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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

I suppose I can’t not write about Sharpie-gate, as much as I’d rather not. After all, of the myriad episodes that have defined the Trump administration’s idiocracy, few have reached this peak of stupidity.

On Saturday, Aug. 31, with Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the U.S., President Trump warned that it posed a serious risk to Alabama, though forecasters had days earlier said Alabama was out of danger. The next day, after receiving calls from worried residents, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service tweeted that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”

For reasons best left to a psychologist, Trump refused to let it go. He spent the next week obsessing over it, insisting that he was right and the NWS experts (and the media that covered them) were wrong and fake. By Wednesday, he was in the Oval Office with a hurricane forecast from Aug. 29, altered by a hand-drawn Sharpie to include Alabama in the storm’s projected path. By Friday night—after the storm had left the North Carolina coast, and we were still talking about this—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement “correcting” the NWS tweet from a week earlier and backing the president. (The justification: One model showed a tiny chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a sliver of Alabama.)

By Saturday, Sept. 7, The Washington Post had reported that, the day after Trump’s Alabama flub, the NOAA sent a directive to NWS meteorologists ordering them not to contradict the president, even though he was wrong, and they were right, and part of their job is to correct misinformation. NOAA sent a similar directive after the Sharpie display.

“I have never been so embarrassed,” the head of the NWS union tweeted Friday.

So say we all, pal.

Under different circumstances—say, if he were hosting a reality TV show—the president’s pathetically pathological need to be right and his lackeys’ compulsion to assuage his fragile ego might be amusing. But this is real life, where undermining the credibility of the government’s information during a disaster puts lives at risk.

This is part of a larger problem, of course. On Friday, Sept. 6, Business Insider reported that “aides and confidants are concerned about his mental state after days of erratic behavior and wild outbursts.” According to one former White House official: “His mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know, his entire schedule gets tossed out the window because he’s losing his shit.”

In the UK, when Trump-lite Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to go around Parliament to facilitate a disastrous no-deal Brexit, defections within his own party blocked him and then prevented him from calling snap elections. Country was more important than party. Here, administration officials have shown no such spine, even on matters as banal as Sharpie-gate. The higher the stakes—and the more unhinged Trump becomes—the more dangerous that gets.

Plenty of ink has been spilled explaining how we got here—how, since the civil rights movement, the Republican Party’s embrace of white racial grievance and the cultivation of authoritarianism in its pursuit of power have destroyed liberal democracy’s guardrails, allowing a pernicious oaf like Trump into the Oval Office. But we shouldn’t overlook the behind-the-scenes roles played by men like Thomas Hofeller, who made the radicalization of the GOP possible.

Hofeller, who died last year, was a Republican redistricting consultant, a number-cruncher who helped gerrymander congressional and legislative districts all over the country, most famously in North Carolina, where his work has been subject to numerous lawsuits. The districts he helped draw in 2011 were struck down as racial gerrymanders. The congressional districts he helped draw to replace them were then struck down as partisan gerrymanders, though earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering was constitutional.

But last week, a state court struck down the redrawn legislative districts, ruling that extreme partisan gerrymandering violated the state Constitution. This followed a lawsuit Common Cause filed in 2018, after North Carolina Democrats won more votes for state House and Senate, but Republicans emerged with strong majorities. Facing a Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers declined an appeal, meaning North Carolina could see its first fair election in a decade next year.

This is where it gets fun: Much to Republicans’ chagrin, Hofeller’s daughter had turned over thousands of his files to Common Cause. On Friday, Sept. 6, The New Yorker reported their contents. As you’d expect, they showed that Hofeller compiled “intensely detailed” data on race, as well as things like whether college students were likely to have the state-required ID to vote. 

He got particularly deep in the weeds at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, the nation’s largest historically black college. Hofeller used dorm-level data to draw congressional districts that literally bisected the campus, ensuring that Greensboro would have two Republican representatives. This, Republicans argued, was about partisan advantage, not race.

The files show that Hofeller was involved in Republican gerrymandering efforts in Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Texas and Florida, and that “he was part of a Republican effort to add a citizenship question to the Census … which Hofeller believed would make it easier to pack Democrats and minorities into fewer districts, giving an advantage to Republicans.” Trump, you’ll recall, championed this cause—even after the Supreme Court turned rejected the question because the administration couldn’t be bothered to hide its political motives.

Hofeller and the Republicans who employed him contorted democracy to their own ends. But by creating ruby-red districts in which Republicans could only lose in primaries, they fostered an incentive structured that pulled the GOP further and further right, the kind of asymmetric polarization that, in short order, gave us a president who draws hurricane projections with a Sharpie and a party that whistles in democracy’s graveyard.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

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The California Legislature, controlled by Democrats for decades, will be even bluer when the new class is sworn in. Exactly how many more Democrats have been elected is still not certain, because it takes a long time to count votes in California. But all signs point toward growing Democratic caucuses in both the Assembly and the Senate—and a supermajority that sidelines Republicans to near-irrelevancy.

That means the prevailing tension in the statehouse probably won’t be between Republicans and Democrats—but between different shades of blue. It could make for some counter-intuitive outcomes—including a Legislature that skews more toward business on some fights.

The biggest shift appears to be taking place in the state Senate, which in recent years has been the more liberal of the two houses. It is poised to tick toward the center, with two business-backed Democrats winning Los Angeles-area seats previously held by labor-friendly Dems, and two rural Democrats apparently flipping Republican-held seats in the Central Valley.

“It’s very significant,” said Marty Wilson, executive vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies for major business interests. “We have an opportunity to have a more profound impact on the Senate.”

Business PACs including Wilson’s poured at least $6 million into electing Democrats Susan Rubio of Baldwin Park and Bob Archuleta of Pico Rivera, who secured solid wins on election night.

Two other Democrats—Melissa Hurtado of Sanger and now-Assemblywoman Anna Caballero of Salinas—pulled ahead of their Republican opponents earlier this week in updated vote counts, apparently assuring the Senate of a Democratic supermajority. Representing Central Valley districts that stretch through California’s farm belt, the pair would bring a different perspective to the Senate Democratic caucus, which is now dominated by representatives from big cities and progressive coastal enclaves. That means not only more potential interest in water and farm policy, but also on how proposals impact inland jobs and health care.

“The issues the Central Valley and other parts of rural California face will get more attention in the caucus, because there will be more advocates on behalf of those regions,” said Bob Sanders, a Democratic political consultant who worked on campaigns for Hurtado and Caballero.

Caballero gained a track record as a business-friendly moderate during six years in the state Assembly. Democrats poured more than $4 million into her Senate race against Republican Rob Poythress for a Merced-area seat that had previously been held by Anthony Cannella, a moderate Republican. Poythress was backed by $1.9 million from the GOP.

Hurtado is a health-care advocate who sits on the Sanger City Council. Democrats spent $2.4 million to help her wrest the Fresno-area from GOP Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford, who was helped by $428,000 from his party.

“What was different this time were the issues,” said Democratic consultant Lisa Gasperoni, who worked on Hurtado’s campaign.

Instead of focusing on water and agriculture, as most politicians do in the Central Valley, Hurtado emphasized health-care access and environmental health, Gasperoni said.

“Those issues were way more potent than I’ve ever seen them,” she said.

Wilson, whose PAC supported Vidak, said the Republican likely suffered from blowback by voters upset by President Trump.

“I think a lot of it was attributable to Trump going out there and railing on caravans,” Wilson said. “It does have a negative impact on California.”

With results still being tallied, Democrats have been cautious about declaring victory. But late ballots generally skew more liberal, so Democrats may pick up additional seats in the Assembly, where they have already flipped two.

With supermajorities in both chambers, Democrats—in theory—could pass taxes, change the state’s political ethics law, and put constitutional amendments on the ballot without any Republican support. In reality, however, it’s difficult to get all Democrats to agree on controversial proposals—a challenge that could complicate Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom’s agenda, which is ambitious, expensive and could require a tax increase. Many legislators are spooked by the successful recall this year of Democratic Sen. Josh Newman over his vote to increase the gas tax.

Still, with a union-backed governor-elect whose leanings are more progressive than Gov. Jerry Brown’s were, organized labor sees benefits to the growing number of Democrats in Sacramento, even if some of them come with backing from more conservative business interests.

“We’ve got a good situation with a very pro-worker Legislature in both chambers,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation, a union group.

But he acknowledged that with more Democrats come more factions—and disagreements that may not fall along traditional fault lines that, for example, pit environmentalists versus the oil industry. The gig economy presents new political issues that may divide Democrats next year, as tech companies will likely push to change a court ruling that limits the use of independent contractors, and labor unions work to hold it intact. Some Democrats who are progressive on environmental issues may skew more business-friendly when it comes to pressure from Silicon Valley or charter schools.

“This is not your grandfather’s labor versus business fight any more,” Smith said. “There are all kinds of layers that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”

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

Published in Politics

Sporting starred and striped jackets and Make America Great Again hats, the California Republicans who gathered on election night in the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego were in a remarkably chipper mood.

They cheered when the results came in from Florida, showing the GOP candidate apparently won the narrow race for governor. They lustily booed and jeered when the face of San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, appeared on the monitor.

If the assembled party activists were disappointed by the fact that, closer to home, they had lost their bid for every statewide office in the state, most seemed to take it in stride. Certainly, no one seemed particularly surprised.

Just as the polls predicted, John Cox, California’s Republican candidate for governor, lost the job to Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In fact, none of the five Republicans vying for statewide office this year won their races. In the contests for the two remaining statewide offices and the U.S. Senate, a Republican candidate didn’t even make it onto the general election ballot. That leaves GOP voters without a single statewide representative for the third election cycle running.

Adding insult to injury, the only right-of-center candidate to mount a realistic statewide campaign was former Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who got as far as he did after ditching the Republican brand entirely and running as a political independent.

With votes still being counted, Democrats also were within striking distance of reclaiming supermajorities in both the state Assembly and the Senate.

Maybe most painful of all was the fate of Proposition 6. This was the effort to repeal a recent increase in the gas tax—or, at the very least, to tap into the California voters’ historic dislike of higher taxes and expensive commutes, and convince them to once again vote Republican. The measure failed, and Republicans were quick to blame the defeat of Prop 6 on Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat whose office was responsible for writing the text describing the measure on the ballot.

“A lot of people are going to wake up tomorrow very angry because they were tricked,” said San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric. He pointed to polling that showed voters approved of repealing the gas tax, but not Proposition 6. (An alternative explanation offered by Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare: Voters approve of the low gas taxes in concept, but worried about the specific consequences of repeal).

“We won on the issue,” insisted Carl DeMaio, who chaired the “Yes on 6” campaign. The lesson he took from the election wasn’t that the message itself was flawed, but that the party simply needs to fight harder.

“Every single election, every single race, we are going to make the fraudulently stolen gas-tax-repeal initiative a main issue in regular elections, and, yes, I predict, a couple recall elections very soon,” he said to the crowd. DeMaio has vowed to recall Becerra, as well as Democratic state Sens. Anthony Portantino and Richard Roth. He then led the crowd in a cheer: “We will fight!”

It was a cheer of defiance in the face of the declining fortunes for the GOP. That, of course, is not a new story. Earlier this year, Republican registration among California voters dipped below those of political independents, making the party of Ronald Reagan the state’s third-most-popular political affiliation, behind Democrat and “no thanks.”

But as national Republicans secured their grip on the U.S. Senate while surrendering control of the House, for California Republicans, the 2018 midterms feel like a new low.

It’s been more than 130 years since Californians replaced a Democratic governor with another Democratic governor. And while Gov. Jerry Brown was a fiscal conservative by Sacramento standards, Newsom can be considered the stuff of Republican nightmares: a San Francisco progressive who supports single-payer healthcare, picks Twitter fights with the president and has flirted with the idea of reforming Proposition 13, the property-tax-capping ballot measure that helped give birth to the modern conservative movement and the Reagan revolution.

“This will be the third time that higher taxes have won as an argument at the ballot in California,” said Bill Whalen, a former speechwriter for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30’s “millionaire’s tax” and then voted to extend it again four years later.

The fact that the average California voter elected not just to stick it to millionaires this time, but agreed to pay higher taxes at the pump, might suggest that “taxes are not the third rail” of California politics that they once were, he said.

“I think Republicans forgot that it’s not 1978 anymore,” added Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, referring to the year that voters approved Prop 13 by a nearly 30-point margin. “That was a different time and a different electorate.”

For sure, California has changed a lot over the last 30 years. But even as the state has become more ethnically and racially diverse, the profile of the typical Republican voter has stayed relatively static: relatively white, old and affluent. Fortunately for the state GOP, this is the same demographic niche that most predictably turns out to vote. But in the absence of a message that might begin to convince Democrats and independents to switch parties, that may only postpone the inevitable. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, millennial voters are more likely than their elders to identify themselves as liberals, favor single-payer healthcare, and oppose the president. 

“This is a failing franchise,” said Whalen. He argued that the state party has two fundamental problems: “message and messengers.”

Cox put the blame for whatever messaging shortcomings his own campaign experienced on the press, at least in part.

“I wanted to have a dialogue and a discussion about what we needed to do to get rid of that money in politics,” he said. “At some point in time, the message has got to get out, and it’s got to be the media.”

But according to Whalen, the party put itself at a disadvantage when the most-prominent state Republican on this year’s ballot, Cox, was relatively unknown to most California voters prior to the final months of the campaign. Those further down on the ballot were—and likely still are—largely anonymous to all but the most politically engaged. With the exception of Steven Bailey, the retired El Dorado County judge who ran for attorney general, none of the party’s statewide candidates had experience in elected office.

“You’re counting on rookie quarterbacks to lead you to the Super Bowl,” said Whalen.

But even where experienced Republican political leaders do exist in California—city, county and congressional representatives increasingly concentrated in the exurbs and rural stretches away from the state’s populated coasts—it’s tough to convince an all-star player to join a team with such a lousy track record. A Republican hasn’t won statewide since 2006. And one of those candidates was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rare “international movie star willing to run for office,” said Pitney. “But that bracket seems empty right now.”

In the lead up to the June primary election, state party insiders at least thought they’d finally settled on an appealing message.

“I’m telling every candidate: When you run for office, you should come out … with, ‘Repeal the gas tax,’ and, ‘Oppose the sanctuary state,’” Krvaric told CALmatters earlier this year.

But as late as of this spring, the majority of Californians said they support state policies to protect undocumented immigrants.

Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and the author of State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, says that the state already tried that political line in the 1990s. In 1994, state voters passed Prop 187, a ballot measure that would have stripped undocumented immigrants of state services had it not been struck down by the courts.

“That was when we should have been paying attention to how to restructure our economy instead of turning inward and blaming other people for the problems that we had,” he said. While the nation as a whole may now be having its own “Prop 187 moment,” brought on in part by national demographic trends that mirror California’s a few decades back, voters here have “wisened up from that experience,” he said.

As for the gas-tax message, which Cox made one of the cornerstones of his campaign, the election results speak for themselves. The gap between the preferences of the state party’s base and those of the average voter seem increasingly impossible to bridge. And yet that is precisely the task before any Republican candidate who hopes to compete statewide.

Cox faced his own version of this challenge with his on-again, off-again relationship with the president over the last year. In 2016, Cox, famously, did not vote for Trump, instead casting his ballot for the libertarian Gary Johnson. But in a lead-up to the June primary, Cox noticeably warmed to the commander-in-chief, touting their biographical similarities and their mutual support for a southern border wall. It was the president’s endorsement that helped Cox secure a place on the general-election ballot.

But once Cox found himself competing for a wider electoral audience, he began doing his best to distance himself from Trump’s more-controversial policies and tweets, but without offending the president’s many supporters. “I’m not running for president,” he has said, employing a defense popular among Republicans across the state, and country.

The state party won’t have an easy time distancing itself from Washington, D.C., anytime soon, even if it wanted to, said Graeme Boushey, a political science professor at the UC Irvine.

“With a national GOP that has itself moved toward more-extreme politics, it’s hard for the state GOP to escape that shadow,” he said. Politics are increasingly nationalized, he continued. Many voters don’t know who represents them in Sacramento, or even in Congress, but they do know who the president is, and to which party he belongs.

Given the president’s political instinct to appeal to his base (a base that increasingly does not look like California) and not the electorate as a whole, that puts the state GOP in a bind, he said. “If that’s going to be the argument that the party has for the next 10 years, I don’t know that the Republican party nationally, and certainly not in California, can sustain that.”

Once again shutout from statewide office, some of the California candidates said they hope to instead to advance conservative policy in California through ballot measures.

Voters “don’t want anything with an ‘R’ next to its name,” said Konstantinos Roditis, the candidate for controller who had the “R” next to his name. “If we want to make change in California that people want, the best way, I believe, is to do it through the initiative process.”

Both he and the candidate for treasurer, Greg Conlon, discussed the possibility of putting a state proposition on the ballot aimed at reducing California’s public-sector pension liability as soon as 2020.

“Our positions are not really Republican; they’re really bipartisan, because the people want it,” said Roditis. “Democrats in Sacramento don’t want it.”

In the short term, the California Republican Party’s greatest hopes for broader political relevance may lie with the governor-elect. Many Republicans believe that Californians will tire of Democratic rule if and when Newsom begins to push through the many ambitious and expensive policies he’s promised on the campaign trail.

The lesson of the last few elections is that Californians have a modest appetite for certain taxes, said Jack Citrin, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has written about the politics of the California tax revolt. “It doesn’t mean that Californians are ready to embrace all kinds of higher taxes,” he said. “I would bet you that if you put Proposition 13 on the ballot as it applies to homeowners, it would pass again easily.”

A recession, and the budget crunch that would likely follow, could result in a similar political backlash. “You can’t sit around and wait for the revolution,” said Whalen. “But I would not get too far down the road with grim prophecies. Things can change quickly in politics.”

Think back to 1974. In the midterm elections after the Watergate hearings and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the state Republican Party lost five seats in a once-in-a-generation electoral pummeling. But six years later, Ronald Reagan, another Californian, ran for president and won.

“This Republican Party will be back in this state,” Cox said, “and our path to success is going to be based upon delivering the quality of life that people need so desperately.”

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

Published in Politics

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