California's top 2012 political stories

2:50 PM, Dec 29, 2012   |    comments
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When it comes to making a list of big political stories, 2012 offered an embarrassment of riches in the Golden State.

Big electoral stakes.  Important policy debates.  A boatload of cash spent on campaigns large and small.

So without further ado, the stories that stand out as the biggest stars of the year.

10. Money, Money, Money: Final numbers aren't in, and even when they are it may be hard to truly put an official stamp on all of the cash spent on California politics in 2012. But a number of observers now believe that the final tally is probably going to be north of a mind-boggling $500 million.

The notion that a record breaking campaign cash season would be news is, well, naïve. Every year, political campaigns spend more and more money - advertisements, polling, advisers, and more always cost cash. California's big bucks bonanza was driven by a number of factors, some of them probably unique to 2012. The changing election rules - independent redistricting, new primary rules - meant more competition and that always means more spending. Meantime, five ballot measures - June's Proposition 29, November's Proposition 30, Proposition 32, Proposition 38, and Proposition 39 - all combined to push spending to record levels. And then there was more mystery money than ever before, with this being the first full election cycle in the wake of 2010's U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling - thus removing the hurdles to unlimited spending by corporations and so-called Super-PACs.

The high Court ruling also meant more money across the country funneled through non-profit organizations that legally hide their donors. And that almost prompted a #11 on this list - the $11 million mysterious donation funneled through an Arizona group from two other groups and finally into a conservative California PAC trying to pass Prop 32 and kill Prop 30. The money became just what Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown wanted, and conservative politicos feared: an out-of-state bogeyman that directed attention towards the shadows of political strategy and away from the larger issues faced by voters.

9. Razor Thin Races: We saw some very close California contests in 2012, from the statewide ballot to regional races. In June, the tobacco tax increase Proposition 29 ended up losing by 24,076 votes out of more than 5 million cast. In November, Rep.-elect Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, won his rematch with veteran GOP incumbent Dan Lungren in a newly drawn Sacramento area district by just 9,191 votes. And while a handful of legislative races also went down to the wire, none were more surprising than the victory eeked out by new Assemblyman Steve Fox, D-Antelope Valley. Fox, and just about everyone else, was convinced that Republican Ron Smith had won the race -- that is, until the weekend before the Dec. 3 swearing-in of the new Legislature. That's when Fox's cell phone rang, with Democratic officials telling him that the final Los Angeles County vote count had given him a squeaker of a win... by 145 votes.

8. Secret State Parks Cash: It was a long, hot summer for those who work in and support California state parks. Revelations of $54 million stashed away in two separate accounts since at least 1993, even as recent state budget cuts forced some parks to close, led to the resignation of parks director Ruth Coleman and her top aides. It also was a bit of a black eye for those asking for additional taxes on the November ballot. 2012 comes to an end with an investigation still pending by the state attorney general, and with the biggest question of all still unanswered: why? Even if someone wanted to, the money couldn't have been spent without the express permission of the Legislature.

7. The Changing Electorate: For years, the people who actually show up to cast a ballot in California elections have been older, less ethnically diverse, and more conservative than the state as a whole. Political science and election researchers have been waiting (and wondering) for the seemingly disengaged Californians to show up, and in November they finally did. While overall voter turnout was not a record, the percentage of votes cast by young and/or ethnic voters looks to have been impressive. Pollsters say these voters are either more liberal, or just more willing to put value in government being a force for good, than their elder counterparts. It also looks like a number of these voters joined the ranks through California's new online voter registration system -- the creation of which was itself a political notable from 2012.

6. The Deepening Republican Recession: Those new voters may have only made matters worse for California's Grand Old Party. For those who have watched voter registration data over the last decade, it's hard to be surprised that California is now about the darkest shade of electoral blue that it's ever been. And if trends continue, there could soon be fewer Republicans in the Golden State than independent voters. Only 29 percent of voters are now formally aligned with the GOP, compared to 35 percent in 2004 and almost 37 percent in 2006. Democrats, too, have also lost registration as the trend towards "no party preference" continues; but only Republicans have paid a political price. The state party has now spent the better part of two decades on internal fights over social and immigration issues, the very kind of stances that have made its brand a tough sell with voters under the age of 34, and Latinos. Expectations are that 2013 will be a major year for California GOP soul searching.

5. High Speed Rail Leaves the Station: Score this one of the big 2012 wins (but not the biggest) for Jerry Brown, as it was his arm twisting that kept California's bullet train plans on track for breaking ground on actual construction in 2013. Not only did Brown bring in new leadership at the state high speed rail agency, leadership that helped lower the overall price tag by some $30 billion, but the governor used the full power of his bully pulpit to declare the project part of California's legacy of big thinking. And then, in private meeting after meeting during the summer Capitol legislative denouement, Brown convinced Democrats to authorize billions in voter approved 2008 bonds for the project. But high speed rail faces it biggest challenges in the years to come, especially from a GOP dominated Congress that seems intent on cutting off the federal cash flow that California needs to complete the north-to-south railway.

4. Proposition 32: The effects of Prop 32's political slugfest could be felt everywhere in California political circles in 2012. This was the third time (three strikes and you're out, perhaps?) that conservative foes of organized labor have tried to downsize the unions' political strength in the Golden State. But unlike the 1998 and 2005 failed ballot measures, Prop 32 was designed in a way that it could be ostensibly marketed as broad-based political reform. Nonetheless, it was really an attempt to weaken labor's political hand. And so like the earlier attempts, it unleashed a union barrage of money and manpower that ultimately prevailed. Prop 32's chances were weakened substantially by Democratic legislation in 2011 that moved all initiatives onto fall, general election ballots - thus avoiding the low turnout June election where conservative voters would have dominated and the initiative may have passed. It's also widely believed that the political tidal wave of organized labor opposition to Prop 32 helped lift both Gov. Brown's Prop 30 and several teetering Democratic candidates to eventual victory.

3. Democrats Dominate: You'll have to forgive Democrats if they've seemed downright giddy in the weeks since November 6. After all, who wouldn't do an end-zone dance after winning just about every big race of the year... and then some? You have to go back to 1933 to find a time that one party held more power in Sacramento (and back then it was Republicans). Now, Democrats have secured a firm grip on all the levers of power: the governorship, all statewide elected offices, and a brand new supermajority of both the state Senate and Assembly. The final part of that political muscle - the Legislature - was one of the biggest surprises of the November 2012 elections. 54 seats in the Assembly was a goal that was expected to remain just out of Democratic reach. But when the votes were counted, cast by perhaps the most Democratic-friendly electorate in years, California's top political party ended up with 55 seats in the Assembly and 29 in the Senate. What Democrats do with that power remains to be seen, but the achievement was one of 2012's biggest stories.

2. Electoral Change Sweeps the State: A series of recent electoral changes, some with broad support but others a product of clever politics, seemed to have reshape the California political landscape in 2012. The biggest were enacted by voters: independent redistricting in 2008 and 2010, the top two primary in 2010, and a change this past June to relax legislative term limits. Redistricting and primary changes pushed a record number of incumbents out of office, and may have further strengthened the political muscle of fast growing blocs of ethnic and independent voters . The new lawmakers elected under those rules to the Legislature are now eligible to keep that job for 12 years -- a change that could mean governance changes under the Capitol dome, changes reformers hope will be for the better. Meantime, the political cunning award of the year probably goes to legislative Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown for the earlier mentioned election law change moving all future initiative and referendum measures to general elections in November. That change was a big deal in the 2012 cycle, but it could also mean big future changes for California's famous system of direct democracy.

1. Jerry Brown Pulls Off Game Changing Tax Win: It's hard to overstate the importance, in both policy and politics, of Gov. Jerry Brown's successful Proposition 30 tax campaign. From a policy standpoint, Prop 30 is a major part of the existing state budget. Its failure would have triggered $6 billion in automatic cuts, largely focused on education, as well as big fiscal holes in the near future. Politically, eight straight tax increase propositions had been rejected by voters before Brown convinced them -- largely, by fear of those trigger cuts to education -- to accept this one. It also undoubtedly silenced critics of Brown's political acumen, who had grumbled about the convoluted negotiations that produced Prop 30 in late 2011 and early 2012, the private battles with the wealthy backer of rival tax hike Proposition 38, and the seemingly delayed start by Team Brown of its fall campaign. The victory also makes clear that Brown is strongly positioned for whatever policy agenda he chooses in 2013 and a 2014 reelection effort, should he choose to run. Neither an insurgent Democrat, nor a still-impossible-to-fathom viable Republican challenger would be able to find much of a crack in his political armor. For now, at least.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been modified from its original version, which made an incorrect comparison to the size of the campaign money that's believed to have been spent in 2012. --JM


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