Politically, 2015 is a wrap — almost

California presented in the colors of the state's official flag. (Photo: Savelyev, Shutterstock)

It was, as always, a mixture of hope and disappointment, deals made and unmade, the bizarre and the mundane.  For the Capitol community, 2015 was also a year of anticipation.

That’s because California voters will go to the polls in 2016 for a June primary and a November general election, where they will choose among hundreds of candidates and what is shaping up to be the biggest crowd of ballot measures in recent memory.

And while they were calculating, 2015 zipped along, full of the happenings that make politics in California endlessly entertaining.

Initiative creators were busy in 2015.  The latest available figures tell us that 63 initiatives and referenda have been cleared for circulation by the Secretary of State’s office.  Not all of them will make it to the Nov. 8 ballot, but four have already, including a proposal to overturn the state’s ban on plastic bags. Voters may also face competing initiatives to toughen the death penalty or do away with it.

Another proposed initiative, now in the signature-gathering stage, is sure to provoke “only in California” giggles across the nation: It would require performers in pornographic films to wear condoms.

One potential proposition, an after-effect of Proposition 13, to set up a split-roll tax property tax system in which commercial holdings would be taxed at a higher rate than personal real estate, is hovering in the background.

Given all that, consultants, staffers, lobbyists and legislators spent much of 2015 pondering how they wanted to position themselves and their causes in the coming months.

And while they were calculating, 2015 zipped along, full of the happenings that make politics in California endlessly entertaining.

The year saw a battle over vaccines, with anti-vaxers claiming it was a matter of parental choice and warning about the dangers of injecting “chemicals” into childrens’ veins.  But in June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law one of the strictest pro-vaccine measures in the nation.

But 2015 was far better for the lawmakers than November of 2010, when a mere 9 percent of likely voters approved and 82 percent did not.

Then there was the Sodomite Suppression Act, another “only in California” proposal but without the giggles.  Matt McLaughlin, a Huntington Beach attorney, wanted an initiative allowing the killing of gays by “bullets to the head” or “any other convenient method.” It was quashed in court after Attorney General Kamela Harris refused to certify it for petition-circulating.

Jerry Brown continued to enjoy relatively high approval from likely voters, but the Legislature — not so much.  From the Public Policy Institute of California’s December 2015 report:

“When asked to rate their elected leaders, 51 percent of adults and 54 percent of likely voters approve of Governor Brown’s job performance—similar to his rating after his reelection (54% adults, 57% likely voters in December 2014). The Legislature’s approval rating is lower (41% adults, 38% likely voters.)”

But 2015 was far better for the lawmakers than November of 2010, when a mere 9 percent of likely voters approved and 82 percent did not.  In fact, the lawmakers have marched upward in public approval since July of 2014, when they had a 31 percent approval rate vs. 56 percent disapproval.

Bakersfield’s handsome and affable Kevin McCarthy was destined to become the next Republican speaker of the House until he wasn’t.  Hard-right Republicans blocked his ascent, although McCarthy continues as majority leader.

In the 2018 race for governor – yes, it’s three years away and it’s already drawing coverage – Gov. Gavin Newsom put together an $8 million campaign coffer.

Brown spent much of the year warning of climate change, saying humanity faced “extinction” unless something was done.  With former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, he went off to Paris in December to participate in a worldwide conference on the problem.

The biggest single candidate story of 2015 was the early stages of what will surely be the long, long, saga to take the U. S. Senate seat of retiring Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Harris’s assured march toward the Democratic nomination, while it certainly was not derailed, hit a few speed bumps.  For starters, she burned through campaign money in 2015, spending 44 cents for every $1 raised.  There were staff shakeups.  She replaced campaign manager Rory Steele with Juan Rodriguez. As the year ended, Harris was on her third fundraiser.

(When reporters asked how Harris justified using campaign funds for expensive flights and hotels, spokesman Nathan Click refused to answer specific questions.  He instead issued the kind of prissy statement that causes political reporters to drink too much: “The Attorney General makes appropriate use of campaign funds for political travel … Her rigorous travel schedule has allowed her to establish a national fundraising base while representing California at key gatherings like [the] Democratic Attorneys General Association meetings.”)

But if Harris was running up big bills, her top Democratic rival, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Santa Ana, did herself no favor when she attempted to differentiate between Native Americans and East Indians by delivering a woo-woo-woo war whoop to illustrate her point. There was instant and widespread condemnation.

In the 2018 race for governor – yes, it’s three years away and it’s already drawing coverage – Democratic  Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has put together a hefty campaign kitty of nearly $8 million.

Brown continued to support his plan for two huge Delta tunnels, the size of freeways, to move more water south.

Then there was the drought.  It deepened.  The governor called on Californians to cut water usage by 25 percent.  El Nino began to drench the state with impressive rain and snow in the Sierra as the year drew to a close, but experts warned that the state’s water situation would still remain dire.  The Legislature passed a $1 billion drought relief package in March and the state budget included $10 million from the Proposition 1 water bond aimed at increasing water efficiency.

One example of the drought’s effect: The Tulare County agricultural commissioner declared in August that the county brought in $8.1 billion during the previous year, more than any other county in the nation. But at the same time, 1,252 of its household wells were dry — more than all other California counties combined.

For decades, California has relied on an immense network of reservoirs and canals to even things out between the wetter north and the drier south — but the infrastructure is aging and the price tag for upgrading it would be in the billions.

Brown continued to support his plan for two huge Delta tunnels, the size of freeways, to move more water south.  Environmentalists continued to argue with farmers about it, the farmers claiming they needed the water to survive and environmentalists saying the tunnels would degrade the Delta and the farmers ought to use the water they had more intelligently.

Meanwhile, as the year ended, lawmakers, the administration and an array of interests were meeting in the Capitol to hash out a multibillion-dollar package to repair California’s crumbling, pot hole-filled roads.

And the backers of various marijuana-legalization measures targeted the 2016 ballot, including ex-Facebook executive Sean Parker, who is helping to bankroll one of the proposals.

The U. S. Supreme Court in June upheld the right of independent citizen commissions such as the one in California to draw legislative and congressional district lines. It was a victory for California Republicans, even if it potentially helped Democrats elsewhere.

On Jan. 1, the state’s new motor voter law takes effect, and some 6.6 million unregistered potential voters could become registered over the next few years.

If the situation had reverted to pre-commission line-drawing in California, the dominant Democrats in the Legislature would have drawn district lines designed to boost the number of Democrats in the Legislature and in Congress.  The Republicans would probably have lost even more of the scant number of elected officials they hold now.

Early in the year, community colleges won the right to begin conferring bachelor’s degrees in such fields as airframe manufacturing, mortuary work and industrial automation over the next three years.  It’s a pilot program, now confined to 15 colleges, but expansion is probable.  Supporters said the move was necessary to meet job market needs.

Throughout 2015, our state continued to be a place of haves and have-nots.

California has 111 billionaires and its economy is robust and getting stronger, “but the official poverty rate remains high,” the PPIC reported in December.

“According to official poverty statistics, 16.4% of Californians lacked enough resources—about $24,000 per year for a family of four—to meet basic needs in 2014. The rate has declined a little from 16.8% in 2013, but it is well above the recent low of 12.4% reached in 2007, before the Great Recession hit. Moreover, the official poverty line does not account for California’s housing costs—or other key family needs and resources,” PPIC reported.

On Jan. 1, the state’s new motor voter law takes effect, and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who pushed hard for it, told Capitol Weekly what “upwards of 6 million” of the state’s estimated 6.6 million unregistered potential voters would become registered over the next several years.

Sacramento political types sought answers during 2015 on how to reach that huge trove of potential voters, many of whom are Latinos or Asians and respond in their own particular way to campaign appeals.  The consultants may have more time to come up with answers.  A new computerized voter registration database must be set up and running, so one knows for sure if motor voter will be implemented in time for the November 2016 election.

The massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino on Dec. 2 drew the headlines and the horror, but there was still reason for optimism. Experts noted that California’s violent crime rate dropped by 1% in 2014 to a 47-year low of 393 per 100,000 residents.

And now 2015 is history, or most of it is.

So what now?


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