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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

California is politically lopsided: Most of the people live in the south, but most of the political power is based in the north.

In recent years, the majority of politicians elected to statewide offices have been northern Californians—including the governor, lieutenant governor, schools superintendent and both U.S. senators.

That could change after November’s election, because a striking number of statewide races this year pit a NorCal candidate against SoCal candidate, testing the political power and competing priorities of the Golden State’s two most populous regions.

But don’t count on it.

Northern California is likely to continue to dominate for reasons that largely boil down to this: People in the Bay Area just vote a lot more than those in Los Angeles. Economic and demographic changes overlap with voting trends, together situating California’s political nucleus in the heavily Democratic region in and around San Francisco.

“There is some built-in disadvantage for statewide candidates coming from the Los Angeles area,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “The voter turnout and participation is disappointing in L.A., compared to the rest of the state.”

Even though Los Angeles is the state’s most-populous county, it has the lowest turnout rate for registered voters. Of the 58 counties, L.A.’s turnout was dead-last in the 2014 election and second-to-last in the June primary. Participation is so abysmal in Los Angeles County that voters there actually cast fewer ballots than voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area—even though Los Angeles County has 1.2 million more people registered to vote.

Turnout is better in other populous SoCal counties such as Orange, San Diego and here in Riverside, but still not as strong as in the Bay Area.

“It’s a tale of two economies. Where you have a declining middle class, you have fewer voters and less civic participation,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant with expertise in Latino voting trends.

Southern California is home to a greater share of Latinos than the Bay Area, and has many more people living in poverty—both characteristics correlated with low voting. Per-capita income is much higher in the Bay Area, and jobs there are being created faster. That not only means people are more likely to vote; it also gives candidates from the region a stronger network for fundraising.

“As the economy has separated, so has our democracy,” Madrid said. “The nine-county Bay Area is becoming whiter, wealthier and older. And that’s creating a power base that is driving the political leadership and discourse for the rest of the state.”

Of course, voters don’t always choose the candidate from their own region, and a home address in the Bay Area is no guarantee of a candidate’s success. Other factors—such as politics, fundraising and the power of incumbency—also come into play.

But with seven of the nine statewide races on November’s ballot featuring a north-south matchup, the question now is whether voters will defy the recent trend.

In the race for governor, the dominance of Northern California was clear when the primary was over in June. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, beat out two fellow Democrats from Los Angeles to face Republican John Cox of San Diego on the November ballot. Newsom is far ahead in the polls and fundraising in a state where just one-quarter of voters are registered GOP.

Given their advantage in voter registration and fundraising, Democrats—no matter which end of the state they live in—are favored to win in statewide contests against Republicans. One test will be in the race for insurance commissioner, which features a Democratic legislator from Los Angeles against a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is running with no party preference. Steve Poizner, who was insurance commissioner from 2006-2010, used to be a Republican but changed his registration to run this year. He splits his time between Silicon Valley and San Diego, and is facing state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat, in this down-ticket race.

Because of California’s nonpartisan election system, some races feature two Democrats, making the outcomes harder to predict. Voters could choose a lieutenant governor who lives in San Francisco—real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis—or one who lives in Los Angeles, state Sen. Ed Hernandez. They could pick a statewide schools superintendent who hails from the Bay Area—Assemblyman Tony Thurmond—or one who helped run schools in Los Angeles, Marshall Tuck. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein—a former mayor of San Francisco—is fighting a challenge from the left from state Sen. Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

“All else equal in terms of platform, and political leanings, if you have connections to the Bay Area, that is considered to be an advantage,” said Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California. “It’s both the voter strength in the Bay Area and the (fundraising) money that’s present in the Bay Area.”

The dynamic is different for legislative races—where the state is broken into districts with equal populations. Southern California’s large population means the region has many representatives in the Legislature, including the leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly.

But because of the voting trends, many SoCal lawmakers are elected with fewer votes than their NorCal colleagues. Even though Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who lives in Los Angeles County, is one of the state’s most powerful politicians, he was elected by about 89,000 voters in 2016, while several Bay Area legislators got at least 130,000 votes.  

Mike Trujillo, a Democratic political consultant in Los Angeles, said he’s hoping the energy this year over control of Congress will prompt more Southern Californians to vote. With several contested House races, the region is being blitzed by ads and volunteers reminding people an election is coming up.

“We do have a lot of those swing seats,” he said. “We’re hoping that is influential.”

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

Published in Politics

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has given the public a series of piecemeal explanations as it acknowledged making more than 100,000 errors in recent months while registering Californians to vote.

Software problems, it said in May. Human errors from toggling between computer windows, it said in September. Data-entry mistakes that were corrected but never saved, it said in October.

What DMV officials didn’t acknowledge—and still haven’t—was what may be the underlying problem: The agency rolled out a massive new voter-registration effort with a piecemeal computer system. Instead of the properly integrated computer program that was needed, the agency launched in April with disparate computer systems that didn’t automatically link together, according to advocates who have been working closely with the DMV on the new “motor voter” system. That meant DMV workers had to manually link information from various systems during transactions between April and September, when an integrated system was put in place, said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.

All the problems reported so far happened during that period.

“What we’re finding out is that they were really patching together an old system with several new systems,” Feng said. “We still don’t know if … they had planned all along to have an interim process between April and September, or if this is something they cobbled together because something wasn’t ready.”

The DMV declined to answer CALmatters’ questions about the computer systems, instead providing a statement saying the motor-voter program “has been implemented in phases, allowing DMV to roll out additional functionality.” The latest upgrade, the statement says, was on Sept. 26.

The botched rollout of the motor-voter system—which comes as the state and the country prepare for midterm elections—points to two long-standing problems in California. One is the state government’s pattern of failure on large information technology projects; the other is its history of flouting the federal voter-registration law.

Common Cause and other voter-rights advocacy groups sued the state in 2015, alleging it had failed to follow federal law requiring that states register people to vote and update their voting registrations when they get or renew a driver’s license or ID card. The Legislature then passed a law creating automatic voter registration at the DMV, and the advocacy groups have been working with the government to implement it.

The idea was that rather than duplicating information by filling out a voter-registration form and a driver’s license form, Californians who are legally eligible to vote would automatically be registered when completing the DMV’s computerized application for a driver’s license or ID card.

Since the program launched in April, about 1.4 million Californians have registered to vote or updated their voter registration through the motor-voter process—and the DMV has acknowledged three batches of mistakes:

• A software error affected 77,000 registrations, resulting, in some cases, in two registration forms indicating different party preferences being issued for one voter (reported in May).

• A window-toggling error affected 23,000 registrations, resulting in changes to voters’ party preference, vote-by-mail options and language choices (reported in September).

• A data-entry error resulted in 1,500 people being registered to vote even though they are not legally eligible, because they are not U.S. citizens, are younger than 18 or are on parole for a felony conviction (reported in October).

Though the problems are serious, none indicate intentional acts of fraud or hacking. Instead, they appear to be the result of human error and glitchy technology—which officials say are being fixed with software updates and employee training. The secretary of state said erroneous registrations have been canceled, and DMV leaders say they’ve put new procedures in place to prevent mistakes in the future.

“We continue to review the efficiency and accuracy of the program and will make additional upgrades as needed,” said the statement from DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla has said the errors amount to a small fraction of the transactions processed by the DMV and maintains that the corrective steps he’s taking, including a third-party review of the motor-voter system, “are crucial to ensuring voter confidence in our democracy.” National experts have repeatedly found that voter fraud is isolated and rare. Still, with the state government run entirely by Democrats, the motor-voter problems have fueled Republican arguments that voting systems are plagued by fraud. In a new digital ad this month, Padilla’s GOP opponent, Mark Meuser, highlights cases of fraudulent voting and says he wants “to end California's rigged elections.”

The potential for politicizing the problem is why the state government needs to come up with a big picture fix, said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who is an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump.

“There is a way to salvage this, but it requires not dismissing it as ‘no big deal,’” he said. “The president of the United States is questioning the integrity of our electoral system, and we have just legitimized that fear-mongering.”

Madrid wants to see a bipartisan commission formed to examine California’s voting system—not only the motor-voter problems, but also issues like the incident during the June primary when more than 118,000 names were erased from Los Angeles County voter rolls. An audit found that case was caused by a formatting mismatch between state and local computer systems that left blank spaces where dates of birth should have been, causing the computer to misclassify those voters as underaged.

The state’s Department of Finance will examine the motor-voter program as part of its audit of the DMV, which has been plagued by numerous problems this year, including massive wait times. But critics say that review is insufficient, because the Department of Finance, like the DMV itself, is part of the governor’s administration.

This summer, lawmakers rejected a Republican assemblyman’s request to have the state’s independent auditor investigate the DMV. Now the Democratic assemblywoman who wrote the law creating the new motor-voter system said she is going to ask for the audit when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“We gave them plenty of time. We increased their budget twice in order to implement this. We allowed them to delay implementation because we wanted it done right,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher of San Diego. “When they told us they were ready, obviously they weren’t quite ready.”

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

Published in Politics

With primary-election ballots still being tallied across the state, things are looking good for the California Republican Party … that is, not catastrophically bad.

It may be as close to good as the state’s second-biggest political party can hope for in California in 2018.

Assuming preliminary results hold, Democrats and Republicans fought to a virtual standstill on Election Day, avoiding the nightmare scenarios that political insiders had been fretting about for months.

Republicans made it into the top two spots in some of the most important contests for statewide office. That includes a decisive second-place finish by San Diego businessman John Cox, who will go on to face Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the race for governor. That could prop up conservative turnout in November even as Newsom tries to rally his base against the candidate he calls a “foot soldier” of President Trump.

But Republicans failed to make it into the November race for U.S. Senate (which was largely expected), lieutenant governor (not quite as expected) and insurance commissioner (though a former Republican with no current party affiliation came in first).

Republicans did not manage to shut Democrats out of any competitive congressional races—despite the Democrats’ own worries about that—boosting the latter’s hopes of regaining control of the House in November.

Republican turnout was not suppressed by Trump, his low statewide approval ratings notwithstanding. So now what for the California GOP?

“They’re looking to charge up the base in seven key congressional districts,” said Mike Madrid, referring to seven Republican-held districts in which a majority of voters supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. “In California Republican politics, that’s about all you can consider a victory at this point.”

Madrid is a Republican political consultant who worked for Antonio Villaraigosa’s gubernatorial campaign and is sharply critical of the party under Trump.

A California Republican hasn’t been elected to any of the statewide constitutional offices or the U.S. Senate since 2006. Party registration has been sliding ever since, dipping below the share of voters without a party affiliation.

Republicans may have placed second in a number of statewide races this time, but if recent trends continue, that merely forestalls defeat in November. At last count, the various Democratic candidates for governor cobbled together more than 60 percent of the vote, compared to less than 40 percent for the Republicans.

In the attorney general’s race, where Republicans also managed to avoid a shutout, incumbent Xavier Becerra leads retired judge Steven Bailey, who placed second, by 20 percentage points.

One right-of-center candidate may have scored a first-place victory, though he isn’t listed as a Republican. Steve Poizner, who served as the state’s Republican insurance commissioner from 2007 through 2011, ran for his old job without a stated political party preference. The lack of an “R” next to his name may have helped.

“We understand that we’re the underdogs,” said state party chairman Jim Brulte. For months, he has argued that the party’s way forward is to consistently remind voters that Democrats have controlled every lever of power in Sacramento for eight years—and are therefore responsible for any problems facing the state.

“They own it; they broke it, and we’re the fix,” he said. “Their strategic reason for wanting to mention Donald Trump inevery other sentence is because even though they’re in charge, they don’t want to take credit for California.”

Democrats get it.

“It’s going to be Trump, Trumpism and the Resistance,” said Newsom spokesman Nathan Click while describing the campaign ahead. In his speech on election night, Newsom described Cox as “a foot soldier in Trump’s war on California.”

Cox responded in his own speech the same night: “It wasn’t Donald Trump who made us the highest tax state in the country. It was Gavin Newsom and the Democrats.”

Hammering Democrats on taxes, particularly on the recent increase in the state’s gas tax, will be a central talking point for Republicans in the coming months.

In one unequivocally good piece of news for the state’s GOP in this election, voters overwhelmingly opted to fire Josh Newman from his state Senate seat in Orange County. The successful recall campaign strips Democrats of their supermajority control of the state Senate, although they hope to win it back in the fall. It also provides Republicans with a political game plan for the months ahead.

“People who supported the gas tax (increase) are going to have a lot of explaining to do,” said Brulte.

Pete Peterson, a Republican who ran for California secretary of state in 2014 and who is now the dean of Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy, said he hopes the party thinks a bit bigger than the gas tax. By overwhelming backing a left-leaning candidate like Newsom over a relative moderate like Villaraigosa, the Democrats have left the Republican Party an opening in California, he said.

The premise of the Villaraigosa campaign was to tack toward the center of California’s political spectrum, embracing targeted government assistance and a liberal immigration policy, while pumping the brakes on expensive programs like a proposed single-payer health-care system, enthusiastically supporting charter schools and occasionally wading into conservative rhetorical territory about red tape and bureaucratic excess.

With Villaraigosa’s loss, “there’s a significant part of the Democratic Party that is not going to be represented in this governor’s race,” said Peterson, who supports Cox. “So the question I have for Republicans is: Do you see that as an opportunity?”

Madrid says it’s too late. Cox embraced the support of President Donald Trump and spoke in favor of his immigration policies.

“To think that somehow moderates, centrist Democrats are going to move over and vote for a Trump supporter because they’re paying some extra money at the pump completely fails to grasp what is happening in this country and this state,” Madrid said.

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

Published in Politics

Inside the California Assembly chamber on the night of June 1, the presiding officer urged lawmakers to recognize former members in their midst, “the honorable Henry Perea and Felipe Fuentes.”

In a familiar Capitol ritual, the former assemblymen waved from the balcony as applause rang out from their one-time colleagues.

But the two weren’t just retired lawmakers—they were now lobbyists being paid by oil companies to kill a bill that would soon meet its fate on the Assembly floor below.

That bill, by Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, would have forced industry to reduce air pollution that comes from their plants. Garcia knew the lobbyists in the balcony were pals of many of her Assembly colleagues. She knew oil and other industries were working hard to defeat her. And she knew her bill was in danger.

A million people in her industrial Los Angeles neighborhood “have been treated like a wasteland,” Garcia said in frustration, wiping tears from her eyes. Then she cast a glance toward the balcony. “Clean air is a big deal for a lot of Californians. You have a choice: Do we all matter?”

Her bill fell six votes short, as moderate Democrats joined Republicans to quash it. The moment marked a win for oil—and revolving-door politics.

Today, Garcia cites the lobbyists’ special relationships with current legislators as among the factors to blame for her bill’s demise.

“When you have a former member on the floor at the same time they are working for or against the bill,” she said, “you open the opportunity to have access in a way lobbyists normally would not have.”

Sacramento is full of termed-out or retired lawmakers who make second careers as lobbyists, strolling through a “revolving door” between government and the private sector. Current law prohibits ex-legislators from directly lobbying their former colleagues for one year after they leave the Legislature, and a measure on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk would slightly strengthen that by barring legislators who quit mid-term from lobbying during the remainder of that two-year-session, plus another year.

Still, the oil industry’s strategy this year was striking. After failing last year to prevent a new law requiring massive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, oil came back this year lobbying hard. Democrats held a supermajority in the Legislature, but were divided over how to redesign the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program, which forces businesses to reduce emissions or pay for permits to pollute.

The oil industry’s goal: to shape the next phase of cap and trade through 2030. And it had hired four former lawmakers—all Democrats—to advocate on its behalf.

Each hailed from predominantly working-class, Latino districts and joined an influential “mod squad” of moderates during their legislative tenures, which covered various periods between 2002 and 2015. Two are from Kern County, the biggest oil producer in California. And three quit their elective office mid-term to work for industry.

All four declined interviews for this article, as did their employers. Three were registered lobbyists during the peak of cap and trade negotiations this year:

Henry Perea, the son of a Fresno City Council member and grandson of Mexican immigrants, made his mark in the Assembly as the former leader of its mod caucus before quitting mid-term, initially to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. Now he lobbies for the Western States Petroleum Association.

Felipe Fuentes, raised in the San Fernando Valley, worked as a legislator to secure tax credits to keep filmmakers in the state, then was named to the Los Angeles Times 2016 “naughty” list for bailing on his Los Angeles City Council seat to become a lobbyist. His firm’s clients include an oil production company.

Michael Rubio, who worked his way up in Kern County politics, abruptly quit the state Senate in 2013 to work for Chevron, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

• A fourth is not a registered lobbyist, but manages government affairs for a refinery company: Nicole Parra, whose father was a Kern County supervisor, won election to the Assembly at age 32 and also became a mod caucus leader, known for sometimes endorsing Republicans.

“The industry showed incredible smarts by going out and hiring these people. Nationally, the oil industry is very Republican,” said David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant who knows all four through his work running a fundraising committee that helps elect business-friendly Democrats.

“Their knowledge base is enormous. Their relationships are broad-based and deep. If I were in trouble, they are some of the ones I’d hire,” Townsend said.

Oil companies have a long history of fighting against the aggressive climate policies backed by many California Democrats. This year, though, instead of fighting against cap and trade, oil teamed with other business interests to lobby to make cap and trade more industry-friendly. In the final deal that lawmakers approved on a bipartisan vote in July, oil won a new law forbidding local air-quality districts from enacting emissions restrictions tighter than the state’s—as well as a potential perk worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Leading environmental groups supported the bill to extend cap and trade for another decade, but other environmentalists wound up opposing it for being too easy on polluters.

“This easy crossing from legislator to advocate for the industry has happened before, but it seems to have been happening recently in greater bulk. So that, to me, is kind of distressing,” said Kathryn Phillips, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, which opposed the cap-and-trade plan. “These are people who have been friends with the people they are going to lobby.”

Many aspects of those relationships play out in ways the public never sees—through text messages and phone calls, or at private get-togethers. Weeks before lawmakers voted on the final cap-and-trade bills, Senate leader Kevin de León dined with Perea and Rubio at an intimate Sacramento restaurant known for $44 steaks.

De León, a Los Angeles Democrat who has carried many clean-energy bills, said former lawmakers didn’t get any special treatment from him.

“I sit down with everybody across the spectrum. That’s my job as the leader of the Senate,” he said. “I have to sit down with all perspectives, whether it’s oil, whether it’s clean energy, whether it is labor unions, whether it’s businesses.”

After Perea became a lobbyist, he met with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon to talk about cap and trade, and held additional meetings with the speaker’s staff, Rendon acknowledged. But the speaker rejected the idea that former lawmakers were especially influential in negotiating the next phase of California’s landmark climate policy.

“On an issue like cap and trade, where members arrive with a certain set of values and with information already, I am inclined to think that this is less impactful,” Rendon said.

On the other hand, former lawmakers—especially those who served most recently—can bring unique insider know-how to any lobbying effort. They understand caucus dynamics, know how to tailor persuasive messages to particular legislators, and enjoy unusual access to public officials.

Signs of that were on display throughout the year in the bustling Capitol. In April, Parra participated in a lunchtime discussion with legislative staffers about professional advancement for women of color, joined by a legislator, a lawmaker’s chief of staff and an aide to the governor who works on environmental issues. And in September, as lawmakers began a long night voting on dozens of bills, Perea strolled down a Capitol hallway packed with lobbyists and slipped into the back door of the Assembly chamber—right past a sign labeling the room restricted to “members and staff only.”

Well-connected environmental advocates also roam the halls. Last year, for example, the Assembly honored former legislator Christine Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who now runs a group that works to expand use of electric vehicles.

When politicians leave office, they frequently take a job developing a lobbying strategy—but not directly lobbying. Rubio did that when he quit the Legislature in 2013 to work for Chevron, as did Perea when he resigned in 2015 to work for a pharmaceutical trade association. But as the cap-and-trade negotiations heated up this year, both officially registered as lobbyists—a sign that they anticipated having a lot more direct contact with lawmakers. Perea left the pharmaceutical group to join the Western States Petroleum Association as a registered lobbyist in May. The next month, Rubio registered as a lobbyist for Chevron. In September, he filed paperwork with the Secretary of State ending his registration as a lobbyist. (Both men scored spots this year on a popular list of the 100 most influential players around the Capitol.)

Fuentes was elected to the Los Angeles City Council after he was termed out of the Assembly in 2012. He quit the City Council last year to become a lobbyist with a firm called the Apex Group, whose many clients include Aera Energy—a firm that drills for oil in the San Joaquin Valley.

Parra, after being out of elected office for eight years, was hired by Tesoro (now Andeavor) in November as a manager of state government affairs.

No one has complained to California’s political watchdog that the former lawmakers broke any ethics rules in their advocacy work this year. The assemblyman carrying the bill to lengthen the time lawmakers are banned from lobbying said it’s not inspired by any of the Legislature’s recent departures.

Still, even if legal, the idea that personal relationships may influence statewide policy can be disconcerting, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“If we think about what we’re worried about when it comes to any lobbyist, it’s the idea that our lawmakers are making decisions based on what hired guns are asking them to do as opposed to what’s good public policy,” Levinson said. “Lobbyists have an outsized influence on lawmakers, and that is exponentially increased when that lobbyist is a former lawmaker.”

Even if former lawmakers held office at different times than today’s legislators, they may be connected through other political circles. That was the case for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, whose time in the lower house coincided with Perea but not the other three. She knew them, though, through California’s larger network of Latino Democrats.

Gonzalez Fletcher said she never felt pressured by the former legislators as the cap-and-trade negotiations advanced—perhaps because she declared her support for the bill early. Still, she saw them around the Capitol or ran into them while out for after-work drinks.

“There was a lot of checking in: ‘Where are people? Where do you think things will land?’ It felt more like information-gathering in my brief discussions with former members,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “I didn’t feel a lot of hard lobbying going on.”

At a time when many lawmakers worry that Sacramento’s lobbying corps isn’t as diverse as either the state or the Legislature (Latinos make up 39 percent of Californians and 23 percent of state legislators), the oil industry has been represented by black and Latino lobbyists in the Capitol for several years. Its move to bring on the four Latino former lawmakers reflects a larger economic shift in California.

“It’s not because they are Latino,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant with expertise in Latino politics. “It’s because they represented districts that are poor and working-class. There just happens to be a very strong relationship between race and class in California.”

Madrid said working-class communities respond to industry arguments about the cost of environmental regulation—either as consumers who will see the cost of gas increase, or as workers who want to keep blue collar jobs in their regions. With Republicans divided over cap and trade, and lacking much clout in the Capitol, it was logical for oil to bring on some prominent Democrats.

“You’re starting to see a transformation of what has traditionally been a right-left, red-blue, Republican-Democrat divide,” he said. “There is a realignment occurring.”

Another indication emerged five days before lawmakers voted on the cap-and-trade extension. The California Business Roundtable, a group of 30 companies including Chevron and Valero, enlisted a new lobbyist: Richie Ross, former bare-knuckles chief of staff to one of the most powerful Democratic Assembly speakers in state history, Willie Brown.

Today, Ross is unusual among Sacramento lobbyists because he is also a political consultant whose clients include 10 Democratic legislators—giving him financial connections both to the groups that pay him to lobby, and the politicians who pay him for campaign advice.

He said he provided advice to the Roundtable and did not lobby his political clients in the Legislature: “They had me register (as a lobbyist) because at that point, everyone was uncertain as to whether they would need me to lobby.”

The Roundtable’s president, Rob Lapsley, is a longtime Republican. But he said business groups knew that when it came to cap and trade, they needed Democrats involved to get the plan they wanted from a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Richie is a smart, strategic advisor with long-term relationships. We found that of great value,” Lapsley said. “He goes back a long way. And he was very helpful in getting additional insights.”

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

Published in Politics

Days after Tim Grayson won election to the Assembly, a Sacramento lobbyist greeted him at a reception with sheepish congratulations. Her client had supported his opponent during the campaign, the lobbyist explained, but now that he’d won, she told him she wanted to move past the election and forge a good working relationship.

Oh and by the way, did he need any money to cover costs from the campaign?

“Make-up money” is what it’s called in Sacramento—the contributions that flow to newly elected officials from interest groups that backed a losing candidate during the campaign. It’s a completely legal way of saying, in political terms, “Let’s kiss and make up.”

Grayson has not taken advantage of the offer; campaign statements to date show no contributions to the Concord Democrat from clients of the lobbyist who introduced herself in November. But conversations like theirs often occur in the months after an election, as interest groups shift from betting on a winner during the campaign to lobbying those who won a seat in the Capitol.

“The best way to make amends, fortunately or unfortunately, is a contribution,” said GOP political consultant Mike Madrid. “It’s not uncommon to have a strategy where somebody spent six figures against (a candidate), with approval to write them a check to rebuild the relationship” if that candidate ends up the winner.

In other words: make-up money is built into the budget for interest groups that spend big on politics. Those groups had a lot at stake in the 2016 legislative races, because it marked the last time for the next eight years that a significant number of Assembly seats would be vacant. A review of campaign finance reports from last year’s most contentious races shows plenty of make-up money in the mix. It came from trade associations, corporate interests and labor unions.

Some examples:

• In the race for a Malibu-area state Senate seat, the dentists’ trade association spent nearly $50,000 opposing Democrat Henry Stern. After he won, the dentists gave him $4,200.

• In the race for a San Jose-based Assembly seat, the Realtors association spent more than $483,000 attacking Democrat Ash Kalra. After he won—and landed a spot on the Assembly’s Housing and Community Development Committee—the Realtors group gave Kalra $8,500.

• Realtors made another losing bet in the Democrat-on-Democrat race for a Glendale-area Assembly seat, spending nearly $253,000 to support Ardy Kassakhian. After his opponent, Laura Friedman, won, the Realtors’ group wrote her a check for $6,800.

Friedman said she met with the Realtors after the election—just as she met with many other interest groups—for a version of the “let’s move on and have a good relationship” conversation. The money, she said, doesn’t impact how she’ll vote on their issues.

“I don’t feel like I’m holding a grudge, but I’m certainly not going to not work with them, not take their meetings or not take in their perspectives,” Friedman said. “My goal is to represent my constituents and my conscience.”

The dentists and Realtors associations are among the biggest spenders in legislative races, pouring millions into recent election cycles. Both groups declined requests for interviews. The dental association provided a statement saying its political action committee “puts a great deal of consideration” into choosing which candidates it supports.

Interest groups that spend smaller sums of political money have done some flip-flops, too:

• In the race for a Palo Alto-area Assembly seat, two local labor unions—one for firefighters, another for school support staff—that gave to the losing candidate have since written $5,000 checks to the winner, Democrat Marc Berman.

• PG&E and the pharmaceutical industry association both donated to the campaigns of the losing candidate for a Salinas-area Assembly seat. Weeks after the election, the businesses wrote checks to the winner, Democrat Anna Caballero.

• In October, the prison guards’ union gave $4,200 to Grayson’s opponent in the race for his Assembly seat. Two months later, the union wrote a check for that amount to Grayson.

Grayson, who previously worked as the chaplain for the Concord Police Department, said his relationship with the prison guards’ union stems from his own career in law enforcement—not from the money they donated.

For interest groups he doesn’t really know, Grayson said he finds offers of “make-up money” awkward. He said he never followed up to seek a donation from the lobbyist who introduced herself at the post-election reception.

“My first desire is to meet and have a conversation in which they can get to know me, who I am, what I am and how I am,” he said. “What they choose to do after that, that’s their business.”

There is nothing illegal about giving “make-up money” to a politician, said Jessica Levinson, a law professor who is president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. Political contributions break the law only when they involve a direct exchange of money for governmental action.

But, she said, giving money to the winner of an election—after backing an opponent—shows that donors are looking to curry favor with whomever has the power to make decisions.

“It brings into stark relief what we all know, which is that people give money to get something,” Levinson said. “You’re not expressing support; you’re buying access and influence.”

Laurel Rosenhall is a contributor to CALmatters.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

They call it a party, though there’s no music or dancing. But there’s plenty of politics in the air to liven up the rectangular, windowless room—with free drinks from an open bar to help loosen the lips.

Saturday night has arrived at the California Republican Party’s fall convention, which took place last month at Anaheim Marriott. The Saturday shindig put on by the Bay Area GOP will feature an announcement about the state party’s preliminary 2015 platform, which will be ratified by a vote the next morning.

Luis Buhler, publisher of BayAreaGOP.com and former vice chair of the Bay Area GOP, delivers the tentative platform to the room.

Things get interesting when the platform’s “equal opportunity” wording comes up.

“The platform committee added language opposing discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation,” Buhler says.

A sudden interruption rings out: “BOOOO!”

Everyone turns to a smug, clean-cut young man sitting in a chair with his arms crossed.

He makes no effort to stand. “BOOO!” he repeats.

Buhler continues, acting unflapped: “That is, by the way, the law of California,” before attempting to move on to other platform details.

But there it is again: “BOO!”

The man, dressed in a sport coat, remains hunkered in his seat.

Buhler persists: “So our platform now is in compliance with the law.”

A few minutes later, immigration comes up.

“The immigration section was clearly the most controversial,” Buhler says. “In total, (it) takes some very conservative, traditional positions of the Republican Party.”

The young Republican regains his voice.

“Bullshit!”

Another smartly dressed man approaches the heckler from behind, taps him on the shoulder and says, “You need to be respectful.”

All eyes go back to Buhler, but seconds later, the heckler erupts. “Really? Really? I’ll leave, I don’t need security.”

As he walks out he says, “Bye! Go be Democrats!”

A man near the door gives the heckler a piece of his mind. “Where’s your bed?” he says, seemingly suggesting the heckler is a child, or too drunk—or both.

Leaving the room, the heckler turns.

“Liberals!” he yells.

Buhler, meanwhile, has never stopped talking: “… but it does call for language, English and English only, as the language of government.”

The man appears in another doorway to the room.

“Boooooooooo!”


En route to the convention via Interstate 5, the only English-language radio station coming through in the Central Valley is KSFO 560AM. On it, conservative talk show host Mark Levin rails for more than an hour against the media’s handling of the second Republican presidential debate, which occurred a day earlier.

He calls it a food fight, and picks on the media—both CNN and Fox News before it—for using their debates to create theatrical conflict amid candidates to boost ratings.

Levin wants substance.

The point resurfaces the next morning, after the conference begins. Tom Palzer, who’s running a campaign for U.S. Senate against more well-funded, white male candidates, approaches for a chat and ends up riffing about the media.

“When you’re running for office, you’re running against your own party; you’re running against the other party; you’re running against the independents; you’re running against the media,” he says. “The media is always waiting to chop your head off.”


For as much as GOP presidential candidates love California for fundraising purposes—it’s the richest state in the union—they often appear otherwise indifferent to California, and for good reason: Its voters haven’t supported a Republican candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, more than a quarter-century ago.

With 16 candidates vying for the 2016 Republican nomination, only the dregs of the current campaign—Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee—agreed to speak at California GOP’s Sept. 18-20 convention. But on Sept. 13, Walker’s campaign announced that, due to flagging poll numbers, he would not appear and instead would attempt to shore up support in South Carolina and Iowa, two states critical to securing the nomination. (Walker pulled out of the race altogether Sept. 23).

So Huckabee became the sole headliner, slated for the Friday VIP luncheon.

As the attendees munch on their salads, the room goes dark, and two giant screens light up on the left and right behind the stage.

“Every day of my life in politics was a fight; sometimes, it was an intense one,” Huckabee tells the camera, referring to his long odds in succeeding politically in Arkansas, a longtime Democratic stronghold. “But any drunken redneck can walk into a bar and start a fight. But a leader only starts a fight that he is prepared to finish.”

The three-minute film featured Huckabee’s wife, Janet, who praised him for sticking by her side after she was diagnosed with cancer early in their marriage.

When the lights come back on, California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte takes the stage to introduce the former Arkansas governor, calling him “one of the best governors in America.” After Huckabee takes the stage to a standing ovation, he immediately starts digging into the Sept. 16 debate, where he was given little time to speak—and when he did speak, he foundered. (One thing he said during the debate: “The most dangerous person in any room is the person who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”)

“I’m excited to be here for several reasons, not the least of which I’ve been allocated three times more time than I got in three hours of the CNN debate,” Huckabee says. “I told Bill O’Reilly last night: I wasn’t sure if I was in the CNN debate, or if I was standing in line at the DMV. Insufferably, a three-hour tour. I thought I was in an episode of Gilligan’s Island, and we got shipwrecked out there. I kept looking around for Ginger and Mary Ann.

“The essence of the questions was intended to try to get us all to fight with each other,” he says. “I, for one, as a Republican, say it’s time we say to the networks: The purpose of a Republican debate is not to create fodder for your entertainment value.”

The debate, Huckabee says, should be about deciding which candidate can not just get to the Super Bowl, but win it.

“I’m also delighted to be able to spend these few minutes with you, because I do believe we have an incredible opportunity to get America going again. There are a lot of reasons for us to be disturbed, disgusted, even outraged at what’s happening in our country,” he says.

“I understand there is more than just a little bit of dissatisfaction with the way our country is going. It’s better described as a seething rage. People are not just unhappy; they are outraged, to the point that in some cases they don’t really care if they elect somebody who has any understanding of what it means to govern.

“Here’s the truth: Why am I running for president? Because I have five grandkids now. And I feel so blessed to be an American. I haven’t just read about the American Dream; I have lived it. And I for one am not willing to walk my grandchildren through the charred remains of a once-great country called America and say, ‘Here it is, kids.’”

The ballroom erupts with applause.


John Myers, senior editor of KQED’s California politics and government desk, stands in front of a camera in the Anaheim Marriott’s convention area hall, poised to deliver a sound bite on the health of the Republican Party in California.

“Set aside all of the spin and the bluster that comes with politics: The challenges of the California Republican Party are ones of numbers. There are about 4.9 million registered Republicans in the state; that’s about 400,000 fewer than there were just six years ago. Democrats have also lost numbers as people have moved to register as independents, but Republicans have lost more, and now make up only 28 percent of the overall electorate.”

Myers’ producer asks that he shift his position, so they can do another take.


It’s late afternoon Friday, and the bar at the Anaheim Marriott is filling up. At the corner are two women joined by Joy Delepine, a 2014 state Assembly candidate from District 14, which mostly encompasses Contra Costa County. After making it into the general election by finishing second in the primary as a write-in candidate, Delepine won 31 percent of the electoral vote.

Her friends commiserate with the bartender, seeking cocktail advice.

“We like alcohol,” one says.

A man I later learn is Sean Lee takes the barstool to my right. He is Asian American, in his mid-40s, and says he has never tried Guinness. He asks for a sample, and satisfied with the taste, orders a pint.

Before long, Lee—who was educated at UC Irvine and the University of Southern California—starts talking about Donald Trump, and the state of politics in America.

“We had two sessions in office, and now there’s two sessions of a Democrat in office. But what’s changed? Not much; they’re all playing politics,” Lee says.

Lee is an entrepreneur and runs a company, Political Data Inc., that he says can get the most up-to-date voter information on the market. He doesn’t sell his services to Democratic candidates.

“The core issues are what’s deteriorated: the safety of our country, our economy and relation to all the other countries,” Lee says. “That’s what needs to be fixed first. Donald Trump represents someone that’s very fresh, something different.”

But Lee later flips on the idea that Trump’s popularity is hinged on him not being a politician.

“I don’t think life is that different whether you’re a politician or a businessman,” he says. “You’ve got to deal. It’s a give and take. You’re trying to get the best deal for your side and come out on top.”


Mike Madrid’s day is not going well.

It’s day two of the convention, and one of the state’s pre-eminent campaign strategists is having a hard time controlling a basic seminar about winning local elections.

When he tells the attendees they should focus on door-to-door outreach, mailers and social media, cries from the crowd are immediate. Lawn signs, they say, are the most important thing to get elected.

Madrid is persistent, and spends another 10 minutes explaining his logic: Signs don’t ultimately sway voters. Period. “I’m not saying lawn signs are not important. What I’m saying is, they’re the least important.”

Madrid steers the conversation toward door-to-door strategies, and says candidates should spend at least nine weekends, as well some nights after work, knocking on doors and meeting their would-be supporters.

“When they go to the polls, they’re going to remember who you are,” he says. “If you knock on more doors than your opponent, your chances of success are exponentially greater.”

Then Madrid—ready to talk about how to disarm people answering the door, or how to use Facebook effectively—calls on a woman with her hand raised.

The woman wants to say lawn signs are the most important factor in getting elected in her district.

Madrid winces.

“What lawn signs are really about,” he says, “they’re about politicians needing to see their name out there and give them a sense of comfort.

“Being a candidate is not easy. It’s not that fun, and if you like it, we also have therapy.”

The room laughs.

“If (lawn signs are) my strategy, then I need to change my strategy,” he says. “After you’ve bought your slate mail, Facebook ads, after you’ve had all your events, buy a lawn sign. And if you win, let me know, and I’ll still disagree with you.”


The bald white guy talking to two other white guys is wearing a pin on his white dress shirt: “Stop Co-Ed Bathrooms,” it says.

Past him down the hall is a table covered with conservative bumper stickers, which the purveyor has qualified with a sign reading: “Warning | Politically Incorrect Area | Rampant Insensitivity Authorized.”

Among the bumper-sticker offerings: “Evolution Is Science Fiction,” “Keep Honking … I’m Reloading” and “Save the Males.”


Increasing the female vote is key for the state’s Republican party, and the subject of a Saturday afternoon seminar.

It begins with GOP strategist Richard Temple presenting some sobering statistics: 67 percent of unmarried women voted for Obama in 2012, and 58 percent of women voted Democrat in 2014.

Add to that, 58 percent of women don’t feel the Republican party understands them.

Temple then implores the women in the room to step up: “The issues are there for us,” he says. “And women can say stuff we can’t say as men.”

A handful of women follow Temple on the mic, the second being state Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, a young politician out of Modesto.

“Negative campaigning is not going to inspire women,” says Olsen. “Maybe it’s because we’re tired of hearing our kids whine all day.”

But she encourages women to run.

“The women who run tend to win,” she says. “We have a terrible track record in getting women to run in the first place.”

Next up is Roseann Slonsky-Breault, president of the California Federation of Republican Women, which she says is the largest all-volunteer political organization in the country.

“We’ve got to win back that White House, and we’ve got to get boots on the ground to do that. Women’s issues are what men’s issues are,” she says.

“Remember the soccer moms from 2004? Well, the soccer moms are back,” she adds. “Everyone is worrying about the future.”


Outside the Marriott Saturday night are women and Asian men dressed as medieval maidens.

The Marriott is across a plaza from a Hilton, and the Anaheim Convention Center sits just to its west.

It turns out the Hilton, concurrent to the GOP convention, is hosting TouhouCon, and spilling outside into the plaza are rows of slick Hondas custom-painted with Japanese anime characters. Maidens are everywhere, posing for pictures.

Touhou enthusiast David Storm, who is circulating in the plaza amid the cosplayers, explains that Touhou is a video game created in 1996 “by one drunk programmer” that has since captured a cult following.

“It’s like half of Japan’s underground culture,” he says. “If you go to anything there, it will be like half Touhou. It’s ridiculous. You go out to the raves over there; it’s ridiculous.”

But what do the cars have to do with game?

“Nothing,” Storm says. “People just like the cars.”


After Dana Rohrabacher leads the pledge of allegiance at the convention’s Saturday-night dinner event, he announces he will be singing a song.

“We just pledged our allegiance to the flag, right,” says Rohrabacher, a U.S. congressman from Costa Mesa. “That’s what this is really all about. It’s all about America. It’s all about what America stands for. It’s not about politics; it’s not about titles. It’s about our country, our country that stands for freedom, our country that is the shining example of liberty and justice for the entire world, the only hope for the world.

“I’m not a very good singer,” he hedges, and picks up a guitar. “It’s called ‘God Bless Our Freedom.’”

And then he puts his pipes to work.

“God bless America, God bless our freedom, and God bless the people who work everyday. God bless the folks, who built this great country…

“Beauty and progress are one with the land, and neighbor helps neighbor, we all understand … ”

The night’s featured speaker was scheduled to be Gov. Walker.

On short notice, the California GOP recruited John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the George W. Bush administration, to take Walker’s place. He didn’t come to the stage with Rohrabacher’s optimistic energy, but rather, fear and loathing.

“For the eight years of the Obama administration, we’ve had our security and our place in the world put at risk,” Bolton says. “We’ve seen America retreat from positions of security that have been built up by decades of effort. We’ve witnessed international terrorism grow back to the point that it was on Sept. 11, 2001 and even gotten worse than that … .

“All across the Middle East, state structures are breaking down, and new ones are being created, and not to our advantage. ISIS now controls territory in Iraq and Syria equal to the size of Great Britain. They are creating a new country. They have a currency, a central bank, a national budget—which puts them ahead of us … ”

Laughter fills the room, briefly, and Bolton goes on about Benghazi, and how weak Obama is on foreign policy.

“There are enormous changes going on the world, all of them negative,” Bolton says. “The outlook, I’m afraid to say, is uniformly gloomy. I wish I had better news for you, but we have made a huge mistake as a country in electing this man president twice.”

The room erupts with applause.


Saturday night, after the Bay Area GOP shuts their party down, the bar at the Marriott fills up, mostly with men.

Dave Titus, chief of staff for Beth Gaines, a state Assemblywoman from the Sacramento area, pulls up to a vacant stool and surveys the scene.

“Look at all these dudes at the bar,” he says. “It’s like sword-fight city. It’s like spring training.”

Titus is talking about the high number of men at the bar, but he could also be talking the 2016 Republican presidential race—or, for that matter, the party itself. Men in a fight.

That’s not how Luis Buhler, the former vice chair of the Bay Area GOP who was heckled by the young man in the sport coat, sees it. Two days after discussing the party platform at the Bay Area GOP party, he publishes a blog post about the convention: “California Republicans wrapped up their annual fall convention Sunday optimistic and united,” it begins.

Later, he adds this: “Republicans have avoided controversial internal fights and expanded (their) reach to groups traditionally excluded from the party.”

Published in Politics