CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Anthony York, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.
A New Political Era
The biggest surprise of this election season was not the ease with which Gov. Jerry Brown sailed to reelection, or the pounding that doctors, labor and other groups put on Proposition 46 and the state trial lawyers. It came from an Assembly District on the north end of the San Fernando Valley, where one of the top contenders to be the next Speaker of the Assembly lost his race to a community activist.
The victory of Patty Lopez over incumbent Raul Bocanegra is a parable for a new era of California politics.
Over the last two years, Bocanegra made a name for himself as a rising star in the Assembly Democratic caucus. He was a prolific fundraiser, raising more than $600,000 this year alone, according to campaign finance records. As the former chief of staff to his predecessor, Felipe Fuentes, Bocanegra also understands Sacramento and how the Capitol operates.
Bocanegra was giving money in competitive primaries, and touring the state to help raise money and walk precincts for embattled Democrats. This is standard operating procedure for members with leadership ambitions.
But here’s where the story becomes a parable for the new era of state politics. Lopez, like Bocanegra, is a Democrat. Thanks to the state’s new election laws, the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation advance to the fall runoff.
The real lesson here is that in a state Assembly district that is home to nearly half a million people, but where less than 50,000 people cast votes in the state Assembly race, anything can happen. That’s especially true when voters have very little information about the candidate, whether or not they are an incumbent.
Bocanegra won an expensive and hard-fought race two years ago against former state Senator and Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alarcon – another Democrat vs. Democrat affair. Apparently, as we know now, that race was a referendum on Alarcon, who was wrestling with legal problems at the time.
From now on, whenever a Democratic incumbent faces a challenge from a fellow Democrat, there will be a campaign to run. Even if the challenger is a virtual unknown, the incumbent will be forced to spend money to shore up his or her political base. That is the lingering lesson from Bocanegra’s defeat.
In the meantime, Lopez heads to Sacramento in what is one of the greatest legislative political upsets in California in a generation.
Lopez and the rest of her fellow lawmakers will come back to Sacramento ready to fight some of the old battles of the last several years. Already, we are anticipating another push from nurse practitioners in the type of scope-of-practice turf war that has become commonplace in the Legislature. That, along with a number of hot button issues are sure to make for an eventful year under The Dome.
New members take the oath of office on Dec. 1, and bill introductions begin after the New Year. There will surely be eyes on trial attorney front group Consumer Watchdog to see if and how they follow up on any issues lingering after the handed defeat of Prop. 46.
On the Senate side, new president pro tem Kevin de Leon continues to solidify his grip on the reins of power with a first step of helping to harness the Senate budget, dismissing dozens of Senate staffers who had worked under Sen. Darrell Steinberg.
De Leon said the cuts were a necessity to trim operational costs. Among those laid off were employees in the Senate Office of Research and members of the policy unit, who worked to analyze legislation coming to the Senate floor.
One thing is for certain – 2015 is shaping up to be an interesting year. We’ll have a lot to watch for starting in December.