What should California’s Bernie Brigades do now? How should they proceed with the revolution once the Democratic convention formally bestows its nomination on Hillary Clinton?
If Sanders backers (or, for that matter, Clinton supporters) want to involve themselves in politics, there are a number of elections right here in California in which a keystone issue of the socialist’s campaign – breaking the hold that big money has on our system – is effectively on the ballot.
For even as Sanders was thundering against the corrosive role of money in politics and Clinton was condemning the plutocratic consequences of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, corporate money was carving an ever larger role for itself in California politics – California Democratic politics.
FOR THE RECORD
California primary: A June 10 op-ed article on primary results said that Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno resigned to take a government relations job with Chevron. Perea went to work for the pharmaceutical industry.
Over the past two years, oil companies and “education reform” billionaires have been funding campaigns for obliging Democratic candidates running against their more progressive co-partisans under the state’s “top-two” election process. In this week’s primary, independent committees spent at least $24 million, with most of that money flowing to Democrats who opposed Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to halve motorists’ use of fossil fuels by 2030, and a substantial sum going to Democrats who support expanding charter schools.
Six years ago, according to the Associated Press, just one legislative primary race had more than $1 million in outside spending, and four had more than $500,000. This year, eight races saw more than $1 million in such spending, and 15 more than $500,000.
In a heavily Democratic district outside Sacramento, a November state Senate runoff will pit Democratic Assemblyman Bill Dodd, who opposed Brown’s legislation, against former Democratic Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada. Dodd has already benefited from one independent campaign funded by Chevron and other energy companies to the tune of more than $270,000, and from an education reform campaign funded by charter school proponents such as billionaire Eli Broad in the amount of $1.68 million.
In a nearby overwhelmingly Democratic assembly district, two Democratic candidates with strong environmental credentials lost out in this week’s primary to a Republican and a Democrat who benefited from more than $1.2 million from charter school advocates and an additional $650,000 from Chevron, Tesoro, Valero and other oil companies.
A similar dynamic has shaped a San Bernardino Assembly contest in which Democratic incumbent Cheryl Brown has been bolstered by major oil company expenditures in her race against Democrat Eloise Reyes.
These contests reflect the new reality of California politics. Businesses that previously would have backed Republicans – oil companies and real estate investors in particular – have responded to the GOP’s electoral eclipse by shifting their contributions to malleable, more conservative Democrats. These Democrats would not prevail in a closed primary system, but have a better chance than Republicans in a general election because they’re not associated with that toxic – to Californians – brand. (They appeal to some Democratic voters and to some Republican ones, who have no better choice.) In this sense, the top-two system helps corporate interests like Chevron.
In some races, unions and such wealthy environmentalists as Tom Steyer have answered the flood of corporate money with a torrent of their own, but the balance remains heavily weighted toward business.
The combination of this top-two election system with free-flowing outside spending has given rise to a new birth of corporate power in Sacramento, in the form of the self-proclaimed Moderate Caucus of Democrats. Aligning themselves with their Republican colleagues, caucus members have blocked a range of environmental and pro-worker reforms. Late last year, Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno, who’d headed the caucus since 2012, resigned to take a government relations job with Chevron.
So what’s a California Bernie bro – or for that matter, a Hillary sis – to do? Joining together (because the environmental and liberal groups that backed Clinton oppose the Moderate Caucus’ handiwork as much as the Sanderistas do), they should support the progressive legislative candidates whom the oil companies and charter school advocates seek to defeat. They should work to repeal the top-two primary, through which organized money has increased its clout in Sacramento. And they should work to elect a presidential candidate – her name is Clinton – who will appoint justices who will overturn Citizens United.
You say you want a revolution? This would be a good place to start.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect. He is a contributing writer to Opinion.