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Analysis: Legislature's Democrats are not a monolith

February 1, 2013 |  7:00 am

In the popular telling it’s touchdown time for Democrats in Sacramento -- now fortified with a two-thirds majority -- allowing the power-mad party to run unfettered through the halls of the Legislature, passing a fantasia of liberal initiatives: Higher taxes! More debt! More regulation! Free Love!

It’s the stuff of Republican nightmares, not to mention direct-mail solicitations, which prey on a combination of fear and ignorance (alarmism being the coin of the realm).

Don’t buy it.

There are procedural as well as practical advantages to the Democrats’ unprecedented clout, not least the ability to confirm Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees in the Senate without a Republican whimper. But the Assembly presents a far different dynamic than the upper chamber. There the two-thirds majority is wispy as the paper it’s written on.

For starters, the 55-25 Democratic margin is likely to shrink, at least temporarily, in the next few months due to a series of vacancies stemming from members leaving the Assembly to move on or up. (Even if, as expected, Democrats hold onto those seats in special elections, it will be months before the new members are sworn in and the party gets back to full strength.)

More significant, the fanatical-two-thirds scenario ignores an important fact: Assembly Democrats are far from an ideological monolith.

“With that many Democrats, you cannot elect 55 San Francisco Democrats to the state Legislature,” said Allan Hoffenblum, whose nonpartisan Target Book is the bible of California election analysis. He counts at least nine Assembly Democrats, mainly from Orange County, the San Fernando Valley and Inland Empire, who are far from lockstep party-line votes, especially on business and fiscal matters.

(Topping the list: the Antelope Valley’s Steve Fox, a Republican-turned-Democrat who narrowly snuck into a seat the GOP took for granted and, by all rights, should have easily won. Running unsuccessfully in the 2008 Republican primary, Fox advocated, among other things, confiscating the property of illegal immigrants to “pay for their own deportation.”)

Indeed, the greatest friction in Sacramento over the next two years is likely to occur between the two legislative houses and along the left-center-left spectrum of the Democratic Party, with the state’s triangulating governor serving as a sort of arbiter.

The competition is likely to pit labor-backed, socially liberal Democrats representing sea-blue coastal districts against more business-friendly, culturally conservative Democrats representing the faintly purple-ish interior of the state.

The one-party Democrat command of the state may not be ideal. For all the recent reforms, including a fair-and-square redrawing of the state’s political boundaries, millions of Californians who register Republican or sympathize with the party and its principles may grow even more estranged from Sacramento. That’s not healthy from a good-government perspective.

“When you undercut that trust, it makes people suspicious about raising taxes, upping investment in infrastructure, suspicious of whether money’s being wasted,” said Stanford professor Bruce Cain, a longtime student of California politics. “It undermines the confidence you need to build public service.”

Gone are the days, in both Sacramento and Washington, when pragmatic lawmakers on both sides would push off their party extremes and find compromise somewhere near the political center.

But until the California Republican Party recovers from years of self-inflicted damage and has the strength and resolve to engage in Sacramento, it may be as good as it gets — unless Democrats add to their margins in 2014, which, given the demographic direction of the state, is not out of the question.

Then the GOP may look back fondly on these days of comparative Democratic constraint.


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 -- Mark Z. Barabak