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GOP wave hits California — gently

Voter Ben Rich casts his ballot at the Venice Beach lifeguard headquarters. (Photo: AP/Jae C. Hong)

Though the final chapter is still unwritten on Election 2014, we know this much:

Republicans took advantage of a traditional dip in midterm turnout and some big spending in targeted races to pick up enough legislative seats to end Democrats’ supermajorities in both houses.

For Republicans, there is fodder to string together a positive narrative. Whether this is the beginning of a sustained GOP comeback is less clear.

The GOP picked off two Democratic Assembly incumbents – Steve Fox, D-Palmdale, and Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton — and appear headed to unseat a third – Freshman Assemblyman Al Marutsuchi, D-Torrance — as the final ripples of the national Republican tidal wave lapped gently against the shores of Democratic California.

It’s a sign of how much has changed in this state over the last two decades when Democrats can win 52 Assembly seats and 26 Senate seats, not to mention sweeping all statewide offices yet again, and be seen as having a bad Election Night.

Twenty years ago, Californians passed mandatory sentencing laws and “three strikes,” and a decade ago rejected attempts to make changes. Last night, they passed Proposition 47, which will reduce prison terms for thousands of inmates. So it goes.

For the California Teachers Association, one of the most powerful political players in the state and a crucial piece of the Democrats’ base, Election Night brought a mixed bag. The CTA’s contender for state school superintendent, Tom Torlakson, won his race, but in the East Bay the story was different.

There, Republicans scored big wins in Contra Costa County where Catharine Baker upended Democrat Tim Sbranti, a board member of the CTA’s own political action committee and a top priority for labor this cycle. And Republicans seemed poised to knock off Muratsuchi, giving the party its only legislative seat whose boundaries are entirely within Los Angeles County.

For Republicans, amid their nascent rebuilding and with Chairman Jim Brulte at the helm of the party in his first election cycle, there is fodder to string together a positive narrative. Whether this is the beginning of a sustained GOP comeback is less clear.

The budget is still a majority-vote endeavor, and many of Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiatives that required two-thirds vote – the water bond and rainy-day fund come to mind – wound up with wide bipartisan support.

Election 2014 also adds another batch of data for us to consider the impacts that the top-two primary and independent redistricting are having on California politics.

When Republicans retook the seats held by Quirk-Silva and Fox, they reclaimed turf that Democrats briefly captured during the 2012 Obama landslide.

In the Senate, Republicans defended their vulnerable incumbents, while picking up an open seat in Orange County, keeping Democrats below the vaunted two-thirds supermajority in that house.

While the supermajority may be a symbolic victory for the GOP, it’s unclear what real world consequences the new margins may have. The budget is still a majority-vote endeavor, and many of Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiatives that required two-thirds vote – the water bond and rainy-day fund come to mind – wound up with wide bipartisan support.

The real importance of the supermajorities is that while the budget can be approved with a simple majority, it takes two-thirds votes to raise taxes.

The tax fight is coming, and Democrats and their allies know that 2016 is the time to have it. This week’s result simply means one unlikely route to the ballot has been officially closed off.

That means that any kind of tax package, whether it’s an extension of Proposition 30 or some tweak of Proposition 13, will need to be put on the ballot by voters’ signatures instead of by the Legislature, and it may accelerate the timeline and price tag of getting those measures on the ballot.

But Brown has proven incredibly stingy with his political capital and had already signaled that he was unlikely to support those reforms publicly next year.

The tax fight is coming, and Democrats and their allies know that 2016 is the time to have it. This week’s result simply means one unlikely route to the ballot has been officially closed off.

Meanwhile, electoral reforms passed by voters in the early part of the decade continue to change the political formulas and landscape in California. We now have competitive races in November.

Seats that changed hands this week will likely be multi-million dollar battlegrounds in 2016, as will some other seats where demographics are trending away from the GOP.

We also see the new term limits rules shifting the experience mix in the Legislature. Five of the 20 Senators who were elected this week have no previous legislative experience. For decades, the Senate had been a sort of graduate school to the Assembly’s undergrad. Moving houses was viewed as a type of promotion.

The biggest surprise of the night was Democrat Raul Bocanegra’s struggles against a political unknown, Patty Lopez.

No longer. While we had a large freshman class in the Assembly this year, it was one of the last ones we’ll have for a while, as many Assemblymembers forego Senate runs in favor of staying in their Assembly districts for their entire 12 years of eligibility. The introduction of the Senate learning curve creates a new dynamic in the “upper house” and a new set of challenges for new Senate leader Kevin DeLeon.

The changes have also given us a couple of wildcards.

The biggest surprise of the night was Democrat Raul Bocanegra’s struggles against a political unknown, Patty Lopez. Bocanegra, a prolific party fundraiser who was in line to become the next chairman of the Assembly Utilities Committee, was trailing as of Wednesday morning against Lopez, a community activist who spent literally no money on her campaign according to the Secretary of State’s Web site, and whose only campaign videos online are in Spanish.

During his remarks at the governor’s mansion after the polls closed, Brown bristled at the notion that he lacked an ambitious agenda for his fourth term.

But Lopez is a Democrat, and under the new primary rules, she advanced to the fall runoff against Bocanegra by finishing second in the June primary. Under the old rules, Bocanegra would have been running against a Republican and sailed to reelection in his solidly Democratic San Fernando Valley district. Now, his fate will be determined by provisional ballots, lawyers, recounts and the like.

But there was no major overarching narrative in 2014. Business groups were successful in electing more moderate Democrats in places like Sacramento, where Richard Pan bested Roger Dickinson in a race between two Democratic Assemblymen and even the Bay Area with the election of Tony Thurmond. But labor-backed Kevin McCarty easily defeated the more business friendly Steve Cohn in a Sacramento Assembly contest.

And then there’s Jerry Brown.

The governor was elected to an historic fourth term this week, and vowed to stay the course. During his remarks at the governor’s mansion after the polls closed, Brown bristled at the notion that he lacked an ambitious agenda for his fourth term. He talked about implementing some of the changes he has pushed over the last four years, including the new school funding formula and now the water bond and the rainy day fund.

But there is no denying a more managerial bend to the governor who made his reputation in the 1970s as an ambitious dreamer – even if that dreaming did lead to him being characterized as a flake by the national media.

The transformation is official. Jerry Brown has become a technocrat who relishes the procedural challenges of his job — a job he’s now focused on instead of running for another office on the other side of the country.

We are getting older, richer and whiter at the coasts. Younger, browner and poorer in our inland areas. Our population of seniors is set to explode as boomers continue to age, setting up a battle over resources between older Californians and younger ones.

But big challenges remain. California’s books are balanced, but our economic recovery remains uneven. Economic opportunity is unequal in our state, and we risk losing the promise of upward mobility that has propelled us since statehood. Yes, we are in the black, but we have 11 million people on Medi-Cal, a program where eligibility for a family of three taps out at an income of about $27,000 per year. There are still things that are broken.

We are getting older, richer and whiter at the coasts. Younger, browner and poorer in our inland areas. Our population of seniors is set to explode as boomers continue to age, setting up a battle over resources between older Californians, who are overwhelmingly white, and younger ones, who are overwhelmingly Latino. We face pressures from failing K-12 schools and college costs that saddle young people with mountains of debt as they enter a workforce that is increasingly competitive. Aging seniors are living longer, and being replaced by a workforce that may not be able to replace the tax base left by previous generations as wage pressures push downward.

We are losing our manufacturing base that helped build post-War California, and moving into a bifurcated economy of information and service. The largest job growth in our state is in the health-care service sector, jobs that don’t pay nearly what those jobs at Boeing and Lockheed and GM used to pay.

To be fair, being a responsible and attentive steward of California is no small task. And yet, Brown’s own career and ambition have set the bar higher.

During his brief victory speech Tuesday night, Brown declared that California is a progressive yet fiscally responsible state, while acknowledging that the country has opted to go in “a slightly different direction.”

But Brown and his strong Democratic majorities have an opportunity to build a sustainable progressive model that Democrats can help build on and point to heading into 2016 and beyond. The challenges we face in California are going to be felt here first, but are the same challenges America faces over the next generation.

Jerry Brown is an historic figure who has an opportunity to seize a pivotal moment in our state’s history. But will he? And what would such a vision look like? Or is California best served by Brown understanding his own limitations, and simply tending to the task at hand?

To be fair, being a responsible and attentive steward of California is no small task. And yet, Brown’s own career and ambition have set the bar higher. The increased expectation surrounding Brown in this moment is a sort of haunting from Brown’s former self. Brown the Dreamer vs. The Lion in Winter.

Brown is clearly aware of this, but remains reluctant to dream too much out loud. He’s been burned by those ruminations before. He continues to play his cards close, or at least remain flexible enough to move where the political winds take him. If history is any guide, Brown will spend the next several months laying low in the tall grass, waiting to see what will emerge.

And so will we.

Ed’s Note: Anthony York is the president and publisher of the forthcoming Grizzly Bear Project, an online journalism endeavor focusing on California demographics, economics and public policy set to launch in early 2015.


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