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In his year-and-a-half as California’s attorney general, Democrat Xavier Becerra has made a full-time job of fighting the Trump administration—filing more than 30 lawsuits to defend the environment, immigrants, birth-control access and more.

Which makes it odd that when Becerra’s supporters bought TV time to air a campaign commercial for him, they chose the most Trump-boosting network around: Fox News.

The ad spends 15 seconds describing Becerra in ways that likely repel the typical Fox viewer, saying he is “leading the resistance, defending Dreamers, stopping the wall, taking on the NRA.” But the other 15 seconds hails one of Becerra’s Republican opponents, Steven Bailey, as the “pro-gun, pro-life” candidate who “stands with President Trump (and) opposes sanctuary cities.”

It’s the latest in a series of twisted tactics now emblematic of campaign 2018: Why would a group trying to elect a Democrat promote his Republican opponent to a conservative audience? The answer: Because California’s election rules have turned normal campaign tactics on their head.

Under the state’s nonpartisan primary system, candidates from all parties appear on the same ballot, and voters can choose any of them. The two with the most votes on June 5—regardless of their party—advance to the November general election.

This “top two” system has scrambled traditional campaigning. Instead of candidates simply promoting themselves and attacking their opponents, campaigns are going to bizarre extremes to give certain opponents a boost, whether via old media (mailers and TV ads) or new (social platforms and texts). In some cases, they’re raising the profile of candidates they believe would be easier to beat in the general. In other cases, they’re propping up obscure opponents to shave votes from a more-formidable foe.

Think of these Machiavellian maneuvers as the political equivalent of a triple-bank pool shot. They’ve already spurred ethics complaints from two candidates for governor, alleging that campaign groups aren’t properly identifying whom their messages support.

“The ‘top two’ primary has really changed the decision-making calculations for campaigns,” said political consultant Garry South, a veteran of Democratic campaigns who is not working on any statewide races this election. “Things are happening that might look a little strange, but are probably pretty rational calculations.”

Some messages aim for niche audiences. Others, blasting more broadly, do double-duty, simultaneously promoting two opposing candidates in an attempt to boost a candidate’s preferred opponent.

The ad showing the leading Democratic and Republican candidates for attorney general is not paid for by either one. An independent committee largely funded by Realtors and labor unions paid for it, and disclosed in campaign finance reports that it supports Becerra and opposes Bailey. The race includes two other candidates: Democratic Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and Republican attorney Eric Early. The ad appears to try to consolidate GOP support for Bailey, making it harder for Jones to get in the top two—and easier for Becerra to win in November.

“I can’t speak to the motivations of an outside group, but they do see Judge Bailey as the strongest alternative,” said Bailey spokesman Corey Uhden.

In deep-blue California, where just a quarter of voters are registered Republican, and the GOP hasn’t won a statewide office since 2006, many Democrats would rather face a Republican in November, because it virtually assures their victory. Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in the race for governor, almost said as much at a recent debate when he said a Republican would be an “ideal” opponent in the fall.

Polls show the a tight race for second place between Republican John Cox and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, with many voters undecided and 24 other candidates on the ballot.

So Newsom is running ads that could help Cox consolidate the Republican vote. One does double-duty by contrasting Newsom’s work to pass stricter gun controls (an appeal to Democrats) with Cox’s support for the NRA (an appeal to Republicans). Newsom deployed a similar tactic after President Trump endorsed Cox, flooding cell phones with a text message announcing the news.

The response from Republicans? Some indicated on social media they thought the Newsom campaign had contacted them by mistake. Others identified it as a Democrat’s move to influence the GOP vote.

“Be careful what you wish for sneaky Gavin,” tweeted Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego Republican Party.

Newsom spokesman Nathan Click said the campaign sent the text to Californians across the political spectrum: “That’s a good message for Republicans and Democrats.”

Villaraigosa’s campaign filed a complaint with the state’s political ethics watchdog about similar ads by a Newsom-backing group. The complaint says “the clear and cynical short-term goal” for Newsom and his supporters “is to manipulate the primary election and to make sure a Republican advances to the general election.”

The indignation is rich, since an independent group backing Villaraigosa is also trying to pull the puppet strings on the California electorate: Hoping to dilute Cox’s support among Republicans in order to launch Villaraigosa into the top two, the group is running ads that deride Cox and others that promote his GOP opponents. It sent GOP voters a mailer promoting Republican Robert Newman, an almost unknown candidate, and Assemblyman Travis Allen, Cox’s main competitor.

Another mailer it sent Republicans features a striking photo of the attractive Allen family in front of a military plane. Ben Avey, a member of the Sacramento County Republican Central Committee, assumed it was from Allen when he first pulled it from his mailbox. Then he flipped it over and read the fineprint: the ad was actually from the pro-Villaraigosa group.

“Even as a kind of sophisticated voter, I was kind of shocked it came from an independent expenditure supporting Antonio Villaraigosa, just because it was so bold in what it was doing,” Avey said. “There was some double jujitsu there.”

Cox filed an ethics complaint against the pro-Villaraigosa committee, alleging it broke the law by not reporting its support for the other Republican candidates on campaign-finance disclosures.

“It is a blatant attempt to split the Republican vote and get two Democrat candidates into the November election,” said Cox spokesman Matt Shupe.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer John Chiang, a Democrat struggling to gain traction in his campaign for governor, dispatched a press release blasting both Newsom and Villaraigosa for “turning to Republicans to advance their own personal gain.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Growing tension between California and the federal government over immigration has business owners in the crosshairs—worried about the potential effect on their enterprises, and unsure which laws they should follow.

Those in immigrant-dependent industries, such as hospitality and agriculture, say conflicting messages from the state, with its new laws to protect undocumented residents, and the federal government, which is cracking down on people in the U.S. illegally, put them in an especially tough spot.

“It’s a bit scary to be caught in the middle of a stand-off between the feds and local law enforcement,” said Sharokina Shams, spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association.

On Jan. 2, the interim director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said California should “hold on tight,” because he planned to send in a flood of agents and conduct more actions to counter the state’s new “sanctuary” law. That law, which took effect Jan. 1, limits local and state law enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal authorities.

ICE also recently raided nearly 100 7-Eleven franchises across the country and arrested 21 people. If such raids happened in California, the store owners would be required under a separate law to request warrants and subpoenas.

That law, called the Immigrant Worker Protection Act, also went into effect Jan. 1. It requires that employers admit immigration officials to a worksite only if the agents have a warrant; keep workers’ confidential information private in the absence of a subpoena; and notify their workers before a federal audit of employee records takes place.

State Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced on Jan. 18 that his office would go after employers who share information about workers in contradiction of the new law. Employers could face prosecution, including fines of up to $10,000.

“We want to protect people’s rights to privacy and protect their ability to go about their business, going to work and feeding their kids,” said Becerra, an appointee (who replaced Kamala Harris when she was elected to the U.S. Senate) running for election to the office this year.

He said his announcement was prompted by rumors in Northern California that immigration agents intend to conduct workplace raids.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says employers in California are expected to comply with federal regulations, as they have in the past, when asked to open their records for review.

The Immigrant Worker Protection Act “reflects yet another effort by the State of California to interfere with federal immigration enforcement authorities,” said Lori Haley, spokeswoman for ICE, via email. “Federal law established by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 requires employers to verify the identity and work eligibility of all individuals they hire.”

Such audits protect jobs for citizens and others who are in the country legally and help battle worker exploitation, child labor and other illegal practices, Haley said.

California business owners shouldn’t be put at odds with the federal government, said GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen, who represents Huntington Beach.

“Business owners should always feel safe to cooperate with federal authorities without fear of persecution by California’s rogue attorney general,” said Allen, who is running for governor. “Business owners should never be used as pawns in the California Democrats’ ongoing war with the White House.”

He called the new law unconstitutional and likened Becerra’s threat to the Mafia silencing witnesses. The Constitution has “laid out clearly that immigration is federal, not state jurisdiction,” Allen said. “Federal law trumps state law, and Xavier Becerra knows this.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation, which represents farmers, has been reaching out to its 27,000 members to educate them about the new employer law. But officials there say they may not be able to reach everyone and worry that some may get caught unaware.

“It was a little disconcerting that the attorney general felt compelled to make a public statement to the effect that ‘we are going to fine anybody that we think might have violated the law at the max penalty’ when people make mistakes,” said Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the federation. “It would have been more helpful for the attorney general to be more informative.”

Typically, Little said, when immigration authorities decide to do an employment inspection, an employer receives a letter stating that the agency wants to audit its records, how those records should be provided and whether agents plan to show up at the worksite. That’s different from an enforcement action, when agents show up without warning to look for someone specific or to question all employees about their legal status—the kind of operation that does not happen very often.

Regardless, said Little, California law adds a layer of complications.

“Our business owners, operators and employers are caught in the middle” between ICE’s right to enforce federal law and the state’s limited-cooperation directive, he said. “It’s unfortunate.”

Restaurateur Patricia Perez, co-owner of Pho Show restaurants in Culver City and Redondo Beach, feels the pressure.

“Being in the hospitality industry, the whole social and political climate is worrisome,” she said. “Even before this, there is a lot to comply with. I don’t know what we would do.”

“The small business owner is the loser in this,” said Perez, who is also on the board of the Los Angeles Chapter of the California Restaurant Association.

Keeping up with new laws and regulations is hard enough, said Perez. Anytime a government agency shows up at a business for audits or information, employers and workers are nervous or even intimidated, and the new employment law doesn’t help, she said.

“It’s not an issue of transparency. Once a government agency asks for anything, it’s a feeling of not having a choice,” she said. “Business owners don’t always know their rights or what to do except to comply.”

California could be contradicting itself with the new employer law, according to Jonathan Turley, professor of public-interest law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The state weighed in on a 2012 case involving an Arizona law that required police to cooperate with immigration agents, Turley noted in a review of California’s new employer law. Kamala Harris, who was then California’s attorney general, signed a brief arguing that Arizona’s law improperly interfered with federal jurisdiction. Today, California is putting business owners in the direct path of the federal government, Turley argues, and its law could be challenged based on its own position that states should not impede federal authority.

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

Published in Local Issues

You’ve heard the term, “All politics is local”? California Republicans had better hope so.

The pre-vote polls told us that this week’s gubernatorial matchup in Virginia would be a nailbiter. Instead, it was an electoral thrashing. Voters handed the governor’s mansion to Democrat Ralph Northam with a decisive 9 point margin while stripping the state GOP of its firm grip on the legislature’s lower chamber, reducing a supermajority to a virtual tie.

By all accounts, this blue wave—which also swept up statehouse races in New Jersey and New Hampshire, municipal contests in Pennsylvania, a special election in Washington state, and a Medicaid expansion vote in Maine—was as much a referendum on what’s happening in Washington, D.C., as it was a rebuke of local lawmakers. Or as Republican political consultant Mike Murphy told the Washington Post, Virginia was a test of whether the GOP’s electoral fates are tied to the president’s approval numbers. “The canary in the coal mine didn’t just pass out,” he said. “Its head exploded.”

Though political analysts are still analyzing the numbers, it sure looks that way. Virginia saw its highest increase in voter turnout in two decades, with the bulk of the bump coming from Clinton-winning districts in the suburbs. Young voters and voters with college educations flocked to the Democratic side. According to exit polls, a third of all voters said they cast their ballot in part to “express opposition to Donald Trump.”

“There may have been some local issues involved, but the main driver of what happened was the energy among base Democratic constituents who finally woke up,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who advises the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

California Democrats are hoping for a similar awakening in the elections of 2018. On the line: their lock on power in Sacramento, where the party holds a commanding two-thirds supermajority of legislative seats, along with all statewide constitutional offices. At the same time, the GOP’s control of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., could also be decided here. Of the 14 California districts that last sent Republicans to Congress, seven voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Hours before Tuesday’s election returns rolled in, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista became the first of those 14 to withdraw support for the current House GOP tax plan, saying it would strip away tax deductions disproportionately used by Californians. Democrats had identified Issa as a top target for 2018.

So how nervous should California Republican candidates be? Very, said Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican political consultant in San Diego.

“They’ve got to assert their willingness to step up to the president when they feel he’s wrong,” he said, but do so without alienating the party’s base. Though only 27 percent of California likely voters approve of the president, 7 in 10 Republicans still stand by their elected man.

“A majority of Republican voters don’t seem to really care about winning as much as they care about voting for someone who they believe will be a shot to the system,” Roe said.

Indeed, some Trump loyalists are arguing the election results merely prove that Republican candidates fell short because they failed to embrace President Trump even more enthusiastically.

While many other Republicans are wringing their hands, Democrats are imagining 2010 in reverse: Recall the historic shellacking the party took that year when conservatives—driven by Tea Party fervor, equal parts anti-Obamacare and anti-Obama—turned statehouses red across the country and flipped the House.

“Trump is clearly the giant orange blob blotting out the sun for Republicans,” said Dan Newman, a political consultant and spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the early Democratic frontrunner to be governor. “He's depressing moderate Republicans, alienating swing voters, and motivating Democrats—who are fired up like they haven't been in years.”

That’s the inversion California Democrats hope for heading into the 2018 midterms: depressed Republican numbers (as the base fails to turn out and moderates cross over to vote blue) and jacked-up Democratic turnout among so-called “low propensity” voters—non-white and younger voters who typically lean Democratic but who are usually less likely to turnout during off-year elections.

In the small number of elections we’ve seen in California this year—a special Congressional election, an assembly primary matchup, a handful of municipal races like the one in Palm Springs—we have haven’t seen that kind of turnout.

This week, in Virginia and elsewhere across the country, those stars finally seem to have aligned. But then again, 2018 is still a year away. And California is not Virginia.

According to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., the Golden State has been shielded in the recent past from the political waves that buffet the rest of the country.

As statehouses went red en masse in 2010, for example, Democrats in California actually picked up a legislative seat. “There some evidence to suggest that the waves stop at Reno,” he said.

Plus, the Democratic party’s current political dominance could serve to buffer the effect of an anti-Trump wave. Typically, the voters most animated during midterm elections are those hoping to rebuke the party in power. This week, voters in Virginia, New Jersey and Maine found ready targets for their frustration with the status quo among the Republicans occupying their statehouses and governor’s mansions. But in California, powerful Republicans are hard to come by.

And then there’s the simple fact of geographical distance: While national politics may weigh heavily on the mind of a D.C. suburbanite, said Mitchell, national politics might seem more abstract to a California voter, whereas the quality of local education, the housing crunch or the price of gas might feel more pressing.

California Republicans are certainly banking on that anyway—although the list of Republicans who didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story includes Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Dahle, and Assemblyman/gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen.

“In a low-turnout midterm election, at least some California Republican incumbents will find other issues to help them achieve re-election. Those who do survive, however, will do so in spite of their party’s leaders,” wrote Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant who was a key aide to the state’s last Republican governor, and now a professor at the University of Southern California.

As far as Schnur is concerned, national Republicans have sized up California’s changing ideology and demographics and concluded “it’s not even worth fighting to retain a foothold in the nation’s largest state.”

So on the campaign trail, state Democrats will do everything in their power to remind voters that every last Republican dog catcher shares a party label with a wildly unpopular president.

“Here in California, the reason they want to talk about Donald Trump is because they don’t want to talk about the record they’ve created here,” Jim Brulte, the state GOP chairman told a gathering of Republicans at the party’s convention last month. After rattling off a list of economic and social ills facing the state (presumably all the fault of the party in power), he then tried out a phrase that is sure to resurface in campaign ads and talking points in the months to come: “They broke it; they own it.”

With that, the California Republicans have crafted themselves a midterm strategy. Keep it local. Talk about the gas tax. Talk about the state’s first-in-the-nation poverty rate. Donald Trump’s latest Twitter spat with Kim Jong Un? No, I’m afraid I haven’t seen that.

Or as Brulte put it while speaking at the Sacramento Press Club last week: “I don’t get the vapors over what’s going on in Washington D.C.”

Nor, presumably, in Virginia, New Jersey, or Maine.

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

Published in Politics

No, Jefferson. Let it go …

Our evil elf of a U.S attorney general is whining about pot again, this time in a letter asking Congress not to renew the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment.

The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which became law in December of 2014, prohibits the Department of Justice from spending any federal funds to interfere with state medical cannabis laws. It must be renewed each year—and Sessions is requesting it not be renewed this time around.

“I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime. The department must be in a position to use all laws available to combat the transnational drug organizations and dangerous drug traffickers who threaten American lives,” Sessions wrote in the letter, first made public by Tom Angell of MassRoots.com.

This comes at a time when an overwhelming majority of Americans (including 65 percent of police officers!) are in favor of some form of legalization, and more and more states are starting to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

One of the law’s namesakes expressed annoyance with Sessions’ letter.

“Mr. Sessions stands athwart an overwhelming majority of Americans and even, sadly, against veterans and other suffering Americans who we now know conclusively are helped dramatically by medical marijuana.” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican who represents parts of Orange County, in a statement to the Washington Post.

Opioids are at the center of the worst drug epidemic facing Americans today—while marijuana is decidedly not. However, to Sessions, there is virtually no difference between opioids and marijuana, considering he recently described pot as just “slightly less awful” than heroin. Of course, the American Journal of Public Health published a study in September 2016 citing evidence that opioid use is lower in states with legal medical marijuana, but what do they know with their “statistics?” Pesky facts …

The DOJ actually challenged the amendment under President Obama, but it was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This ruling leaves it up to Congress to decide whether to remove Rohrabacher-Farr from the yearly appropriations bill—but the amendment has received strong bipartisan support ever since it became law. Conventional wisdom dictates that Congress would be reluctant to go against the clear will of the people, but how often does conventional wisdom come into play in Washington, D.C., these days?

California is having none of this nonsense, and is making moves to become the first sanctuary state for cannabis. In anticipation of a legal showdown with Sessions’ DOJ, the State Assembly passed AB 1578 on June 1; the bill would prohibit state and local law enforcement from helping the feds enforce federal prohibitions against those adhering to California state law. The bill by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, passed in a close 41-33 vote.

The measure faces stiff opposition by law enforcement and Republicans, for reasons ranging from interference in federal and local interagency cooperation regarding other crimes, to claims that it violates federal law.

“The hubris of California Democrats believing they can flout federal law on immigration and drug policy is beyond words,” said Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) during the floor debate.

Jones-Sawyer’s retort: “AB 1578 ensures that our limited local and state resources are not spent on federal marijuana enforcement against individuals and entities that are in compliance with our laws.”

Rep. Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), a co-author of the bill, said: “People who are compliant with California law and operate within the legal cannabis market should not have to fear that a state or local agency will participate in efforts to punish or incarcerate them for activity that the state and its voters have deemed legal,” according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The Tenth Amendment Center, a constitutional-law and states’ rights advocacy group, claims there is solid legal standing for the measure. “Provisions withdrawing state and local enforcement of federal law in AB 1578 rest on a well-established legal principle known as the anti-commandeering doctrine. Simply put, the federal government cannot force states to help implement or enforce any federal act or program,” founder Michael Boldin said in a post on the group’s website.

Jones-Sawyer said the bill could be edited to make it clear that cooperation in moving against illegal operations according to state law could continue. A Newsweek report estimated that 1,400 dispensaries are operating illegally in Los Angeles alone, and Jones-Sawyer would like those businesses shuttered, while protecting those adhering to local and state law.

The bill faces an uncertain future as it moves to the State Senate.


MEANWHILE, HERE IN THE VALLEY…

The City Council of Cathedral City recently passed a moratorium on new dispensaries south of Interstate 10.

The city of 53,000 has 10 licensed dispensaries operating, with another opening soon—that’s around 4,800 residents per dispensary. By comparison, Palm Springs has six dispensaries servicing 44,552 residents (or 7,452 residents per dispensary). The move is designed to help ensure the continued success of existing dispensaries in what is a comparatively saturated market.

Cathedral City dispensaries may also see fewer customers in the future, as Palm Desert and Coachella are slowly moving toward allowing retail cannabis businesses.

The measure passed 3-2, with Greg Pettis and Shelley Kaplan opposing.

Published in Cannabis in the CV