The End of an Era in California Politics?

The End of an Era in California Politics?
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California's 2018 calendar includes milestones glorious and tragic – 60 years since the Dodgers and Giants arrived on the West Coast; 50 years since Bobby Kennedy’s promise was cut short by a gunman lurking in the pantry of a Los Angeles hotel.

It may also mark the end of an Augustan age of politics in the Golden State.

Jerry Brown, at age 79 the nation’s old governor, will be term-limited out of office. Dianne Feinstein, at age 84 the nation’s oldest U.S. senator, finds herself with at least one notable Democratic challenger in next summer’s open primary.

What’s on deck in California speaks to generational and ideological shifts in the state’s political leadership – younger Democrats presumably bringing more progressive sensibilities to office. If Steve Bannon intends to rebrand the Republican Party in his nationalist image in GOP primaries nationwide, California is the flip side of the coin – America’s litmus test for how willing Democrats are to throw one of their own to extremist wolves.

About Brown and Feinstein: Both are 1970s spawn. Brown was first elected governor in 1974; Feinstein first appeared on the nation’s radar four years later, when she became mayor pro tem of San Francisco following the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

In the decades since, both have provided a steadying influence to California’s Democratic reign. Since entering the Senate in late 1992, Feinstein has cultivated a reputation as an occasional centrist (she’s supported capital punishment and free trade). And she shares opinions leftist Democrats don’t want to hear – in late August, getting jeered by a San Francisco audience after she said of Donald Trump: “Look, this man is going to be president most likely for the rest of his term. I just hope he has the ability to learn and to change and if he does he can be a good president. And that’s my hope.”

As for Brown, his MO since returning as the state’s chief executive in 2011 has been the adult in a roomful of somewhat juvenile Democratic legislators — the Augustus Caesar of state government, if you will. Late Sunday night, for example, Brown vetoed a bill that would have required presidential candidates to release five years of tax returns in order to qualify for California’s 2020 ballot.

Brown’s veto message read in part:  "While I recognize the political attractiveness – even the merits – of getting President Trump's tax returns, I worry about the political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this manner. First, it may not be constitutional. Second, it sets a 'slippery slope' precedent. Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?"

Translation: Grow up, Legislature.

But as 2017 has shown in California, growing up for Democrats is difficult.

Take the Legislature’s failed run at establishing a statewide single-payer health care. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pressured Democratic lawmakers to pass a bill (“If the great state of California has the courage to take on the greed of insurance companies and the drug companies,” he wrote, “the rest of country will follow. The eyes of the country are on California”).

But what left some in Sacramento bug-eyed: A single-payer system would cost $400 billion annually, more than double the entire state budget. That didn’t resonate with Brown. His attitude when asked about paying for single-payer: “How do you do that?”

It would seem that California lawmakers learned their lesson – don’t peddle legislation unless it has gubernatorial buy-in – when considering “sanctuary state” legislation. Headlines characterized Brown’s signing of the landmark law as a progressive victory. The reality is the bill that emerged from the Legislature was a departure from the one first introduced by state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (Brown insisted that California wouldn’t block federal immigration authorities from working with state corrections officials or entering county jails to question immigrant suspects). Moral of the story: Progressives may think they run the show in Sacramento; it’s the more cautious governor who’s actually calling the tune.

Get used to hearing more from de Leon in the coming year now that he’s released this 82-second video making it formal that he’ll take on Feinstein in the June open primary. So far, his campaign has a Sanders populist feel to it (“Kevin is running for the U.S. Senate in California because you deserve a seat at the table,” reads his YouTube tag line).

In past election cycles, de Leon would be deemed a Democratic pariah for taking on Feinstein. So too would Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a freshman representing a large swath of Silicon Valley, who went so far as to publicly suggest that Feinstein was “out of touch with the grassroots” and proof that “D.C. insiders continue to privilege protecting one of their own over voters’ concerns.” So much for fearing Feinstein’s wrath – or, for that matter, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Perhaps Khanna, de Leon and other progressives now calling out California’s political old guard (billionaire activist Tom Steyer reportedly might join the Senate field) sense a shift in California’s electorate. Not that the numbers indicate as much:

In the state’s 2016 presidential primary, Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders, 53 percent-46 percent. That’s too far off the national total of 55.2 percent-43.1 percent).

And there’s the matter of how California elections are conducted. Under the open-primary law, the top two finisher in June advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. If it’s Feinstein versus de Leon or some other progressive alternative, she has a better chance of picking up moderate independents and Republican voters.

Where does this leave California’s anti-Feinstein bloc? Hoping for another anniversary. Sixty years ago, California began a three-decade span in which each of the state’s “Class One” senators failed at re-election. Feinstein has overcome this notion of a “jinxed seat” – five Senate elections and only once seriously challenged.

But is six an unlucky number?

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow who follows California and national politics, and host of Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


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