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California Politics: A new party’s pragmatic pitch

Voting stickers at a polling place in Los Angeles in 2020.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Even in these deeply polarized times, millions of California voters refuse to pick sides between the nation’s two most powerful political parties. And it’s those voters whom the leaders of the California Common Sense Party want to reach.

The start-up effort to break the two-party orthodoxy is being organized by a pair of former California lawmakers who spent much of their time in office as ideological misfits. Their goal is to appeal to voters who place value in collaboration, compromise and pragmatism.

“We’re looking for character,” said Tom Campbell, a former state senator and member of Congress who serves as the party’s chairman. “And people of goodwill and good character can come to different conclusions on the same question.”

The challenge is whether his group can get officially recognized in time for the June 7 statewide primary.

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A Common Sense Party for California

Campbell’s career in Republican politics ended in 2010 with a failed U.S. Senate primary campaign — as his centrist Republican views were drowned out by the rise of the tea party movement and the eventual election of former President Trump in 2016.

Campbell left the party that year, writing in a newspaper op-ed that a Republican embrace of Trump instead of “a candidate for president worthy of our country’s past and its unbounded future” would force him to re-register as an independent voter. But in the years since, he latched onto the idea of a political party that would welcome differences of opinion and whose members would value the pursuit of common ground.

The effort is also being led by former San Francisco state Sen. Quentin Kopp and former state Commerce Secretary Julie Meier Wright. The party’s name is no accident, of course, as the group references the American Revolution-era writings of Thomas Paine on its website.

California election officials currently recognize six political parties for purposes of candidates seeking office, with Democrats and Republicans joined by the American Independent Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Peace and Freedom Party. Only three other parties have ever had full status in California in the past quarter-century — all three ultimately failed to retain enough registered voters.

The existing parties have detailed platforms calling for specific policies that are generally to the established left or right on the political spectrum. The Common Sense Party, on the other hand, promises plenty of room for diversity of thought as long as it’s in the service of getting things done.

Party chairman Tom Campbell served in the California Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Tom Campbell, chair of the Common Sense Party.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We seek to put people in office who will be driven by facts, will work across partisan divides, will be open to principled compromise, and will show a commitment to solving California’s complex problems,” the party writes on its website.

So is this just a bunch of unhappy Republicans? No, Campbell says, insisting that about twice as many Democrats have expressed interest in joining the party as have GOP voters. And Kopp served his time in the Legislature as an independent.

A party for any candidate

Perhaps the most radical idea, at least by today’s politics, is the Common Sense Party’s pledge to back a candidate of another party if they have no candidate in the race and the person demonstrates, as the party’s website says, “an independence that is responsible, open and inclusive.”

The effort shares some of its political DNA with the idea behind California’s “top-two” primary, an effort many thought would elect more centrist lawmakers. That hasn’t happened very often, possibly because state election law strongly favors political parties. Campbell’s group rightly points out that parties are allowed to raise large sums of money to win elections, while independent “no party preference” candidates are limited to the relatively small donation limits for individual contributors.

Which brings us to whether the Common Sense Party can compete this year. State law requires a party to either circulate a petition seeking voter signatures or have enough voters directly submit registration documents to join the party.

Campbell’s group went the route of registering voters — and state election law requires a number equal to 0.33% of the total number of registered voters. That would normally be about 72,600 voters, but the law also requires excluding unaffiliated voters in the calculation. That would bring the number down to 56,000 voter registrations (there’s some irony in the swelling ranks of non-party voters actually making it easier to create a new party).

Organizers say they’ve turned in about 66,000 voter registration forms. But Secretary of State Shirley Weber has delayed her announcement on qualification until Feb. 22, several weeks after candidates have launched campaigns and started lining up donors.

Campbell says while several local elected officials are ready to run as Common Sense candidates, they won’t take the plunge until they know the party has qualified. That’s because if it fails, their candidacy would be changed to that of a “no party preference” contender.

“Those candidates tell me, ‘No party preference after my name on the ballot sounds like I don’t care. But I care deeply,’” Campbell said.

Should the Common Sense Party be successful and recruit candidates who win, it could make a little history. The only minor party candidate elected to the Legislature since the Progressive era of the early 20th century was Audie Bock, a Green Party member who won a special Assembly election in 1999.

Newsom’s pandemic popularity

The conventional wisdom, based on news headlines and social media, is that Gov. Gavin Newsom‘s popularity has suffered as his administration has struggled to keep up with the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic. But that’s not what pollsters at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California have found.

Their poll released Wednesday found 56% of those surveyed say Newsom is doing a good job. But look back across his time in office and you find a majority of voters have given him good marks in every PPIC poll since January 2020, before pandemic concerns reached California. Newsom’s worst year in office, by this standard, was his first: Only 44% of adults surveyed approved of his work in polls conducted at the beginning and near the end of 2019.

On Jan. 31, 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a press conference in Los Angeles County
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Republicans have been pretty consistent in their disapproval while Newsom’s large margin of support among Democrats has risen. Independent voters have also warmed up to the governor, with the number of undecideds dropping sharply since 2019 and breaking in Newsom’s favor.

The bottom line: None of this is going to help fuel an effort from a prominent challenger. And the 2022 cycle is starting to look like it could mirror the California gubernatorial reelection blowout wins for Gov. Earl Warren in 1950, Gov. George Deukmejian in 1986 and Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014.

As we wrote in December, Newsom seems to have the stage to himself after his resounding defeat of the recall. Should someone be thinking otherwise, the most recent campaign finance report shows the governor has almost $25 million in the bank.

And speaking of the recall: On Thursday, state officials reported that the final price tag was $200.2 million.

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California politics lightning round

The First Student school bus has a more visible stop sign and red lights to alert drivers.
(James Carbone/Burbank Leader)

— The yellow school bus has become an increasingly rare sight in California. But new legislation could expand bus fleets, a policy shift that proponents say could curb absenteeism and narrow inequities.

— For decades, California law has forbidden the state’s medical board from considering victim statements in decision-making. A new bill in the state Senate could change that.

— Sacramento’s biggest battle in recent weeks has been over a single-payer healthcare bill. This week, the effort came up short.

— Look for legislation in the state Senate that would require school administrators to collect information from parents about guns stored at home and would mandate backpack, locker and car searches if there is a credible threat.

— Nearly three years after Newsom issued an executive order that halted executions in California, the state is accelerating an effort to move incarcerated people off death row and into other prisons.

Gary K. Hart, who served as California’s education secretary under Gov. Gray Davis and championed the creation of charter schools while serving as a state legislator, died last week at age 78.

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