CVIndependent

Tue10162018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

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