Looking back

Even for those accustomed to the roller-coaster of California politics and governance, 2010 was an amazing year: The miserable economy, a paralytic Legislature and governor, a tight-fisted electorate, health-care changes, an unprecedented budget deadlock, political reform, marijuana and the environment all received exhaustive public attention.

But from first to last, the big political story of the year was the dramatic election of a governor who had been governor twice before, who had left office the first time around embattled and excoriated and returns 28 years later to take the oath again. In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Barbara Boxer won a a fourth term — with relative ease, despite the predictions.

The grouchy, ambitious and relentless Jerry Brown – a cheapskate by his own admission — defeated billionaire Meg Whitman, despite her $160 million spending spree that broke national records and blanketed the airwaves for months with campaign ads that dulled even the most fervid TV watcher. In the end, he outmaneuvered her, nearly matched her spending late in the campaign and engaged with voters in a way that clearly eluded Whitman. His double-digit victory wasn’t a landslide or even a mandate — but it was decisive.
But the governor’s race was only the tip of the political iceberg.

Downticket offices, the Democratic sweep and a star rises in the West.

Democrats took or retook all the statewide constitutional offices, with the plum – state attorney general – going to San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.

Harris’ razor-thin victory over Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley puts her in the first tier of California political figures and makes her a presumptive contender for governor. She’s made deft political moves and thrashed Cooley on his home turf. Her five transition-team leaders – at least on paper – include such luminaries as former L.A. police chief William Bratton and two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Warren Christopher. It’s an odd selection and it’s not clear how active a role Shultz or Christopher will actually play in the transition: They’re old – Shultz just turned 90, almost twice as old as Harris, and Christopher is 85 – but they offer the wisdom of their years and names long familiar to the public and pols.

For San Francisco, the election was a statewide two-fer. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s election to lieutenant governor gives him a statewide platform for the all-but-inevitable future run for higher office, although the lieutenant governorship itself is largely a toothless post, save when the governor is traveling.

The controller, treasurer, secretary of state, insurance commissioner and state schools superintendent are Democratic, as are the leaders and ruling majorities of both houses of the Legislature. Their most prized legislative priority, however, removing the two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes, proved unattainable.

The bottom line is that the Democratic bench is solid, as will be seen in 2014 if Brown serves only one term, while the Republicans will be scrambling to come up with top-level contenders.

The transition
Gov.-elect Jerry Brown’s transition is proceeding largely in secret, a fundamental result of having his transition headquarters in the state attorney general’s high-security office building on I Street. Nearly seven weeks into the transition, there is little pretense at transparency – the years of journalists and members of the public wandering in and out of a transition office are long since gone.

But much is happening below the surface, and the reality is that there is widespread speculation over the composition of the new team. One dark joke in the Capitol is that Brown reached out to those who served him decades ago when he was governor and learned that half of them were dead. But he is relying on people he has known for years for advice. And he is slowly picking his way through the top levels of the bureaucracy, even as he grapples with an unprecedented budget shortage. Ranking officials have been told to stay in place and people have been urged to reapply for their jobs. The key job in the bureaucracy – finance director – will be retained by Ana Matosantos, who has held the job under Schwarzenegger.

Political reform
Voters not only decided to keep the independent redistricting commission they approved two years ago as Proposition 11, they opted to expand its authority to include the state’s 53 congressional districts. All the new boundaries, barring the inevitable legal challenges, will be in effect in 2012. Traditionally, as soon as an election is over, lawmakers prepare for the next election, a difficult task, at best. This will now be even harder, as legislators run for districts that have not yet been drawn.

The combination of independent redistricting and the adoption of a top-two primary elections system may – at least, this is the hope – produce over time a crop of more moderate, pragmatic lawmakers. It might even work. But redistricting at best is a high-stakes, chaotic version of musical chairs. The latest U.S. Census figures are out, showing that the state’s congressional delegation will stay the same size, but the district-by-district boundaries in congress and the Legislature are likely to change dramatically after the commission completes its work.

Reform is all in the eye of the beholder, but one thorny issue continues to crop up – term limits. Voters in 1990 approved limiting lawmakers to three, two-year terms in the Assembly and two, four-year terms in the Senate – a total of 14 years between the two houses. An earlier attempt to change those limits failed, but the 2012 ballot may have a proposal to allow lawmakers to serve a total of 12 years in any one house.

California voters often send mixed messages, and 2010 was no exception. But on taxes, voters were fairly consistent: They don’t like them.

Voters affirmed the two-thirds vote for new taxes and refused to approve a surcharge on vehicle registrations – about $1.50 a month – to help finance the beleaguered state parks. At the same time, they allowed corporate tax breaks to continue as part of an earlier budget agreement and backed tax breaks linked to seismic retrofits. They approved a hard-fought measure to redefine fees as taxes, thus requiring two-thirds votes – a measure with major impacts that are just now beginning to be felt. In June, they rejected an attempt by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to limit the ability of local governments to form their own utility districts, an issue that dealt indirectly with the use of the locals’ tax funds.

High-speed rail
California’s foray into high-speed rail travel, the long-envisioned, $43 billion plan to bring on the bullet trains, got under way in earnest in 2010 with the approval of the first, 65-mile segment of the project in the lower San Joaquin Valley. With $5.5 billion in its coffers and federal money flowing in, the program appears to be shifting into first gear – but not without problems.

Critics attacked the cost and location of the project, and the interminable debate over the best routes between north and south continued unabated. In the end, the high-speed trains will link San Francisco and the Los Angeles area through California’s Central Valley. The first stretch to be built, from the Madera area to near Bakersfield, carries a $4 billion price tag. The most fundamental issue in the high-speed rail program is money: Where is it going to come from? How do you come up with $43 billion? That’s no easy feat in good economic times and dreadfully difficult in a recession.


The emotional battle over gay marriage headed to an appeals court in a remarkable proceeding – a 2 ½ -hour nationally televised hearing on Dec. 6. The three-judge panel considered the issues surrounding Proposition 8, the voter-approved ballot initiative banning gay marriage that has been challenged by civil rights groups, gay activists and the sponsors of Prop. 8.

The court has not yet ruled on the issue – but whatever it decides is all but certain to proceed up the legal chain. Members of the panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal  hinted that they might support a compromise ruling that allowed California gay couples to marry but did not set forth restrictions on gay-marriage restrictions in other states.

Since Proposition 8’s approval, regardless of the tangle of court proceedings, backers of gay marriage are considering whether to go to the ballot.

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