Super (meh)jority

How the election changed the course of California politics



California Democrats woke the morning of Nov. 7 to a world utterly without limits: Tax hikes? Sure. The ability to override governor vetoes? That too. Cooperation enough to pass a balanced budget on time? Maybe. The power to push forward high speed rail? Likely. The will to repeal Proposition 13 and restore the Golden State to its former glory? Keep dreaming.

The new Democratic supermajority has big implications for the state and the country, but the ability to break through partisan gridlock for once is far from a panacea. The two-thirds majority that Democrats won perhaps says more about the future of the nation than the future of the state. UC Davis political scientist and director of the University of California Center Sacramento, Robert Huckfeldt, said it’s fair to call California a bellwether.

“We’re certainly one of the more diverse states in the country,” Huckfeldt said, “and clearly the country as a whole is headed in that direction.”

In other words, Latinos, Asians, people of color, and women turned the state bright blue, and they also kept Barack Obama in the White House.

Though many seats were won by slim, slim margins—in four districts Democratic candidates wrested control from Republican incumbents with one percent or less of the vote—there were plenty of reasons for Democrats to be optimistic heading into the election; the momentum of changing demographics played a role, and so did redistricting. Just ask Sam Blakeslee, the popular Republican incumbent, who represents the 15th District, which includes SLO County. In the face of a newly drawn district, which included more liberal areas, Blakeslee simply decided not to run.  His Senate seat was one of six across the state that swapped Republican representation for Democratic. Blakeslee wasn’t immediately available for comment, but he announced almost a year ago that he wouldn’t try to keep his seat. Other outcomes were much more difficult to predict.

Even for Sacramento insiders, the Nov. 6 sweep of both California houses was as surprising as it is uncommon. The Republicans were the last to hold such a position, in the 1930s, and the Democrats haven’t enjoyed such a concentration of power in more than a century. The two-thirds majority Democrats won in the state Senate was a known possibility, but in the Assembly, where every single seat was put to a vote, the Republican losses were crippling and unexpected.

“A lot of people thought the Senate had a good shot at the two-thirds,” Huckfeldt said, “but they were genuinely surprised. … None of them saw the Assembly coming.”

So what does this all mean? It means the Democrats could raise taxes without requiring cooperation from Republicans, and that’s the big fear. With the Republican Party relegated to symbolic votes, all that’s left is a veto by the governor to keep wily liberals from taxing us back to the ’70s. But wait—the party can now override a veto, too.

Gov. Jerry Brown addressed this, too, in a post-election wrap-up. Brown has been known to use his veto power liberally, and he’s also vowed to bring any tax increases to a popular vote.

“I made a pledge when I ran for governor two years ago,” Brown said, “that I would tell the truth … level with the people; seek a vote of the people before any new taxes.”

And this brings up one of the more interesting possibilities in the state Legislature: Without a credible opposition party, Brown might be called on to keep his own party in check, and ironically, the more powerful his party becomes, the less structural power he has. Brown tried to keep the press conference light, though he was asked point blank if he would veto a tax hike from his own party.

“I have more experience with veto overrides than any other governor,” Brown joked.

He basically said he didn’t want to be confrontational at that time, adding this is a “time of celebration.”

“To his downside and his credit,” Huckfeldt said, “[Brown is] a real maverick, very independent, and he doesn’t take orders from anybody. … And he made a pledge to the people, and I don’t see any reason to renege on that.”

Anyway, just because they can raise taxes, doesn’t mean they will.

“It would be political suicide for them,” Huckfeldt said.

In California, a supermajority can bring forward constitutional amendments, but they have to be ratified by a popular vote. This means that Proposition 13, for all the chaos it’s brought to the state, is probably safe. The one exception, Huckfeldt said, was the possibility of axing the tax break for commercial properties. That notion has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, and the Legislature could conceivably bring an amendment to the ballot.

Brown laid out his own priorities under the super majority as rethinking “regulations” to “encourage jobs as well as protect other aspects of the public interest, like the environment, health, and good working conditions.”

He also wanted to address water security, high-speed rail, education, and the budget. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg also said he wants to take on the initiative process, which has largely become a venue for special interests and big business, and pushed out individuals and most citizen coalitions.

So what about the state Republicans? The California Republican Party didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Katcho Achadjian, a local Republican assemblyman, who just defended his own seat in the Assembly, would only offer the following statement: “The Democrat supermajorities in both houses give the majority party a historic opportunity to lead. As someone who has always worked on a bipartisan manner, I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to do what is best for all Californians.”

Achadjian, by the way, kept his seat with a landslide vote. Elsewhere in SLO County, things are changing. In 2008, a majority of SLO County residents voted for the Democratic candidate—for the first time since Lyndon Johnson. President Obama came out on top this year, too, winning 49 percent of the county’s votes. Statewide, Obama won by 59 percent, which is to say SLO’s still got a strong red streak, but there’s movement to the left. So what about Katcho and his ilk?

“I think there is a fundamental change that’s happening in American society, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” Huckfeldt said. “It’s tough for people to get used to the idea that it’s not a white Anglo-Saxon culture anymore; that’s not what we’re about anymore.

“I don’t think it’s like a turning point as much as an evolutionary point,” Huckfeldt said. “Everybody says, ‘What’s going to happen to the Republican Party?’ Well, they’re going to adapt, ’cause parties adapt; parties figure out ways to win elections.”

In some ways, Achadjian may be the new face of the Republican Party. Sure, he’s an older male, but he’s also an immigrant, and not strictly white Anglo-Saxon, and he’s still here.

Freelancer Kylie Mendonca can be reached via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at

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