“Nation needs cheaper way to find the worst people,” headlines a column last year from New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz. Those of us who recoil at voting either for a game-show host with a Mussolini complex or a dour Leninist can bemoan our choices this year. But we can’t complain that the election is meaningless or boring. Voters can take some solace: We at least get to choose between two distinct types of awful.
Compare that to our fate in one-party California. After 23 years in the U.S. Senate, Democrat Barbara Boxer is retiring. This marks “the end of a political career that has come to embody Bay Area liberalism,” reported the Los Angeles Times last year. Boxer hails from Marin County, the wealthy growth-controlled suburbs north of the Golden Gate Bridge, so it’s no surprise she epitomizes San Francisco’s particular brand of “progressivism.”
Actually, the Senate race is more like a coronation. California is a Democratic stronghold, of course, but it’s home to different types of liberals. San Francisco and Marin showcase the fixations of wealthy Anglos. There’s the Southern California variety, which is all about Latino activism. Democrats in Sacramento and the East Bay (Oakland, Contra Costa County) wear the union label. The Central Valley’s Democrats are “moderates” by California standards, which means they feign concern about business and farm issues.
This rare Senate opening was supposed to spark a frenzy, but that never materialized. The Democratic leadership anointed Attorney General Kamala Harris to replace Boxer. Former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, still a powerful figure within party circles, warned former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to step aside while he was mulling a run.
“This could be passed off as Willie Brown just being his old, flamboyant self, or it could be an indication that Bay Area Democratic leaders — a group not so affectionately described by Southern Californians as ‘the San Francisco Mafia’ — want to hand the job to Harris right now,” reported David Horsey, in the Los Angeles Times. It’s no doubt the latter, although Orange County’s erratic Democratic congresswoman Loretta Sanchez threw her hat in the ring.
The race has 34 candidates, but the bottom 29 barely register on the polls. Tuesday night’s debate featured the five credible candidates: Harris, Sanchez, wealthy Republican entrepreneur Ron Unz, and former GOP party chairmen Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro. Polling shows Harris far out in front with 34.3 percent, followed by Sanchez with 10.2 percent. Unz, a recent entry, polls at 9.4 percent, with Sundheim at 5.7 percent and Del Beccaro at 4.8 percent. The latter two struggle to raise significant funding.
In 2010, California voters approved Proposition 14. This created a top-two “jungle primary,” in which the primaries are open to voters from all parties. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, face off in the general election. It was designed to force candidates to court all voters, and thereby lead to the election of more moderates to various offices. The system has further marginalized an already nonexistent state GOP.
In the old system, the Republicans would battle it out for the pleasure of getting obliterated in the general election. In this system, the battle is for second place. Most observers expect Sanchez to grab that spot, and then she will probably lose to Harris in the general. Policy-wise, though, the difference between Harris and Sanchez is negligible.
Regarding the Republicans, Unz authored 1998’s Proposition 227, which largely banned bilingual education — read: Spanish-only education for immigrant kids — from the state’s public-school system. It was one of the state’s most successful education reforms. So, naturally, the state’s Democratic leaders decided to put a repeal on the November ballot.
Unz expects to lose the Senate race, but he’s using it as a platform to oppose the ballot initiative. Unfortunately, he has been spending a lot of time talking about something else: His desire to raise the national minimum wage. He argues that higher-wage jobs would lure more legal applicants and would thus reduce the pressure on businesses to bring in low-wage, immigrant workers. It’s a loopy argument, given that those living in the country illegally work in the underground economy — and a boosted minimum wage will cause many jobs to evaporate.
As far as the other Republicans, Del Beccaro is a thoughtful, traditional conservative, which explains why he’s polling at under 5 percent. “I got into the race because I’m tired that Republicans can’t explain how prosperity is created in America,” he told me. He’s doing a good job explaining such things — but no one appears to be listening.
Sundheim’s more liberal positions leave many of us speechless. At the debate, he chastised Harris for not working hard enough to confiscate guns under the Armed Prohibited Persons Act. Under that program, state Department of Justice agents go to the homes of people who legally purchased weapons — but no longer are allowed to own them. APPS was the brainchild of Republicans, who wanted to show how tough they are on criminals.
But as I’ve reported for the San Diego Union-Tribune, gun-rights groups and even the state auditor found the list to be 30 percent to 60 percent inaccurate. It’s not so much a list of criminals who haven’t turned in guns, but of regular folks who, say, were named in a restraining order during a divorce and didn’t fill out the right form to get their rights restored. The system creates the infrastructure for eventual gun confiscation.
Harris gets a free ride, but she’s not exactly a towering figure. Her tenure as attorney general is marred by accusations of outrageous partisanship. A close ally of unions, she gave a title and summary to a proposed statewide pension reform initiative that “read like talking points taken straight from a public employee union boss’ campaign handbook,” according to the liberal Sacramento Bee.
She’s always eager to throw the muscle of the state behind the progressive cause du jour — whether it’s investigating the videographers who spotlighted Planned Parenthood’s body-parts practices or whether an oil company misled people about climate change.
She was slapped down in federal court last month in one of her most egregious witch-hunts. Harris had demanded that nonprofits release the names of their donors in order to be allowed to operate in California. For obvious reasons, the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation didn’t trust her with the information. The policy “chills the exercise of (the group’s) First Amendment freedoms to speak anonymously and to engage in expressive association,” ruled the judge. Harris said she will appeal the decision.
Oddly enough, Sanchez has been courting conservative voters. She calls herself a “blue dog Democrat” who takes moderate positions, but her voting record is that of a doctrinaire liberal. Still, she’s used to operating in a conservative county, so she has been touting her national-security credentials. She’s even stuck by her statement that 5 percent to 20 percent of Muslims support a Caliphate. Sanchez — known for sending out risqué Christmas cards — has a style that might be more appealing in a year of Donald Trump.
The bottom line, however, is there’s basically no chance Harris will lose. And if, on a fluke, she does — it most likely will be to another Democrat whose views aren’t noticeably different from hers. (Some cynical Republicans prefer Harris for Senate, given that it will at least get her out of California, where she can do far less damage.) This lack of choice is common in most elections here. If you’re feeling sorry for yourself in the presidential race, save a little pity for Californians.
Steven Greenhut is a Sacramento-based columnist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.