How Democrats Can Unify in California

(Photo: AP/Barbara Munker)

Supporters gather at a rally for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders on June 6, 2016, at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

What should California’s Bernie Brigades do now? How should they proceed with the revolution once the Democratic convention formally bestows its nomination on Hillary Clinton?

If Sanders backers (or, for that matter, Clinton supporters) want to involve themselves in November’s elections without leaving the Golden State, there are a number of contests for state office in which a keystone issue of the socialist’s campaign—breaking the hold that big money has on our system—is effectively on the ballot.

For even as Sanders campaigned up and down the state against the corrosive role of money in politics, and as Clinton was condemning the plutocratic consequences of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, corporate money was carving an ever-larger role for itself in California politics—California Democratic politics, no less.

Over the past two years, oil companies and “education reform” billionaires have been funding campaigns for obliging Democratic candidates running against more progressive fellow Democrats under the state’s “top-two” election process, in which voters of any (or no) party choose which two candidates (of any party) will advance to the November run-off. Given California’s heavy Democratic tilt, this increasingly means liberal Democrats end up pitted against more conservative Democrats come November. And corporations and the wealthy—chiefly, oil companies and charter school advocates—have taken notice.

In the June primary, independent committees spent at least $24 million, with most of that money flowing to campaigns for Democrats who opposed Governor Jerry Brown’s effort to halve motorists’ use of fossil fuels by 2030, and a substantial sum going to Democrats who support expanding charter schools.

Six years ago, according to the Associated Press, just one legislative primary race had more than $1 million in outside spending, and four had more than $500,000. This year, eight races saw more than $1 million in such spending, and 15 more than $500,000. It’s a trend being mirrored on the national level, according to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, which found that outside money is surging in the states.

In California, a November state Senate runoff in one heavily Democratic district outside Sacramento will pit Democratic Assemblymember Bill Dodd, who opposed Brown’s legislation, against former Democratic Assemblymember Mariko Yamada. In the June primary, Dodd benefited from one independent campaign funded by Chevron and other energy companies to the tune of more than $270,000, and from an education reform campaign funded by charter school proponents such as billionaire Eli Broad in the amount of $1.68 million.

In a nearby overwhelmingly Democratic assembly district, two Democratic candidates with strong environmental credentials lost out in this week’s primary to a Republican and a Democrat who benefited from more than $1.2 million from charter school advocates and an additional $650,000 from Chevron, Tesoro, Valero, and other oil companies.

A similar dynamic has shaped a San Bernardino Assembly contest in which Democratic incumbent Cheryl Brown has been bolstered by major oil company expenditures in her race against Democrat Eloise Reyes.

These contests reflect the new reality of California politics. Businesses that previously would have backed Republicans—oil companies and real estate investors in particular—have responded to the GOP’s electoral eclipse by shifting their contributions to malleable, more conservative Democrats. These Democrats would not prevail in a closed primary system, but have a better chance than Republicans in a general election because they’re not associated with that toxic—to Californians—brand. (They appeal to some Democratic voters and to some Republican ones, who have no better choice.) In this sense, the top-two system helps corporate interests like Chevron.

In some races, unions and such wealthy environmentalists as Tom Steyer have answered the flood of corporate money with a torrent of their own, but the balance remains heavily weighted toward oil companies and their ilk.

The combination of this top-two election system with free-flowing outside spending has given rise to a new birth of corporate power in California, in the form of the self-proclaimed Moderate Caucus of Democratic state legislators. Aligning themselves with their Republican colleagues, caucus members have blocked a range of environmental and pro-worker reforms. Late last year, Assemblymember Henry Perea of Fresno, who’d headed the caucus since 2012, resigned to take a government relations job with Pharma, the drug companies’ lobby.

So what’s a California Bernie bro—or for that matter, a Hillary sis—to do? Joining together (because the environmental and liberal groups that backed Clinton oppose the Moderate Caucus’s handiwork every bit as much as the Sanderistas do), they should support the progressive legislative candidates whom the oil companies and charter school advocates seek to defeat. They should work to repeal the top-two primary, through which organized money has increased its clout in Sacramento. And they should work to elect a presidential candidate—her name is Clinton—who will appoint justices who will overturn Citizens United.

You say you want a revolution? This would be a good place to start.

A version of this piece first appeared in The Los Angeles Times.

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