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The two men competing to be the next governor of California met earlier this week for their first (and, alas, probably only) one-on-one debate.

If you didn’t see it, that’s because the showdown—which was structured more as a spirited conversation than your standard dueling-podiums-style debate—was on the radio, hosted by political reporter Scott Shafer, out of the San Francisco-based station KQED.

And if you didn’t hear it, that’s because it was on a Monday. At 10 a.m. On a federal holiday.

It’s a low-profile treatment for what may be the sole in-person exchange of ideas between the two candidates vying to become the next leader of the fifth-largest economy on Earth. But then again, few voters will have a difficult time distinguishing Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a liberal Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco, from John Cox, a conservative Republican with the backing of President Trump.

On housing, both candidates agreed that a shortage of production was to blame, but they offered very different solutions. Newsom argued that local governments often exert too much influence blocking production: “There’s a certain point where the state of California needs to intervene.” Cox disagreed, arguing that the focus needs to be on reducing the cost of adding new units by cutting state environmental regulations.

The debate over housing quickly turned feisty as Newsom pointed to his proposed solutions, including boosting the state’s low-income housing tax credit and allowing local governments to skim property-tax revenue for affordable housing. He then said that Cox offers only ”an illusory strategy where he criticizes and identifies problems” but offers no substantive fixes.

Cox countered that all of Newsom’s solutions rely on “more government.”

Despite Cox’s best efforts to keep the conversation focused on bread-and-butter economic issues and his history of “fighting against the establishment,” Shafer asked about his views on gay marriage. In 2007, Cox said that allowing same-sex couples to marry would “open the floodgates to polygamy and bestiality.”

“I’ve evolved on those issues … just like Barack Obama,” said Cox.

When asked about gun control, the candidate criticized the shift in the conversation toward “guns and all of these social issues,” arguing that he is not running for governor to change state law on those topics, but is instead focused on affordability.

Cox was happy to talk about Proposition 6, the ballot measure that would repeal the recent increase in the state gas tax and other driver fees, which he has made a crux of his campaign. Cox argued that the state’s Democratic leadership “didn’t want to do the tough job” of eliminating wasteful spending and cutting environmental regulations, so it instead raised taxes and fees. He insisted that under his leadership, the state would be able to fund necessary road repairs without the new revenue.

“We’re going to use the money efficiently and cut good deals with contractors,” he said.

Newsom once again called that plan “illusory.”

“His plan is to make things worse,” said Newsom. “You can eliminate every single position at Caltrans (the state transportation agency) … and still struggle to find the money.”

Likewise, Newsom seized the opportunity to turn the discussion of the state’s sanctuary policy, which limits local and state law-enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities, into an opportunity to paint Cox as President Trump’s acolyte.

“He believes very passionately in building the wal. He believes in the elimination of sanctuary policy,” said Newsom. “Trump would have an advocate in Sacramento if he becomes the next governor.”

Cox ignored the reference to the president but said he would indeed push for a repeal of California’s sanctuary state law. “If somebody is here illegally, and they’re engaged in criminal activities, I think it’s up to public officials to kick them out,” he said.

Similarly, the two candidates also offered different views on the state’s recent criminal-justice reforms, including the recent elimination of cash bail.

“You’re replacing a private business with a lot more state workers,” said Cox, whereas Newsom called the new law “an extraordinary step forward and a civil-rights reform.”

While Newsom celebrated the state’s climate change policy, saying the state should play a “role not just nationally but internationally to lead,” Cox was more circumspect. He agreed that the planet was warming and that human activity “may very well” be partially to blame, but he questioned whether the benefit of dramatically cutting emissions across the state was worth the cost to electricity ratepayers and drivers.

The fact this year’s governor’s race will likely feature just one debate during the general election (there were a few before the June primary) is unusual by historical standards, but it likely represents the new normal. As the Los Angeles Times reported, no race for governor or U.S. Senate has featured more than one post-primary debate since 2012. That may be a consequence of the growing political polarization of the state.

“I think there’s a growing cynicism about the utility of debates, Cal State Sacramento political scientist Kimberly Nalder told the Times.

Cox’s strategy during the debate mirrored the one he has employed for months on the campaign trail. He has tried to saddle Newsom with responsibility for California’s high gas taxes, high poverty rate, housing costs and every other economic woe facing the state. As a social conservative who opposes abortion, Cox has largely steered clear of those issues.

“This campaign is about change versus status quo,” he said. “Gavin has been part of the political class that has led this state downward.”

There’s a poetic irony in the claim that Newsom should be held responsible for so many of the state’s problems, given he has occasionally griped that the post of lieutenant governor offers little in the way of actual responsibility. But as a Bay Area Democrat, Newsom certainly represents more of a continuation of current policy than Cox.

For his part, Newsom also took a familiar tact in the debate, arguing that Cox was “in lockstep with Trump and Trumpism.” To hear Newsom tell it, Cox is the president’s Midwestern alter ego: a millionaire outsider with no political experience and ideas that are both unrealistic and unacceptable to most Californians.

In short, Cox hopes the election will be a referendum on the current political direction of the state, while Newsom wants every voter to have President Trump at front of mind as they fill in their ballot.

According to a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, Newsom’s strategy appears more likely to succeed—and not just because he’s a Democrat in a blue state. Among likely voters, 61 percent disapprove of the way the Trump is handling the job. Meanwhile, by a slim 50-47 margin, more voters than not believe that California is headed in the right direction.

As the front-runner in a blue state, Newsom could be seen to have little to gain from more frequent, visible debates. In the newest Target Book Insider Track Survey, which asks consultants, lobbyists and other political players in California politics from both sides of the aisle, 37 percent of respondents said Newsom shouldn’t bother with debates because there’s no upside for him—only the risk of a downside. But 63 percent said he should debate, either because it would be a needed endorsement of the American political process (30 percent), or politically smart (8 percent), or both (25 percent).

For more on John Cox and Gavin Newsom—including video interviews and an ability to create a side-by-side comparison of the issues—explore the CALmatters voter guide. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Patricia Brooks said it was sexual harassment when she was taking a call as a 911 dispatcher in San Mateo and a colleague reached his hand inside her bra and fondled her breast.

The courts disagreed in 2000, saying it wasn’t sexual harassment because the single incident didn’t amount to a “severe or pervasive” problem—the legal standard necessary in a civil suit. That decision led to a long-standing legal interpretation that critics say has allowed harassers “one free grope.” But not anymore.

A bill Gov. Jerry Brown signed over the weekend rejects that interpretation, clarifying that a single incident of harassment can be enough to meet the legal standard. In other words, starting on Jan. 1, California law essentially says: “Actually, no free gropes.”

It’s one of the more tangible changes Californians can expect from a suite of bills Brown signed that were inspired by the #MeToo movement, which erupted last year after The New York Times and The New Yorker exposed abuse by film producer Harvey Weinstein in coverage that eventually grew into global demands for change. In California, lawmakers introduced more than two dozen bills to combat workplace misconduct and hold offenders accountable.

Brown finished acting on them on Sept. 30, the constitutional deadline for him to sign or veto bills for the year, and the final opportunity for him to make laws as he nears the end of his historic four terms as governor. Brown’s decisions on the #MeToo bills reveal his penchant for, as he once famously described it, paddling a little on the left and a little on the right.

He sided with victims’ advocates in some cases, signing bills that put California at the forefront of clamping down on harassment. In other cases, he sided with employers, vetoing bills they said were too onerous.

“While there was definitely some great progress on the bills he did sign, we have a long way to go on preventing sexual harassment, especially on the particular challenges that low-wage workers face,” said Jessica Stender, a lawyer with Equal Rights Advocates, a sponsor of some of the bills, including the one providing guidance on the legal standard for harassment suits.

On the flip side, business interests concerned about litigation abuse said the lower standard will amount to a huge expansion of liability.

“It is going to significantly increase litigation,” predicted Caitlin Colman, a lobbyist for the Civil Justice Association of California. “It does not apply to just sexual harassment; it applies to all harassment claims.”

Samantha Corbin, a lobbyist who wrote an open letter last year decrying a culture of harassment in California’s political scene that was signed by hundreds of women, said she was disappointed but not surprised by Brown’s vetoes. Her advocacy group, called We Said Enough, lobbied for 13 anti-harassment bills this year. The governor signed eight and vetoed five.

“This governor has always strived for balance, particularly when you’re looking at contentious issues in the national spotlight,” Corbin said. “It’s very rare for him to go all in on one side.”

Brown signed bills that will:

  • Prohibit employers from requiring employees sign non-disparagement agreements.
  • Prohibit secrecy clauses in settlements for sexual misconduct, unless the complainant wants one.
  • Require employers with five or more employees to provide sexual harassment prevention training to both supervisors and staff.
  • Require California-based companies to add more women to their boards.

He vetoed bills that sought to:

  • Require the state government to track harassment complaints and settlements in an annual public report.
  • Get rid of arbitration clauses in employment agreements, making it easier for workers to sue rather than resolve conflicts in private arbitration.
  • Require large businesses to keep harassment records for at least five years.
  • Extend the amount of time harassment victims have to file complaints, from one year to three years.

“Employees who have experienced harassment or discrimination in the workplace should have every opportunity to have their complaints investigated,” Brown wrote in his veto of Assembly Bill 1870 to extend the amount of time victims have to complain. “I believe, however, that the current filing deadline—which has been in place since 1963—not only encourages prompt resolution while memories and evidence are fresh, but also ensures that unwelcome behavior is promptly reported and halted.”

Some advocates complained the bills Brown signed will largely help women working in professional settings, while those he vetoed were aimed at helping low-wage workers such as janitors, maids, waitresses and sales clerks.

“It seems the #MeToo protections won’t extend to women who don’t have a certain standing, access to attorneys or a level of existing power,” Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher wrote on Facebook the night Brown vetoed several of her bills, including the one to ban mandatory arbitration, a practice to which more than half the nation’s nonunion private-sector workers are subject.

“It’s pretty hard to celebrate the gains for women who have the same educational and access advantages as I do, while denying any gains for women like my mom and grandmother who never had those opportunities. You shouldn’t need a Twitter account or an attorney to not be abused in your workplace. And some day, you won’t need either ... we don’t give up that easy.”

Brown’s veto said her anti-arbitration bill violates federal law. The California Chamber of Commerce had deemed it a “job killer,” saying it could burden businesses with an avalanche of lawsuits. Arbitration agreements “expedite the resolution of claims in a less costly environment than sending all claims through an overburdened court system,” the Chamber said in a statement.

The fight is certain to continue next year, after Californians choose a new governor. Gonzalez Fletcher may have a critical ally in her corner: One person who lobbied for her anti-arbitration bill this year was feminist filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom. She, of course, is married to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race for governor.

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

Published in Politics

Between last year’s deadly wildfires and this summer’s fatal blazes, utilities and insurers with a huge stake in fires’ aftermath have poured more than $3.2 million into California campaign donations, and another $5.2 million into lobbying at the state Capitol—a big spike.

Also fiercely lobbying on wildfire bills: plaintiffs attorneys, local governments and electrical worker unions.

Now, in the final weeks of the Legislature’s session, lawmakers on a special wildfire committee are considering proposals to beef up safety of the electrical system and change liability laws. CALmatters reviewed new lobbying and campaign finance reports covering the first six months of the year. The takeaways:

Lobbying is up—by a lot: The state’s three big electric utilities together more than doubled their spending on lobbying during the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year. The increase was driven largely by Pacific Gas and Electric, which spent $2.2 million on lobbying this year—triple what it spent in the first half of 2017.

Between April and June this year, PG&E reported spending $1.1 million specifically lobbying on wildfire legislation.

“This is really the biggest issue facing our company today,” said PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo, adding that PG&E pays for lobbying expenses with shareholder funds, not money from customers.

At issue: Who should be responsible for and pay for fire damages? Under existing law, utilities are liable if fires are traced to their equipment—even if there’s no negligence. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed changing the law to relieve utilities of some liability—protection they desperately want.

Edison, which provides power to much of Southern California, including much of the Coachella Valley, spent $1.3 million lobbying in the first half of this year—double what it spent last year.

Insurance companies are the utilities’ main adversary in this: If utilities become less liable, insurers will have to bear more of the costs from disasters. Insurance trade associations increased their spending on lobbying in the state Capitol by 51 percent this year over last.

There’s a whole lotta wining and dining going on: Most of the money utilities and insurance companies spent on lobbying went to lobbyists, lawyers and publicity campaigns. But the total also includes a lot of cocktails and steaks the companies bought for government officials they are trying to influence—nearly $69,000 worth of goodies for the first half of this year.

PG&E treated GOP Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and six of his staff members to a San Francisco Giants game in May. In July, Cannella was appointed to the committee crafting wildfire legislation. He declined to comment for this story.

Overall, PG&E spent more than $3,000 entertaining government officials, including a breakfast in February for Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat who is co-chair of the wildfire committee, and a lunch in June for Todd Derum, chief of the Sonoma division of Cal Fire, the agency investigating last year’s fires. Cal Fire has said PG&E’s equipment was involved in 16 fires, and that in 11 of those, the company violated state safety codes. Cal Fire has not yet completed its investigation of the deadliest blaze, known as the Tubbs Fire.

Edison spent more than $45,000 entertaining officials. That included a $12,000 reception in January attended by more than 100 legislators and staff members, and a dinner in March at a Los Angeles steakhouse for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor.

The Personal Insurance Federation of California spent $14,300 entertaining lawmakers and their staff, including an $8,500 reception in March and a $4,000 soiree at a Sacramento nightclub in April. In addition, the trade association treated officials to microbrews, sushi dinners and other goodies, such as a $53 cake for an assemblywoman’s chief of staff.

Rex Frazier, the Personal Insurance Federation lobbyist, said government decisions have a huge impact on the insurance business because it is so highly regulated. “With that,” he said, “comes relationship-building with legislators.”

The victims advocacy group is funded almost entirely by lawyers: Fire victims are lobbying to preserve liability laws and pass new rules that could help prevent future wildfires. Their advocacy group Up From the Ashes is represented by a lobbyist who lost his Santa Rosa home in the fires. The group blames PG&E and Edison for not doing enough to prevent last year’s disasters, some of which were sparked by power lines too close to branches and brush.

Up From the Ashes spent about $564,000 lobbying between April and June, with about $55,000 going to a lobbying firm and the rest to a publicity campaign. Where did the money come from? Essentially, law firms involved in lawsuits against utilities.

 “We appreciate their funding so we can have a voice,” said Patrick McCallum, the lobbyist for Up From the Ashes, which represents about 600 homeowners, businesses and local governments that lost property in last year’s fires.

It’s a bipartisan love affair: The industries involved in the fight over wildfire legislation aren’t playing favorites: They’ve showered dozens of Republican and Democratic legislators with large campaign contributions and pour huge sums into committees to elect politicians from both parties.

Edison gave $1.1 million to California political campaigns this year, including $250,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party. It also gave $25,000 each to a GOP group called California Trailblazers and the Democratic campaign fighting a senator’s recall. In advance of the June primary, Edison gave $29,200 each to Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa, Democratic rivals in the gubernatorial race.

PG&E has given more than $900,000 in political donations this year, including $175,000 to the California Democratic Party and $110,000 to the California Republican Party. It’s also given $25,000 to a committee that supports moderate Republicans and $40,000 to one that supports moderate Democrats.

In addition, PG&E gave $150,000 to a campaign supporting Newsom for governor, and paid nearly $400,000 to a political consulting firm that ran Brown’s campaign for governor and is helping with Newsom’s.

The Farmers insurance company gave $96,500 to the state GOP and $10,000 each to the California Democratic Party and the Newsom campaign.

One lawmaker doesn’t want PG&E’s money: On June 4, PG&E sent $1,000 to the re-election campaign for Democratic Assemblyman Jim Wood. On June 30, he returned the money.

Wood declined to comment on why he sent back the PG&E money, instead saying through a spokeswoman that he did not solicit the donation.

But here’s a clue: He represents parts of Santa Rosa devastated by last year’s fires. Now he sits on the wildfire committee, where he’s questioning whether the Legislature should change liability laws before Cal Fire completes its investigations.

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

Published in Politics

With primary-election ballots still being tallied across the state, things are looking good for the California Republican Party … that is, not catastrophically bad.

It may be as close to good as the state’s second-biggest political party can hope for in California in 2018.

Assuming preliminary results hold, Democrats and Republicans fought to a virtual standstill on Election Day, avoiding the nightmare scenarios that political insiders had been fretting about for months.

Republicans made it into the top two spots in some of the most important contests for statewide office. That includes a decisive second-place finish by San Diego businessman John Cox, who will go on to face Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the race for governor. That could prop up conservative turnout in November even as Newsom tries to rally his base against the candidate he calls a “foot soldier” of President Trump.

But Republicans failed to make it into the November race for U.S. Senate (which was largely expected), lieutenant governor (not quite as expected) and insurance commissioner (though a former Republican with no current party affiliation came in first).

Republicans did not manage to shut Democrats out of any competitive congressional races—despite the Democrats’ own worries about that—boosting the latter’s hopes of regaining control of the House in November.

Republican turnout was not suppressed by Trump, his low statewide approval ratings notwithstanding. So now what for the California GOP?

“They’re looking to charge up the base in seven key congressional districts,” said Mike Madrid, referring to seven Republican-held districts in which a majority of voters supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. “In California Republican politics, that’s about all you can consider a victory at this point.”

Madrid is a Republican political consultant who worked for Antonio Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial campaign and is sharply critical of the party under Trump.

A California Republican hasn’t been elected to any of the statewide constitutional offices or the U.S. Senate since 2006. Party registration has been sliding ever since, dipping below the share of voters without a party affiliation.

Republicans may have placed second in a number of statewide races this time, but if recent trends continue, that merely forestalls defeat in November. At last count, the various Democratic candidates for governor cobbled together more than 60 percent of the vote, compared to less than 40 percent for the Republicans.

In the attorney general’s race, where Republicans also managed to avoid a shutout, incumbent Xavier Becerra leads retired judge Steven Bailey, who placed second, by 20 percentage points.

One right-of-center candidate may have scored a first-place victory, though he isn’t listed as a Republican. Steve Poizner, who served as the state’s Republican insurance commissioner from 2007 through 2011, ran for his old job without a stated political party preference. The lack of an “R” next to his name may have helped.

“We understand that we’re the underdogs,” said state party chairman Jim Brulte. For months, he has argued that the party’s way forward is to consistently remind voters that Democrats have controlled every lever of power in Sacramento for eight years—and are therefore responsible for any problems facing the state.

“They own it; they broke it, and we’re the fix,” he said. “Their strategic reason for wanting to mention Donald Trump inevery other sentence is because even though they’re in charge, they don’t want to take credit for California.”

Democrats get it.

“It’s going to be Trump, Trumpism and the Resistance,” said Newsom spokesman Nathan Click while describing the campaign ahead. In his speech on election night, Newsom described Cox as “a foot soldier in Trump’s war on California.”

Cox responded in his own speech the same night: “It wasn’t Donald Trump who made us the highest tax state in the country. It was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats.”

Hammering Democrats on taxes, particularly on the recent increase in the state’s gas tax, will be a central talking point for Republicans in the coming months.

In one unequivocally good piece of news for the state’s GOP in this election, voters overwhelmingly opted to fire Josh Newman from his state Senate seat in Orange County. The successful recall campaign strips Democrats of their supermajority control of the state Senate, although they hope to win it back in the fall. It also provides Republicans with a political game plan for the months ahead.

“People who supported the gas tax (increase) are going to have a lot of explaining to do,” said Brulte.

Pete Peterson, a Republican who ran for California secretary of state in 2014 and who is now the dean of Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, said he hopes the party thinks a bit bigger than the gas tax. By overwhelming backing a left-leaning candidate like Newsom over a relative moderate like Villaraigosa, the Democrats have left the Republican Party an opening in California, he said.

The premise of the Villaraigosa campaign was to tack toward the center of California’s political spectrum, embracing targeted government assistance and a liberal immigration policy, while pumping the brakes on expensive programs like a proposed single-payer health-care system, enthusiastically supporting charter schools and occasionally wading into conservative rhetorical territory about red tape and bureaucratic excess.

With Villaraigosa’s loss, “there’s a significant part of the Democratic Party that is not going to be represented in this governor’s race,” said Peterson, who supports Cox. “So the question I have for Republicans is: Do you see that as an opportunity?”

Madrid says it’s too late. Cox embraced the support of President Donald Trump and spoke in favor of his immigration policies.

“To think that somehow moderates, centrist Democrats are going to move over and vote for a Trump supporter because they’re paying some extra money at the pump completely fails to grasp what is happening in this country and this state,” Madrid said.

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

Published in Politics

In his year-and-a-half as California’s attorney general, Democrat Xavier Becerra has made a full-time job of fighting the Trump administration—filing more than 30 lawsuits to defend the environment, immigrants, birth-control access and more.

Which makes it odd that when Becerra’s supporters bought TV time to air a campaign commercial for him, they chose the most Trump-boosting network around: Fox News.

The ad spends 15 seconds describing Becerra in ways that likely repel the typical Fox viewer, saying he is “leading the resistance, defending Dreamers, stopping the wall, taking on the NRA.” But the other 15 seconds hails one of Becerra’s Republican opponents, Steven Bailey, as the “pro-gun, pro-life” candidate who “stands with President Trump (and) opposes sanctuary cities.”

It’s the latest in a series of twisted tactics now emblematic of campaign 2018: Why would a group trying to elect a Democrat promote his Republican opponent to a conservative audience? The answer: Because California’s election rules have turned normal campaign tactics on their head.

Under the state’s nonpartisan primary system, candidates from all parties appear on the same ballot, and voters can choose any of them. The two with the most votes on June 5—regardless of their party—advance to the November general election.

This “top two” system has scrambled traditional campaigning. Instead of candidates simply promoting themselves and attacking their opponents, campaigns are going to bizarre extremes to give certain opponents a boost, whether via old media (mailers and TV ads) or new (social platforms and texts). In some cases, they’re raising the profile of candidates they believe would be easier to beat in the general. In other cases, they’re propping up obscure opponents to shave votes from a more-formidable foe.

Think of these Machiavellian maneuvers as the political equivalent of a triple-bank pool shot. They’ve already spurred ethics complaints from two candidates for governor, alleging that campaign groups aren’t properly identifying whom their messages support.

“The ‘top two’ primary has really changed the decision-making calculations for campaigns,” said political consultant Garry South, a veteran of Democratic campaigns who is not working on any statewide races this election. “Things are happening that might look a little strange, but are probably pretty rational calculations.”

Some messages aim for niche audiences. Others, blasting more broadly, do double-duty, simultaneously promoting two opposing candidates in an attempt to boost a candidate’s preferred opponent.

The ad showing the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for attorney general is not paid for by either one. An independent committee largely funded by Realtors and labor unions paid for it, and disclosed in campaign finance reports that it supports Becerra and opposes Bailey. The race includes two other candidates: Democratic Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and Republican attorney Eric Early. The ad appears to try to consolidate GOP support for Bailey, making it harder for Jones to get in the top two—and easier for Becerra to win in November.

“I can’t speak to the motivations of an outside group, but they do see Judge Bailey as the strongest alternative,” said Bailey spokesman Corey Uhden.

In deep-blue California, where just a quarter of voters are registered Republican, and the GOP hasn’t won a statewide office since 2006, many Democrats would rather face a Republican in November, because it virtually assures their victory. Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race for governor, almost said as much at a recent debate when he said a Republican would be an “ideal” opponent in the fall.

Polls show the a tight race for second place between Republican John Cox and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, with many voters undecided and 24 other candidates on the ballot.

So Newsom is running ads that could help Cox consolidate the Republican vote. One does double-duty by contrasting Newsom’s work to pass stricter gun controls (an appeal to Democrats) with Cox’s support for the NRA (an appeal to Republicans). Newsom deployed a similar tactic after President Trump endorsed Cox, flooding cell phones with a text message announcing the news.

The response from Republicans? Some indicated on social media they thought the Newsom campaign had contacted them by mistake. Others identified it as a Democrat’s move to influence the GOP vote.

“Be careful what you wish for sneaky Gavin,” tweeted Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego Republican Party.

Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said the campaign sent the text to Californians across the political spectrum: “That’s a good message for Republicans and Democrats.”

Villaraigosa’s campaign filed a complaint with the state’s political ethics watchdog about similar ads by a Newsom-backing group. The complaint says “the clear and cynical short-term goal” for Newsom and his supporters “is to manipulate the primary election and to make sure a Republican advances to the general election.”

The indignation is rich, since an independent group backing Villaraigosa is also trying to pull the puppet strings on the California electorate: Hoping to dilute Cox’s support among Republicans in order to launch Villaraigosa into the top two, the group is running ads that deride Cox and others that promote his GOP opponents. It sent GOP voters a mailer promoting Republican Robert Newman, an almost unknown candidate, and Assemblyman Travis Allen, Cox’s main competitor.

Another mailer it sent Republicans features a striking photo of the attractive Allen family in front of a military plane. Ben Avey, a member of the Sacramento County Republican Central Committee, assumed it was from Allen when he first pulled it from his mailbox. Then he flipped it over and read the fineprint: the ad was actually from the pro-Villaraigosa group.

“Even as a kind of sophisticated voter, I was kind of shocked it came from an independent expenditure supporting Antonio Villaraigosa, just because it was so bold in what it was doing,” Avey said. “There was some double jujitsu there.”

Cox filed an ethics complaint against the pro-Villaraigosa committee, alleging it broke the law by not reporting its support for the other Republican candidates on campaign-finance disclosures.

“It is a blatant attempt to split the Republican vote and get two Democrat candidates into the November election,” said Cox spokesman Matt Shupe.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat struggling to gain traction in his campaign for governor, dispatched a press release blasting both Newsom and Villaraigosa for “turning to Republicans to advance their own personal gain.”

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

Published in Politics

Lobbyists in slick pinstriped suits and burly veterans with tattooed arms crowded into a Capitol hearing room earlier this month as lawmakers considered a bill to make it easier for Californians to buy legal marijuana. One supporter said people need more access to the “beautiful sacred plant.” But at its core, this was a business dispute—a question of whether legislators would allow cannabis companies to reach more customers, and make more money.

The committee passed Senate Bill 1302—to stop cities from banning delivery services that sell pot to customers at their doorsteps—despite objections from cities and counties that favor local control. And the standing-room-only crowd that showed up to push for it revealed the new reality in California, where cannabis interests have become a formidable lobbying force.

As marijuana companies seek laws more favorable to their industry, they are using the traditional tools of politics: hiring well-heeled lobbyists and donating money to politicians. Cannabis is big business in California, with sales expected to hit $3.7 billion by the end of the year, according to BDS Analytics. The industry’s spending on California politics soared in 2016, when voters made it legal for adults to use the drug.

“They want to be treated like every other business, and part of that is making campaign contributions so they can get access to politicians and have their voice heard,” said Jim Sutton, an attorney who represents cannabis businesses organizing political campaigns.

Cannabis companies, entrepreneurs and advocates spent at least $1.8 million to help pass the legalization measure in 2016. Since then, the industry has donated more than $600,000 to California political campaigns—more than four times as much as it spent on politics in the state during the 2013-14 election campaigns. Cannabis money is flowing to both Democrats and Republicans running for re-election to the Legislature, as well as to Democratic candidates hoping to be elected governor and attorney general. With the money comes a mainstream political presence for an industry quickly shedding its counterculture image.

At the California Democratic Party convention in February, the roster of receptions for delegates included one sponsored by Eaze, a company whose website allows people to order home delivery of marijuana. It was one of three marijuana companies that donated to the state party for the first time this year, for a total of $45,000.

“I’m sure we will (continue) soliciting from the cannabis industry,” said party chairman Eric Bauman. “It’s a legal industry in California. It’s not one that hurts the environment; it’s not undermining our society. So we welcome their dollars.”

Interestingly, the party prohibits donations from tobacco and oil companies.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race for governor, has raised more money from cannabis interests than any other California politician: at least $495,000 as of April. Newsom championed the legalization ballot measure and now talks about California rejecting the “war on marijuana” as part of his gubernatorial campaign.

One of his opponents, state Treasurer John Chiang, is also touting his cannabis cred. A Democrat who has received at least $10,100 from marijuana interests, Chiang has highlighted his interest in creating a state bank that could serve cannabis businesses. He visited a San Francisco dispensary on April 20, then issued a press release calling the date “National Weed Day.” It included a photo of him examining a cannabis chocolate bar and a jar of buds.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra has taken at least $21,000 from cannabis interests in his campaign to be retained. It’s a marked difference from the last election for that office—in 2014, then-Attorney General Kamala Harris reported no donations from marijuana businesses. She made a deliberate decision, an adviser said, to avoid contributions that could raise questions about her role as the state’s top law-enforcement officer. 

Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, attempts to ban contributions from the cannabis sector have been unsuccessful. The state of Illinois prohibited political contributions from weed businesses when it approved its medical marijuana law in 2013, but the ban was thrown out last year by a federal judge who ruled it unconstitutional.

Cannabis businesses in California now have several trade associations and a political action committee for raising money to dole out to politicians.

“It’s just one tool folks in cannabis-policy reform are using to move the conversation in a positive direction,” said Lindsay Robinson, executive director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, referring to campaign contributions. That PAC has raised more than $290,000 since launching in 2014.

“The goal we’re striving for is for cannabis businesses to be regulated and treated like any other business, taxed fairly and able to thrive in the market. … The political giving piece is important,” she said.

That point was illustrated back in the hearing room, where lawmakers were considering the bill to expand marijuana delivery services, authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens who has taken at least $18,900 from cannabis interests and is now running for Insurance Commissioner.

Marijuana businesses that want to get ahead have to play politics, said Hilary Bricken, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in cannabis law—and that generally means throwing some money around.

“Cannabis has learned from Big Pharma, Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco that they have to step up in this way,” she said. “They would be stupid to not do what’s worked for the industries that came before them.”

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

Published in Politics

An independent political action committee paid for an ad slamming Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom—partly with money from groups that are backing his run for governor.

Welcome to the wild ways of campaign money, circa 2018.

The ad comes courtesy of the Asian American Small Business Political Action Committee, one of scores of campaign organizations that, by law, must be disconnected from candidates who may benefit from their spending.

Its name aside, the Asian American Small Business PAC is funded by Chevron, AT&T, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and many other big business and labor organizations that are political players in Sacramento.

The anti-Newsom ad, like many of its ilk, employs ominous music, fuzzed-up photos and a narrator who uses innuendo as she cites an affair Newsom had in 2005, revealed in 2007, when he was San Francisco mayor. All that is typical of attacks by independent campaign groups. What sets this one apart is its funders.

One is the California Teachers Association, which has endorsed Newsom for governor and donated $29,200 to him in December. A few months earlier, the teachers’ union gave $25,000 to the Asian American Small Business PAC.

The California State Council of Service Employees (SEIU) donated $29,200 to Newsom for Governor in February, at about the time the ad surfaced. A year earlier, the SEIU, which largely represents government workers, gave $10,000 to the Asian American Small Business PAC.

Same with the Union Pacific Railroad, the PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting firm, the San Francisco-based garbage and recycling company Recology, and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, which owns casinos in San Diego County. They and others donated to Newsom’s election effort and to the PAC, which seeks to derail Newsom’s campaign.

Top executives with 21st Century Fox gave to Newsom for Governor, while the corporation gave to the PAC. Donors to Newsom's gubernatorial campaign accounted for more than a fourth of the $420,000 raised by the PAC in 2017.

For now, the ad lingers on the committee’s website and has not been broadcast. But as of Dec. 31, the committee had $256,000 in the bank, which means it could fund wider distribution as the June primary election nears.

Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Association, called the ad a “complete surprise.” The union, which represents public-school employees who are not teachers, donated $29,200 to Newsom in February and $12,500 to the PAC last year.

Low said he called Bill Wong, the longtime consultant to the PAC, demanding that the ad be taken down. When his request was rejected, Low decided that the school employees’ union no longer would give to the committee.

“It’s not something CSEA would fund or back,” Low said.

Wong, who declined to comment, left as the committee’s consultant in November and now is a top aide to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, overseeing Assembly Democrats' campaigns.

In the past, Wong was an adviser to Treasurer John Chiang, another Democrat running for governor. The Asian American Small Business PAC contributed $20,000 to Chiang’s gubernatorial campaign in 2016. Chiang has denied any responsibility for the ad.

By law, donors to the PAC and other outfits like it cannot dictate how their money is spent. They gave believing their money would benefit Democratic candidates who are Asian-American, and that their donations would help ingratiate them with Asian-American lawmakers.

Jennifer Webber, an Oakland consultant who works for the committee, sent an email to justify the ad: “People from within and outside the Capitol are calling for its culture to change. The PAC felt it was important to raise these questions about Newsom so Californians can evaluate whether he is the person who can lead that change. We don’t think he is.”

Rebecca Zoglman, of the California Teachers Association, called the spot "disappointing" and said it “screams a little bit of desperation.” It fails to focus on issues that matter, such as public education and health care, Zoglman said.

Donors who were shocked by how their money was spent should have considered the group's history. Although it's run by and supports Democrats, it spent $124,000 in 2015 against state Sen. Steve Glazer, a Democrat from Orinda.

To help Glazer's Democratic opponents, the committee tried to prop up a Republican candidate who had dropped out of the race and endorsed Glazer. In attack mailers sent to Republican voters, the committee said Glazer had been "advising liberal Jerry Brown" and managed Brown's 2012 campaign for a ballot measure that raised income and sales taxes to help fund schools.

The statements were intended to inflame Republicans who were considering supporting Glazer. Leaders of the unions who gave to the committee winked at the duplicity in 2015, because they hoped to replace him with a labor-friendly Democrat.

Not one to forget, Glazer said in an email that "the people behind this committee are sleazeball operators without integrity or conscience who have no business working in California politics." That, of course, assumes integrity and conscience are part of the job description.

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

Published in Politics

A day after the Trump administration sued California over its new “sanctuary” laws, state officials pushed back hard, with Gov. Jerry Brown calling the move tantamount to “war.”

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the lawsuit, which he filed late Tuesday, at a police event near the Capitol in Sacramento on Wednesday. He said California leaders were scoring political points on the backs of law enforcement with immigration policies that hinder federal agents’ ability to enforce U.S. law.

“We’re simply asking the state and other sanctuary jurisdictions to stop actively obstructing federal law enforcement,” Sessions said as hundreds of protesters shouted outside. “Stop treating immigration agents differently from everybody else for the purpose of eviscerating border and immigration laws, and advancing an open-borders philosophy shared by only a few, the most radical extremists.”

Sessions accused local and state elected officials, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, of promoting an extreme agenda to frustrate federal agents. Becerra, a Brown appointee, is running for election this year, as is Schaaf.

At a joint press conference with Becerra after Sessions’ announcement, Brown said he does not believe in “open borders.” The laws being challenged in the suit were carefully crafted, he said, to balance the state’s right to manage public safety with federal authority to oversee immigration. He termed Sessions’ appearance a stunt.

“This is completely unprecedented, for the chief of law enforcement in the United States to come out here and engage in a political stunt, (and) make wild accusations, many of which are based on outright lies,” Brown said—unusually strong language for a governor who has largely been cautious in his criticism of the Trump administration.

“This is basically going to war against the state of California, the engine of the American economy. It’s not wise; it’s not right; and it will not stand,” Brown said.

Sessions’ visit is the latest political salvo between the Trump administration and California, whose Legislature has favored immigrant-friendly policies. Candidates for statewide office have been jockeying to position themselves as the best representative of the “resistance state.” Becerra has sued the administration more than two dozen times on a range of issues, including the president’s travel ban and ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed those brought to the country illegally as minors to remain here on a temporary basis.

In his 20-minute speech, Sessions said Schaaf, who recently tipped off the public about an imminent immigration raid, “has been actively seeking to help illegal aliens avoid apprehension by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).” That has made the job of immigration agents more dangerous, he said—as outside protesters outside chanted, “Immigrants stay; Sessions go!”

“How dare you needlessly endanger the lives of our law enforcement officers to promote a radical open-border agenda,” said Sessions, who noted that the United States annually admits 1.1 million immigrants lawfully as permanent residents.

Within hours, Schaaf posted on Twitter that Oakland’s violent-crime rates have declined in the past five years, answering Sessions’ claim that crime generally is on the rise.

The U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit asks a federal court to strike down three state laws that, among other restrictions, require employers to keep information about their employees private without a court order; mandate inspections of immigration detention facilities; and bar local law enforcers from questioning people about their immigration status during routine interactions. The most contentious law does allow state officials to cooperate with federal agents when deportation is required for those who have committed any of 800 serious crimes.

Washington, D.C., will have to show that the state’s new laws infringe on its ability to enforce immigration rules, which may be hard to do, said Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis.

“Ultimately, I think the state is likely to win most, if not all, of the lawsuit,” Johnson said.

Sessions said the sanctuary laws were designed to frustrate federal authorities. “Just imagine if a state passed a law forbidding employers from cooperating with OSHA in ensuring workplace safety, or the Environmental Protection Agency for looking out for polluters. Would you pass a law to do that?”

Sessions singled out Becerra, California’s top prosecutor, for threatening to fine business owners up to $10,000 if they cooperate with ICE agents. Becerra, who delivered a private address to the police group Wednesday, said at the press conference that “California has exercised its rights to define the circumstance where state and local law enforcement may participate in immigration enforcement.

“California is in the business of public safety. We’re not in the business of deportations,” he added, repeating statements he made Tuesday evening in the wake of the federal government’s filing. “I look forward to making these arguments in court.”

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is running for governor, had praised Schaaf for her warning, a move Sessions said was “an embarrassment to the proud state of California.”

In a Facebook post, Newsom responded: “Jeff Sessions called me an ‘embarrassment’ today. Coming from him, I take that as a compliment. But words don't mean much when you and your family's livelihoods are on the line.”

Some other candidates for statewide office were quick to offer their views on the lawsuit. State Senate leader Kevin De León, who is challenging Dianne Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat and wrote one of the laws at issue, told reporters the suit is retribution against a state that resoundingly rejected Trump on Election Day.

“From Day 1, California has been in the crosshairs of this president,” he said. “We are on solid constitutional legal ground, so we welcome this lawsuit.”

Labor unions and immigration-rights organizations, meanwhile, decried Sessions’ announcement. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights said Washington was sowing “deception and fear mongering” to push an anti-immigrant agenda.

CALmatters reporters Laurel Rosenhall and Elizabeth Aguilera contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

As California’s Democrats wrapped up their party’s annual convention Sunday, they left San Diego as they arrived: a party still fraying at the seams after the 2016 election, held together by one strong bond—a unifying dislike of President Donald Trump.

Split between their traditional moderate-to-liberal faction and lefter-leaning progressives, the delegates refused to endorse in key races and snubbed a few of their own incumbents, notably longtime U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Their emotional differences over hot issues such as single-payer health care and rent control were on display. Yet through it all, dissing Trump was a reliable applause line.

“Let us find what unites us at this convention,” said Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, who’s been discussed as a Democratic presidential prospect, on the opening evening. “Republicans and Internet trolls and Vladimir Putin (are) laughing every time we’re fighting with each other and not fighting against the Republicans.”

Billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer used his keynote speech as an opportunity to reinforce his public campaign calling for impeachment. “Does anyone in this room believe that Donald Trump is fit to be president of the United States?” If anyone in the convention hall thought so, it was impossible to hear them over the jeering.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles got some of the biggest cheers of the weekend by building on that theme. Her speech questioned the president’s loyalty and mental health, finishing with a rousing chant of “Impeach 45!”

For a party still smarting from a vicious 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—one that had escalated into a contentious party leadership battle last year—it’s nice to find something that everyone can agree on.

“Obviously we have a variety of different views. That’s what parties are about,” said state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento. “We have differences about how we look at things, but we’ve got to protect our country.”

Still, those differences could be important come June. In a number of toss-up congressional races, a surplus of left-of-center candidates threaten to split the primary vote, allowing two Republicans to progress to the November ballot. Shutting Democrats out of contention in those races could jeopardize party plans to re-take control of the U.S. House.

Though the party had hoped to winnow some of the field this weekend by making endorsements in some of those seats, in the races to replace Southern California GOP Reps. Steve Knight, Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, there was no such luck. Under party bylaws, the delegates were too divided to make an official choice.

Failing at those official channels, party Chair Eric Bauman resorted to old-fashioned guilt from the convention hall stage on Sunday in an attempt to thin the herd.

“We have an overpopulation problem,” he said. And then to some of those surplus candidates: “Isn’t there some other way to express your public service? … The voters in those districts want to elect a Democrat, (and) they’re tired of the right-wing hateful agenda of Donald Trump.”

Indeed, both party organizers and aspiring Democrats candidates aim to bring national news scandals to the local level.

“In 2016, Russians and Republicans were very good at sewing discord within our party, so I think we learned a lesson from that election,” said Andrew Janz, who is running to replace GOP Rep. Devin Nunes in his San Joaquin Valley district.

The lesson: Stick together, and focus on the common political enemy.

Outside the room where Janz’s endorsement by the party was to be voted on, one delegate, social activist Emily Cameron, complained about the candidate’s single-minded focus on his opponent. “If you look at his Twitter, it’s like every tweet is about Devin Nunes,” she said, arguing that the candidate should focus more on the economic interests of the Central Valley and less on the Russia investigation and the ties between Nunes and Trump. “It’s not what people care about!”

But evidently, enough delegates did: Janz won the endorsement.

In a state where only a quarter of adults approve of the president’s job performance, emphasizing Trump above all else isn’t a bad strategy. Katharine Marrs, the party’s state field director for 2018, said opposition to Trump has been a “gateway” cause for bringing political neophytes into the world of left-of-center party politics.

“Sometimes we ask people what their top issue is at the door, and instead of giving us healthcare or the economy, sometimes their top issue is Trump,” she said. But can party unity built around opposition to a single candidate last past a single election?

“What we’ve seen is that it’s sustainable for now,” said Marrs. Finding areas of common agreement is a “slower process.”

And for now, the party base appears to be tacking left.

When the nearly 3,000 delegates voted to endorse the statewide races, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom won the top vote share in the gubernatorial contest. Together with the former state superintendent of public instruction Delaine Eastin, both of whom support a state-funded single-payer health-insurance program, the progressive bloc captured 59 percent of the delegate vote.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is skeptical of the state’s ability to implement or fund a single-payer system, and who has taken positions opposed by many organized labor groups, came in at 9 percent. That followed a tough weekend for the former mayor of Los Angeles, who was repeatedly heckled by party activists.

In the U.S. Senate race, state Senate leader Kevin de León received a majority of delegate votes over Feinstein, whom many delegates considered too hawkish on foreign policy, and too dovish on President Trump.

The fact that de León didn’t clear the 60 percent threshold means that the party didn’t officially offer an endorsement—but the body as a whole clearly had a preference. Between de León and progressive dark-horse candidate Pat Harris, just more than 59 percent of the delegates cast their votes to the left.

“Resistance doesn’t just mean saying no. You have to move on a parallel track with a positive proactive agenda,” said de León, suggesting progressive policies like a higher minimum wage and stronger environmental protections were needed. But he also warned against trying to “cajole” or “negotiate” with President Trump, whom he compared to the scorpion in the fable of the scorpion and the frog—a malevolent force unable to control its own destructive impulses.

Rather than write him off, last year Feinstein expressed hope that Trump could learn to become “a good president,” to the chagrin of many on the California left. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, she has voted in line with the president’s preferred legislation 28 percent of the time, placing her roughly in the middle of all Democratic and independent senators. California’s junior senator, Kamala Harris, who also spoke at the convention and has been mentioned as a presidential contender, voted with the president just 15 percent of the time.

De León was careful to specify that he was not comparing his opponent in the Senate race to a frog. But he did say that his unrelenting opposition to the administration made for a meaningful difference between the two of them.

President Trump “holds the most powerful position in the world, and therefore, he’s in a position to go out of his way to hurt California,” he said. “So why not be proactive, be preemptive, and position yourself—as opposed to be reactive? Because the onslaught is going to happen.”

In the end, of course, delegates to the convention may or may not accurately represent all Democratic voters statewide—not to mention independents inclined to vote Democratic. Feinstein knows that well, having been booed at her own party’s convention for declaring her support of the death penalty when she was running for governor in 1990. All the while, her campaign was gleefully filming the moment—turning it into a campaign ad to underscore her independence.

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

Published in Politics

By many measures, the rambunctious campaign for a single-payer health-care system in California appears to be struggling.

A bill that would replace the existing health-care system with a new one run by a single payer—specifically, the state government—paid for with taxpayer money remains parked in the Assembly, with no sign of moving ahead. An effort by activists to recall Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon for shelving the bill has gone dormant. And an initiative that would lay the financial groundwork for a future single-payer system has little funding, undercutting its chances to qualify for the ballot. 

But even if single-payer is a lost cause in the short term, advocates are playing a long game. For now, it may well be less a realistic policy blueprint than an organizing tool.

And by that metric, advocates are making gains.

Riding a wave of enthusiasm from progressive Democrats, supporters of single-payer have effectively made it a front-and-center issue in California’s 2018 elections. It’s been discussed in virtually every forum with the candidates running for governor, emerged as a point of contention in some legislative races, and will likely be a rallying cry at the upcoming California Democratic Party convention.

“This issue is not going away,” said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant who has worked with the California Nurses Association, which sponsored the stalled single-payer bill. “The progressive elements who are supportive of the single-payer concept know that it’s not going to happen now; it’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s a long-term process, and Jerry Brown is gone as of January 2019.”

The governor has not needed to stake a position on the bill, because it skidded to a stop in the Assembly last summer without reaching his desk. But state Sen. Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat who co-authored Senate Bill 562, said Brown was not receptive. Analyses peg the cost of a statewide single-payer system at between $330 billion and $400 billion—far exceeding the state’s entire budget. That made it an anathema to Brown’s record of prioritizing fiscal stability for state government.

“When the governor saw that we introduced that bill… all he could look at me and do is shake his head and say, ‘$400 billion dollars.’ And I kept trying to say, ‘Can we back up and talk about what you've got to do to get (there)?’" Atkins said in an interview.

“He wasn’t letting it go.”

Atkins, who will take over as Senate leader next month, said she’s not giving up on the goal of single-payer, but does not expect it to happen this year. “People are polarized on this issue in a way that’s not good for coming together to get it done,” she said.

Led by the nurses association—a labor union that embraces firebrand activism—supporters of single-payer have targeted Rendon after he shelved the bill last summer, saying it lacked critical information on how to pay for a massive overhaul of the healthcare system. They peppered social media with images that not only portrayed the bill fight as a boxing match between Rendon and the nurses, but also depicted a knife labeled “Rendon” back-stabbing the bear symbol of California.

The nurses were not involved in the campaign to recall Rendon, said recall organizer Stephen Elzie, who has since dropped the effort and is now helping Democrat Maria Estrada challenge Rendon’s re-election bid. But the nurses union leapt into the governor’s race as one of the first labor unions to endorse Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Single-payer has emerged as one of few issues on which the Democratic candidates disagree.

Newsom and Delaine Eastin, the former state superintendent of schools, have both said they support the nurses’ single-payer bill. Fellow Democrats Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, and John Chiang, the state treasurer, say they want to expand health care so that everyone is covered, but not necessarily with the single-payer model that would abolish private health insurers and replace them with a government-run system.

A coalition of medical groups is lobbying against the single-payer bill, arguing that it makes more sense to protect and expand the federal Affordable Care Act, which has increased the number of Californians who have health insurance. Some members of the coalition have a history of spending big money to sway California elections. One of them, the doctors’ association, donated to Newsom before he voiced support for single-payer; it’s not yet clear if they will shift support to another candidate. 

Almost two-thirds of Californians like the idea of a statewide single-payer health-care system, although enthusiasm drops significantly if it would require raising taxes, according to polling last year by the Public Policy Institute of California. Still, Californians didn’t cite health care as a top priority when asked last month what the Legislature and governor should focus on in 2018.

The Assembly just wrapped up a series of hearings on what it would take to create a health-care system that covers all Californians. It exposed many obstacles—in both federal and state law—to swiftly enacting single-payer. For one, the state would need permission from the federal government—and perhaps an act of Congress—to shift billions of dollars from Medi-Cal and Medicare into a state-run single-payer plan. For another, if lawmakers raised taxes to fund single-payer, voters would likely need to approve changes to the California Constitution to allow the money to go to health care instead of schools. (That’s the only single-payer initiative that someone is trying to get qualified for the ballot; while a Silicon Valley tech consultant is gathering signatures for it, he doesn’t have support from the nurses’ union or any other well-financed group.)

Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Healdsburg Democrat who chaired the panel, called the single-payer bill “aspirational” and said he’s instead considering legislation that could help more Californians get health care without requiring permission from the federal government. One idea: extending subsidized health plans to adults who are undocumented immigrants.

“I believe we can actually get to single-payer, once we go through a lot of study and a lot of work,” Wood said. “But this feels, at times, more like a litmus test.”

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

Published in Politics

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