Analysis

‘New Democrats’ flexing muscle

A Democratic gathering listens to presidential contender Bernie Sanders at a March 2016 rally at the Wiltem Theater in Los Angeles. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

Moderate Democrats are nothing new — they have been around for decades.

In the 1980’s a group of moderate, business-friendly Democrats called the “Gang of Five” unsuccessfully tried to unseat Speaker Willie Brown.

Today, they are more organized and go by the name “New Democrats.” Generally, a New Democrat is one who, like Republicans, is business-friendly on some key issues, such as taxes and regulation, and skeptical of some environmental controls that curtail economic growth. But they stick with their Democratic, labor base on critical votes.

The group functions by the so-called “Dutra Rule,” named after former Democratic Assemblyman John Dutra of Fremont.

“I think there has been a concerted effort to disparage the New Democrats in California by trying to change the name and refer to them as something else than New Democrats,” said Adam Gray (D-Merced), who convenes the group.  He sees the New Democrats as the second-generation Bill Clinton Democrats, who pragmatically moved right and left.

“The people on the left,” Gray added “make arguments to disparage us (but) it’s hard for them to do when you are talking about Bill Clinton Democrats.”

The New Democrats – also known as the “Moderate Democrats” or “Mod Dems” — have a loosely organized list of members. According to organizers of the group, they count upwards to 20-to-25 members of the Assembly who cycle in and out, depending on issues.

The group functions by the so-called “Dutra Rule,” named after former Democratic Assemblyman John Dutra of Fremont: “We should be talking to everyone and have an open door policy, and any member who has something to offer should be allowed to participate.”

As Democrats have grown to become the supermajority party, Republicans increasingly are approaching irrelevancy.

The New Democrats have an eight member executive committee — comprised of members from different corners of the state — that meets weekly.  The larger group gathers once a month and all members of the Democratic caucus are invited to this meeting.

The chart below shows the eight executive committee members.

Although the New Democrats are more conservative than the rest of their caucus, they are still Democrats and work hard to push their priorities in the caucus.

“Moderates will certainly will have modest communication with Republicans.  It’s not the most important thing,” said Chris Tapio, a consultant to the New Democrats.  “It’s important to be a force in the Democratic caucus and bring a moderate and influential voice and not so much to work with Republicans.”

Tapio is a principal in the Sacramento political strategy consulting firm of Townsend, Calkin and Tapio, key advisers to the New Democrats.

In many cases it’s good for the California Chamber of Commerce, which often champions Republican legislation, to work with Democrats. It’s a win for both sides: Democrats take credit for bills on which they agree with the Chamber, and the Chamber benefits from the majority party carrying its legislation.

“You can start with an effective Republican,” said Chamber President Allan Zaremberg, “but what happens in the end if Democrats view it as something that is popular with the caucus, they will sometimes take it away from Republicans. We aren’t going to look for a Democrat to carry legislation for us, but if you have a good idea and if the Democrats think it’s a good idea, they want to get credit for it.”

The New Democrats have some of the highest ratings among Democrats from the Chamber of Commerce.

As Democrats have grown to become the supermajority party, Republicans increasingly are approaching irrelevancy.

“When the Mods first started in the late nineties, the Republican leader got concerned about Democrats taking over the pro-business/pro-jobs job turf and the Republicans put out a hit piece on mod Dems,” says Tapio.

“They saw the demographic changes and were concerned business interests would start backing Democrats and they have done so and it has come along even more with the top-two primary,” he said.

The New Democrats have some of the highest ratings among Democrats from the Chamber of Commerce, but they also receive high ratings from the California Labor Federation.

“Members of our caucus believe in an inclusive approach.  We believe it should be labor and business, not labor vs. business,” said Gray.  “I think Republicans represent business vs. labor.  We think you should work with small businesses, large businesses and support labor issues and if everyone is doing well that is a good thing.”

Where they do diverge from typical Democratic constituencies are on environmental and consumer issues.

“Somebody that comes from downtown San Francisco, (rather) than the Central Valley is less likely to have constituents that are receptive to our issues.” — Allan Zaremberg.

Moderate Democrats are last bastion of Democratic Party that stands up for labor,” said Gray.  “The lefty democrats have been co-opted by the Green Party, they aren’t traditional working class Democrats.  They tend to be leftist, elitist coastal Democrats that are from very affluent areas and aren’t focused on jobs and a strong economy.”

There are myriad bills that reach the Assembly floor each year and although moderate Democrats may receive higher ratings from the Chamber of Commerce, Gray said an analysis of his votes showed he voted with Democratic Speaker Anthony Rendon over 90 percent of the time.

The New Democrats are more receptive to supporting the Chamber of Commerce issues than the rest of their Caucus.  The Chamber takes a holistic approach to passing legislation and will work any angle possible to get legislation through.  Naturally, they find more Democratic allies in certain parts of the state than others.

“Somebody that comes from downtown San Francisco, (rather) than the Central Valley is less likely to have constituents that are receptive to our issues,” Zaremberg said.

But he noted that there are exceptions. “We might have someone that comes from a liberal Bay Area (district) and they understand the tech industry and want to keep it vibrant in their communities.”

Gray says he is proud of the legislative session this year, in which New Democrats focused on transportation, housing, and infrastructure.

“The new Democrats are able to provide a bridge between progressives and Republicans.  We are able to get things done, including passing a bi-partisan climate change bill,” said Gray.

“While everyone looks at DC, at people pointing fingers and calling each other names, we’ve shown you can work with progressives and Republicans and get something done and we really are setting the example for the country,” he added.

Ed’s Note: Writer Nik Bonovich, who specializes in California politics, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.


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