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Vanishing breed: SoCal’s statewide contenders

The Los Angeles skyline late at night. (Photo: Songquang Deng, via Shutterstock)

Where are the Southern Californians?

We are at the beginning of the run-up to the 2016 political season; candidates and potential candidates for statewide office are beginning to make their presence known. But where are the candidates from the land of palm trees and Valley Girls?

An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking Northern Californians are taking over the state’s politics, given the outsized disparity between Southern California’s population and its candidate offerings.

The current lackadaisical attitude of Southern Californians to statewide candidacies may be a reflection of the region’s overall lack of interest in statewide politics.

The frontrunner for the U. S. Senate to replace Northern Californian Barbara Boxer is California Attorney General Kamala Harris, another Northern Californian. The man most often mentioned as the gubernatorial successor to Northern Californian Jerry Brown is the lieutenant governor, Northern Californian Gavin Newsom. He is being threatened by Steve Westly, another — you guessed it — Northern Californian.

To be sure, we have Loretta Sanchez, a 19-year congresswoman from Orange County. She made an on-again, off-again on-again announcement that she was running against Harris. But Sanchez probably war-whooped her way into oblivion at the Democratic convention in Anaheim. She can still change her mind and seek another term in Congress.

It isn’t as if Southern Californians have historically been absent from California’s political scene. Two statewide office holders, Treasurer John Chiang and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, are from Southern California, even if they are heavily outnumbered by fellow statewide officials from Northern California. And looking back, we have Richard Nixon, Jesse Unruh, Ronald Reagan, Gray Davis, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger — all Southern Californians. But Schwarzenegger left office in 2010, and there hasn’t been much since from Southern Californians on the statewide scene compared to the ambitious Northern Californians.

It may also be that Southern Californians regard Sacramento as remote from their daily lives — a place where politicians do whatever politicians do…

It isn’t a complete political desert, although it’s pretty close to one, even with all that political money in Hollywood that feeds numerous contenders in other states.

There is always the possibility that former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could emerge. He’s offstage at the moment, but he could come back sometime, even if not during this campaign cycle. Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, the new Don Quixote of California politics, is running for the opportunity to be clobbered by either Harris or Sanchez, probably Harris. And let’s not overlook Neel Kashkari, even if the voters did. Neel, from Laguna Beach, ran against Brown last year, remember?

The current lackadaisical attitude of Southern Californians to statewide candidacies may be a reflection of the region’s overall lack of interest in statewide politics. Los Angeles County had the lowest voter turnout in the state in November of 2014 — a measly 31 percent of registered voters. San Bernardino County didn’t do much better, with a 34.44 percent turnout. San Diego County was a bright spot — if you can call it that — with a turnout of almost 45 percent. By contrast, San Francisco had a turnout of slightly more than 53 percent, Marin had 60.10 percent and Santa Clara County had more than 50 percent. (The highest voter turnout in the state, by the way, was Sierra County, where 73 percent of registered voters did their duty. Sierra County is in Northern California).

What’s causing the low turnout in Southern California? Some analysts say it’s because so many Hispanics call it home, and their lower-than-average turnout drives down the percentages. But there have been lively local races in Los Angeles and San Diego in recent years. To cite one example, the legendary 2012 “Berman-Sherman” race for a congressional seat based in the San Fernando Valley was bitter and expensive, with total combined spending by Howard Berman and Brad Sherman reaching nearly $12 million.

To a Northern Californian, the chief public policy issue LA seems concerned about is legislation mandating the use of condoms in adult movies.

It may also be that Southern Californians regard Sacramento as remote from their daily lives — a place where politicians do whatever politicians do, none of it good. If it does indeed exist, such a feeling would be reinforced every two years by a barrage of campaign advertising decrying “those Sacramento politicians.”

We haven’t heard much about it lately, but Southern Californians who feel Sacramento is far removed have fostered a movement to create a new state, “South California.” Its website declares: “Our taxes are too high, our schools don’t educate our children well enough, unions and other special interests have more clout in the Legislature than the general public.”

To a Northern Californian, the chief public policy issue LA seems concerned about is legislation mandating the use of condoms in adult movies, many of which are produced in the San Fernando Valley.

In the final analysis, it may be a matter of simple boredom left over from 2014’s dull campaign season. No one believed that Kashkari was going to oust Jerry Brown from the governorship; no one believed the Democratic control of the state legislature was going to vanish. So why bother?

What does all this mean for the future? Will a well-educated, politically aware Northern California dominate statewide politics simply because Southern California is all meh about it? Is a San Francisco-Sacramento political cabal in the works?

Probably not. Southern California has 60 percent of the state’s population. It is California’s sleeping lion, politically. Sooner or later, if not this time around, someone or something will poke it awake. And when that happens, Northern California politicians should watch out.

Ed’s Note: Chuck McFadden, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the author of “Trailblazer,” a biography of Jerry Brown.


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