Can the Democrats Lose California?

Last week's legislative defeat for a couple of key items in Governor Jerry Brown's climate and energy agenda suggests a question: Could the Democrats lose control in California?

Considering that I began as a columnist 28 years ago this month by asking if the Democrats can win California -- Sí, se suede -- it's a bit of an ironic question. But events suggest it.

I wrote here on Labor Day suggesting that Brown was going to lose on his plan to cut petroleum use in California in half by 2030, thanks to a big oil industry scare campaign of advertising and string-pulling. A few days later, he did. Brown also lost on a bid to commit California to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Which in a way is even more striking.

Governor Jerry Brown joined state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins to discuss their setback on climate change.

Because the so-called moderate Democrats who blocked that measure in effect voted for an uninhabitable planet. It's widely known that cuts of that magnitude will be required to avert runaway adverse climate changes.

You expect the oil industry to take that stance. They're in the resource exploitation business. Their future is now. You expect know-nothing reactionaries to take that stance. They pretend the early Christians were playing dodge ball with dinosaurs. But you don't expect that of folks who are supposed to be to the left of Attila the Hun or Donald Trump.

Before getting too negative, it's important to note that Brown and his legislative allies, such as state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon and Senator Fran Pavley, won two huge victories on climate and energy. Brown pledged in his fourth Inaugural Address this past January that 50 percent of California's electric power would come from renewable energy by 2030. He also pledged to double energy efficiency in the state.

This is actually quite thrilling. I've wanted a 50 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS), to use the term of art, for a long time but often wondered if it would ever happen. To put this achievement in perspective, it was just 13 years ago that it was a huge deal when then Governor Gray Davis signed a 20 percent renewable energy requirement. And it was a very big deal when then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger just a few years later, as promised, accelerated the RPS to 33 percent.

So huge strides have been made. And to pretend otherwise, as professional Brown-bashing syndicated state columnist Dan Walters -- whose four decades of getting it wrong I chronicled here in 2012 -- and some others have done is simply non-serious. Especially since they opposed that stuff.

Much media coverage also suggested that Brown had a four-and-a-half year string of legislative successes prior to this. Heh.

In reality, Brown looked potentially dead in the water for much of the first year of his governorship, as I wrote at the time.

A future history might suggest some tough times. If Brown couldn't even get the handful of Republican legislative votes he needed to put an extension of unpopular temporary taxes on the ballot, he might never have been abe to solve the $27 billion state budget deficit that came with the Oath of Office. Or so the thinking went. And if he couldn't end the chronic budget crisis, would anything else matter? The impasse dragged on for months.

Of course, as it happened, he could always do an initiative in lieu of getting the legislature to place a revenue extension on the ballot. And that would actually be a good thing, as the tax plan for the ballot could be substantially more left-wing, hence more politically effective and likely to win. Which Prop 30 did, less than three years ago.

So the reality is that Brown has dealt with much greater legislative intransigence than this, and just a few years ago. (Do people take amnesia pills now, or just not know in the first place? Just asking.)

There are a lot of elements to any tick-tock on this Brown defeat on climate. And the usual attendant he said/she said. Much of it can be set aside, as this episode is about the forest more than the individual trees, though a very awkward Assembly Democratic leadership situation undoubtedly complicated matters. The outgoing Assembly speaker, her tenure cut short by term limits but holding on to the post the rest of the year, had limited ability to intervene with recalcitrant members of what was still her caucus but did not want either the incoming Assembly speaker or the Senate leader to lean on holdouts. Which Brown may not have anticipated.

Be that as it may, a bigger picture than all that actually dominated.

The oil industry -- unsurprisingly highly resistant to having America's largest state, the world's seventh largest economy, provide a working model for how to cut the oil business in half -- got the jump on Brown with its massive intervention and retained its edge throughout. Having identified a major Democratic achilles heel, a set of Assembly members willing to take big money from oil and tobacco industries and do things the industries want, Big Oil pressed its edge to try to remove a dangerous threat to their longtime practices which threaten human habitability of this planet.

When I began writing a column, in the September 1987 issue of the late California Business magazine, the first one was titled "Can the Democrats Win In California?" It was just a few months after my friend Gary Hart's front-running presidential campaign went down in a sex scandal spoon fed to the media at the same time that the Iran/Contra scandal hearings began.

Hart, who won 26 state primaries and caucuses in his 1984 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, believed that California could be turned into a Democratic state in presidential politics. At that time, during the Reagan presidency, it was a Republican bulwark.

But Franklin Roosevelt had won California four times in a row, with his veep successor Harry Truman adding a fifth. As the Roosevelt aura faded and the Cold War deepened, the Golden State, which prior to FDR was a swing state, moved into the Republican column with only Lyndon Johnson's 1964 blowout over scary conservative Barry Goldwater the exception.

I argued that, by a few moves such as adding an emphasis on "high tech and Hispanics" -- then the emerging personal computer industry (and a general future orientation) and what we in the West now call Latinos -- California could definitely go Democratic.

Of course, there was someone who'd already anticipated what I was saying. Jerry Brown. He'd finished a hectic eight years as governor in January 1983, including two presidential campaigns and an ill-timed run for the U.S. Senate. But he was viewed in the conventional wisdom of the era as a fluke and a flake.

I didn't think so at all. To me, he was a model, if he (or anyone else) could stick to the model.

In 1992, the Democrats did win California, as Bill Clinton's New South politics was close enough to the New West approach of Hart and Brown, certainly against George Bush I. And, with Kathleen Brown ignoring objections from other Democrats and focusing her ill-fated 1994 gubernatorial campaign on opposition to the Mexican immigrant-bashing Proposition 187, it stayed Democratic.

The governorship is a little trickier. It is still the case that no Democrat who is not a Brown or closely affiliated with the Browns has won the governorship since 1938.

Regardless of any denting from this episode, Brown is essentially invincible in a California election. Term limits will at last claim his governorship in January 2019, but he has a clear path to the U.S. Senate if Dianne Feinstein steps away after 26 straight years in Washington.

Any Democrat other than Brown would likely have been swamped by eBay billionaire Meg Whitman's record-shattering spending in 2010.

However, with the Republicans continuing if not accelerating their devolution, it should be easier for the next non-Brown Democrat.

The California Republicans' plan on infrastructure, as they frustrated efforts to raise taxes or fees for road repair, was as dogmatically non-serious as ever. And their near unanimous votes against every aspect of Brown's climate and energy agenda -- reminiscent of Schwarzenegger era bipartisanship, minus Arnold -- further types the Republicans as an arch-reactionary party.

But some Republican megabucks types, who didn't notice what a bad time of it Whitman really had, might emerge. More likely would be a mega-rich type running as an independent to try to be free of the traps now inherent with the Republican brand. Or a hollow Democratic administration undermined by special interest-dominated politics.

The Democrats have a problem with the disproportionate influence of public employee unions. The reality is that there are some terrific folks there who are for many wonderful things. But they are also for some problematically unsustainable things in current public pensions and retiree benefits, which in the long run will threaten the other wonderful things they are for.

Now we see the tremendous susceptibility of self-styled moderate Democrats to big money corporate interests.

These "mods," as Sacramento Bee editorial page editor Dan Morain points out in this very well-done piece, aren't really very concerned about too much special interest public labor power. They're happy to take that big money, too, and do the public labor lobby's bidding along with that of the likes of oil and tobacco, packaging the latter in the guise of concern for average Californians and people of color.

While announcing emergency measures to combat a spate of raging wildfires, Brown said the fight with the oil industry about climate change is not about himself, it's about the future. He predicted mass migrations similar to what we're seeing in Europe.

Morain, who was the L.A. Times's expert on political money, lays out the huge amounts of oil money taken by leading moderate Dems and the special interest amendments they proposed to gut Brown's oil proposal if they could not block it outright. Chief among them was a big effort to gut the power of the Air Resources Board, which is in its way a California equivalent to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, as I suspect Brown will make even clearer in the not too distant future.

"The trouble with this country is that you can't win an election without the oil bloc, and you can't govern with it."
Franklin D. Roosevelt

I sent the FDR epigram above, which opened my Labor Day piece, to the Brown camp a week beforehand, signaling that the governor was facing a setback on his climate plan. Setbacks frequently have one signal advantage over successes; they can be very clarifying.

Had Brown just triumphed across the board on climate and energy, its significance might have been lost, taken for granted as yet another California move.

As it is, the setback, and the manner in which it occurred, makes the stakes very clear. The oil industry went all out to block the world's seventh largest economy from presenting a working model for dramatically cutting the use of petroleum. And a segment of the Democratic Party dutifully fronted for it, publicly talking about concern for lower-income Californians while privately doing the bidding of the oil industry.

Let there be light.

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