception of Steven Bailey, the retired El Dorado County judge who ran for attorney general, none of the party’s statewide candidates had experience in elected office.

“You’re counting on rookie quarterbacks to lead you to the Super Bowl,” said Whalen.

But even where experienced Republican political leaders do exist in California—city, county and congressional representatives increasingly concentrated in the exurbs and rural stretches away from the state’s populated coasts—it’s tough to convince an all-star player to join a team with such a lousy track record. A Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006. And one of those candidates was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rare “international movie star willing to run for office,” said Pitney. “But that bracket seems empty right now.”

In the lead up to the June primary election, state party insiders at least thought they’d finally settled on an appealing message.

“I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out … with, ‘Repeal the gas tax,’ and, ‘Oppose the sanctuary state,’” Krvaric told CALmatters earlier this year.

But as late as of this spring, the majority of Californians said they support state policies to protect undocumented immigrants.

Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and the author of State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, says that the state already tried that political line in the 1990s. In 1994, state voters passed Prop 187, a ballot measure that would have stripped undocumented immigrants of state services had it not been struck down by the courts.

“That was when we should have been paying attention to how to restructure our economy instead of turning inward and blaming other people for the problems that we had,” he said. While the nation as a whole may now be having its own “Prop 187 moment,” brought on in part by national demographic trends that mirror California’s a few decades back, voters here have “wisened up from that experience,” he said.

As for the gas-tax message, which Cox made one of the cornerstones of his campaign, the election results speak for themselves. The gap between the preferences of the state party’s base and those of the average voter seem increasingly impossible to bridge. And yet that is precisely the task before any Republican candidate who hopes to compete statewide.

Cox faced his own version of this challenge with his on-again, off-again relationship with the president over the last year. In 2016, Cox, famously, did not vote for Trump, instead casting his ballot for the libertarian Gary Johnson. But in a lead-up to the June primary, Cox noticeably warmed to the commander-in-chief, touting their biographical similarities and their mutual support for a southern border wall. It was the president’s endorsement that helped Cox secure a place on the general-election ballot.

But once Cox found himself competing for a wider electoral audience, he began doing his best to distance himself from Trump’s more-controversial policies and tweets, but without offending the president’s many supporters. “I’m not running for president,” he has said, employing a defense popular among Republicans across the state, and country.

The state party won’t have an easy time distancing itself from Washington, D.C., anytime soon, even if it wanted to, said Graeme Boushey, a political science professor at the UC Irvine.

“With a national GOP that has itself moved toward more-extreme politics, it’s hard for the state GOP to escape that shadow,” he said. Politics are increasingly nationalized, he continued. Many voters don’t know who represents them in Sacramento, or even in Congress, but they do know who the president is, and to which party he belongs.

Given the president’s political instinct to appeal to his base (a base that increasingly does not look like California) and not the electorate as a whole, that puts the state GOP in a bind, he said. “If that’s going to be the argument that the party has for the next 10 years, I don’t know that the Republican party nationally, and certainly not in California, can sustain that.”

Once again shutout from statewide office, some of the California candidates said they hope to instead to advance conservative policy in California through ballot measures.

Voters “don’t want anything with an ‘R’ next to its name,” said Konstantinos Roditis, the candidate for controller who had the “R” next to his name. “If we want to make change in California that people want, the best way, I believe, is to do it through the initiative process.”

Both he and the candidate for treasurer, Greg Conlon, discussed the possibility of putting a state proposition on the ballot aimed at reducing California’s public-sector pension liability as soon as 2020.

“Our positions are not really Republican; they’re really bipartisan, because the people want it,” said Roditis. “Democrats in Sacramento don’t want it.”

In the short term, the California Republican Party’s greatest hopes for broader political relevance may lie with the governor-elect. Many Republicans believe that Californians will tire of Democratic rule if and when Newsom begins to push through the many ambitious and expensive policies he’s promised on the campaign trail.

The lesson of the last few elections is that Californians have a modest appetite for certain taxes, said Jack Citrin, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has written about the politics of the California tax revolt. “It doesn’t mean that Californians are ready to embrace all kinds of higher taxes,” he said. “I would bet you that if you put Proposition 13 on the ballot as it applies to homeowners, it would pass again easily.”

A recession, and the budget crunch that would likely follow, could result in a similar political backlash. “You can’t sit around and wait for the revolution,” said Whalen. “But I would not get too far down the road with grim prophecies. Things can change quickly in politics.”

Think back to 1974. In the midterm elections after the Watergate hearings and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the state Republican Party lost five seats in a once-in-a-generation electoral pummeling. But six years later, Ronald Reagan, another Californian, ran for president and won.

“This Republican Party will be back in this state,” Cox said, “and our path to success is going to be based upon delivering the quality of life that people need so desperately.”

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

Published in Politics

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