CVIndependent

Thu05282020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Kathy Garcia is not your typical Republican candidate for the California Senate.

For one thing, she only just joined the GOP. A lifelong Democrat, she won election as a Stockton school board member with the backing of the county Democratic party. She changed her affiliation to Republican in June 2019, six months before the deadline to enter the Senate race.

She said the idea to run—under the banner of a party she’d opposed most of her adult life—was suggested to her by a Stockton lawyer and powerbroker who, records show, has helped fund the campaign of another candidate in the race. And that candidate, a moderate Democrat, incidentally stands a better chance if the Republican vote is divided.

The 80-year-old Garcia, asked by CalMatters why she’s running under the GOP label, gave a series of distinctly un-Republican explanations.

“I just decided I was going to try something new. And not because I like Trump,” she said, before making a retching noise. As for the Republicans that are running, she said, “I want to just put them under the bus.”

Garcia might get her wish.

That’s thanks to California’s unique “top two” election system, in which all candidates—regardless of party affiliation—are listed together on the same ballot in the first round “primary.” Only the first- and second-place winners on March 3 move on to the general election Nov. 3, also regardless of party affiliation. The race for state Senate in this Central Valley district is the latest oddball illustration of how the state’s decade-old electoral attempt at reform can distort the typical logic of campaigning, confuse voters and lead to mind-bending results.

Under the top two system, Garcia’s unlikely candidacy as a Republican is—paradoxically—most likely to benefit moderate Democrat and Modesto Councilman Mani Grewal. By running as a Republican along with another long-shot GOP candidate, Jim Ridenour, Garcia could split the local GOP vote three ways. If so, that could very well leave the two Democratic contenders—Grewal and Assemblywoman Susan Eggman—with the top two winning spots.

And it would leave the most viable Republican candidate running, Stockton Councilman Jesús Andrade, who has been endorsed by the state party, flattened under that proverbial bus. 

Asked if her motivation was to undermine Andrade, Garcia demurred: “I can’t come out and say that.”

Both she and Grewal say they aren’t working together. The Andrade campaign isn’t buying it.

“It’s shameful that Democrat Mani Grewal would plant a Bernie Sanders-supporting, fake Republican like Kathy Garcia in this Senate race to split the Republican vote,” said Andrade consultant Steve Presson. “Republican Jim Ridenour is also a Grewal plant whose candidacy is solely to help Grewal make the top two general election run-off. These Nixonian dirty tricks are just deplorable. Central Valley voters deserve better.”

Grewal called that a “ridiculous accusation.”

The top two system was intended to strip political parties of their influence over the candidate-selection process, making California elections less prone to backroom dealing and polarization. The jury is still out as to whether the system actually has pushed state politics toward the ideological center, as promised. But 10 years into California’s experiment with electoral “reform,” an unintended side effect has emerged: Political insiders have figured out how to game the top two—or, at the very least, how to accuse other campaigns of doing so to muddy the political waters.

But the mere fact that any of this is in doubt is an artifact of the state’s peculiar election system, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., and frequent critic of the top-two system.

“Nobody would have questioned (Garcia’s candidacy) under the old system,” he said. The top two, he said, “encourages not only this manipulative strategy, but it also makes the public question a manipulative strategy where maybe there isn’t one.”

Grewal said allegations of coordination between his campaign and any other candidate in the race are “conspiracy theories” and “a cry for some free media” by the Andrade campaign.

“The first time I met Kathy Garcia was at The Modesto Bee forum” on Jan. 14, he said. “I know Jim Ridenour, and the last time, he endorsed me in my campaign. I would have liked his endorsement this time.”

In a follow up conversation, Garcia, who supported New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker for president, insisted that her choice to run was not motivated by her antipathy towards the Republicans, despite her earlier comments.

“Look at the people running as a Democrat,” she said. “Everybody is either an incumbent or has a big following or something. So here I am.”

She added that the idea to change parties and run for office as a Republican first came from Stockton lawyer and political operative N. Allen Sawyer, whom she described as “kind of my campaign manager.”

In an email, Sawyer explained that he encouraged Garcia to run as a Republican, because the “San Joaquin County Democratic Party is rigged and controlled by insiders. … I think as a moderate, she has a better chance of being treated fairly as a Republican.”

Last year, prior to Garcia’s entry into the race, Sawyer donated $3,000 to Grewal’s campaign.

“I support financially a wide range of candidates who run for office,” he said.

Grewal acknowledged the early financial support from Sawyer, whom he said he has known for some time. “And about his relationship with Kathy, I’m not aware of that stuff.”

Sawyer isn’t the only financial backer of Grewal’s campaign with connections to the two outsider Republicans, Garcia and Ridenour.

Rex Dhatt, a used-car dealer and president of the American Punjabi Chamber of Commerce, has donated at least $2,000 to Grewal. He’s also contributed to Garcia. (The exact value will be disclosed after the next campaign-finance-filing deadline at the end of January.)

Bill Lyons, a farmer, rancher and land developer in Modesto who serves as Gov. Newsom’s agriculture liaison and was state secretary of food and agriculture under Gov. Gray Davis, donated $1,953 to the Grewal campaign. Since 2017, Lyons, his firms and members of his family have given $26,891 to Grewal’s various electoral efforts.

But this year, four companies owned by Lyons have also been the sole contributors to Ridenour, one of the Republicans in the race, giving a total of $4,000 as of the end of 2019.

Dhatt said he wasn’t involved in either campaign directly. “I know them personally from before,” he said of the two candidates when reached by phone. “They came for a check, so I gave them a check. End of story.”

Neither Lyons nor Ridenour responded to requests for comment. 

While Grewal insists that none of the various connections between his campaign and those of Garcia and Ridenour amount to much more than a coincidence—common enough in moderately sized towns like Modesto and Stockton—his campaign has recognized that the presence of three Republicans in the race works to his benefit.

“With three credible Republican candidates—a former mayor of Modesto, a Stockton school board member, and a Stockton City Council member—those votes will be split,” reads a memo his campaign sent out to supporters last November. “None of the three Republicans will get more than 20 percent of the March vote.”

Given the moderate lean of the district as a whole, the memo continues: “Grewal’s support from law enforcement and business will result in the majority of Republicans supporting him.” Combined with a large share of the district’s Democrats, that will “give him a comfortable November margin.”

This isn’t the first time in California’s top-two history that an outside candidate has been labeled a spoiler. Take the case of Scott Baugh.

In 2018, the former Orange County Republican Chair entered a congressional race against then-incumbent Dana Rohrabacher. Baugh, who also happened to be Rohrabacher’s former campaign director, claimed to have suffered a falling out with his old boss. But with eight Democrats in the race, some political observers called his last-minute entry into the race “suspicious,” suggesting it was an attempt to insert a second well-known Republican in the race to nab the second place spot. As CalMatters’ columnist Dan Walters put it, the state GOP could have been “pulling off one of history’s most audacious political coups.”

Baugh and Rohrabacher’s mutual history didn’t help allay those suspicions. In 1995, Baugh won an Assembly race after Baugh’s campaign manager and Rohrabacher’s wife convinced a friend of Baugh’s to run as a “decoy” Democratic candidate, siphoning off votes from Baugh’s main opponent.

In 2018, Baugh came in fourth, and Rohrabacher lost in the general. The plan—if there was one—didn’t work.

That might be thanks to a bit of electoral shenanigans on the Democratic side: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads hammering Baugh and boosting a little-known Republican candidate named John Gabbard, hoping to lift up the latter at the expense of the former.

Running political advertising to back a weaker candidate is yet another convoluted strategy enabled by the top-two system.

Last year, supporters of both Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Gov. Gavin Newsom ran advertisements that subtly(or maybe not so subtly) boosted the conservative bona fides of their Republican opponents.

Why? In a traditional partisan primary system, a Democrat in California would be forced to face off against a Republican, no matter what. But in California, where a Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006, ensuring a GOP candidate gets into the top two rather than a fellow party member is a winning strategy for any Democratic candidate.

Newsom said as much when asked which candidate he’d like to run against during a pre-primary debate last May: “A Republican would be ideal.”

These strategies aren’t illegal. It’s not clear they’re even unethical, said Mitchell, who offered the electoral equivalent of the adage “don’t hate the player.”

“You can decry the people who would do those kinds of things, but you could also point to the system,” he said.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The turmoil in the for-profit college industry has affected California as much as any state, with the closures of major chains leaving thousands of students deeply in debt and their educations on hold.

Meanwhile, the state agency in charge of regulating private colleges and vocational schools has struggled to enforce California law—and now lawmakers and agency officials are seeking to tighten oversight of the troubled sector.

A package of seven bills unveiled by Democratic state legislators would make major changes to the standards for-profit colleges must meet to operate in California.

One proposal, AB 1340, would bar schools from enrolling California students in programs designed to prepare them for careers if their students’ debt after graduation rises above a certain percentage of their incomes. It’s based on a “gainful employment” rule adopted by the Obama administration and since delayed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The rule aimed to hold schools accountable for their promises to provide students with a path to a stable career.

“The story is commonplace—students taking out thousands of dollars of loans to enroll in a career-training program they have been led to believe will lead to a job, only to discover they’ve got themselves in a horrible financial hole with no return on their investment,” said the bill’s author, Assemblymember David Chiu of San Francisco.

A previous attempt to enact a California version of the gainful employment rule failed. But that was before California joined 17 other states in suing over the rule’s delay, and DeVos announced her intention to repeal it altogether.

About 160,000 California students attend degree-granting for-profit colleges, with many more studying for a career at one of the state’s for-profit vocational schools. Those numbers include 10 percent of black undergraduates, according to a recent study by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

This number includes veterans who use GI Bill money to pay for both tuition and living expenses. Another bill, by Assemblymember Susan Eggman of Stockton, would prevent colleges from using GI Bill funds to rely more heavily on taxpayer money than federal law otherwise allows.

A third, AB 1344 from Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, would expand the number of state rules with which out-of-state colleges enrolling California students in online programs must comply.

A staffer at the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools, which represents many of the state’s for-profit colleges, said no one was available to comment by press time on the legislative push.

Chiu said he was inspired to work with colleagues on the issue after an investigation last fall by CALmatters and The Sacramento Bee that found California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education often failed to enforce state laws designed to prevent predatory recruiting and other abuses at for-profit schools.

The bureau was inspecting schools less than half as often as California law requires, the investigation found, and had a backlog of nearly 1,200 unresolved student complaints, many of which had been pending for years. Some students said their complaints of fraud had been dismissed with little explanation.

This month, the bureau’s parent agency, the Department of Consumer Affairs, announced it had created a special five-member task force of current and retired investigators to reduce the backlog.

The bureau will also be reorganized, with its current enforcement chief transferring to an administrative role, and a new special investigator with experience in complex investigations hired to oversee complaints, said spokesperson Matt Woodcheke.

The reorganization “was a long time coming, and we hope that moving forward, the bureau is much more well-positioned to serve the needs of students in California,” he said.

Bureau staff said they had reduced the complaint backlog by about a quarter since November—though it’s unclear whether that was due to staffing changes or to the bureau’s decision to close out pending complaints if a student did not respond quickly to a letter asking if they wished to continue their case.

Attorney Megumi Tsutsui, a member of the bureau’s independent advisory committee who also represents students in fraud cases, said she hoped the new attention to complaints would lead to more thorough investigations.

“It’s great that they’re putting all these resources in place,” she said. “What I wouldn’t want them to do is just find ways to close cases by marking them done and moving on.”

If lawmakers pass AB 1340, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it, California would be the first state in the nation to establish its own gainful employment rule. At least some of the responsibility for enforcing the rule would likely fall to the bureau.

Chiu said he and his colleagues would be monitoring the bureau’s evolution closely.

“At this time when our students are being defrauded and victimized, we need the bureau to step up,” he said.

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics