Late last year, after a group of self-described moderate Democrats successfully watered down a landmark climate change bill pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and fiercely opposed by the oil lobby, a flurry of headlines trumpeted the rise of the so-called Mod Squad in Sacramento.
But 2016 has not been as kind to this informal caucus of business-aligned Democrats in California's Legislature. In quick succession, Democratic leaders were able to pass a statewide $15-an-hour minimum wage, expanded overtime protections for farmworkers and a long-awaited extension of California's mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — all largely opposed by the business community.
As Tuesday's election nears, this increasingly assertive bloc of lawmakers is hoping to bolster its ranks with like-minded newcomers, several of whom are locked in runoffs with other Democrats thanks to California's top-two primary system. And the deep-pocketed business interests that have backed more centrist Democrats as the fortunes of California Republicans wane are spending record amounts in some of these races, too.
"We do have high hopes," said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), one of two co-chairs leading the caucus. "The demise of the mods has been greatly exaggerated."
In total, independent expenditure committees have poured a record $39 million into legislative races since June. Of that total, more than $23 million has been spent on races between two Democrats.
Although the membership of the "mod caucus" is loosely defined — there is no official roster and its numbers ebb and flow depending on the issue being weighed — its leaders have built a political infrastructure that includes consultants and a political action committee that has supported many of its members.
Generally, members who identify as moderates vote the Democratic party line on social issues like gay rights, but are more likely to break ranks on economic issues that put them at odds with more traditional Democratic allies such as environmentalists and organized labor.
Cooper and his co-chair, Assemblyman Rudy Salas of Bakersfield, like to characterize their caucus as members who "vote their district" and are "free-thinkers" who can point out the economic pitfalls of high-flying progressive ideals.
"It's not all about business," Cooper said in a recent phone interview. "It's about the middle class and the working-class people who aren't being given a fair shake."
"They're a force to be reckoned with," said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist who works closely with environmental and labor groups that sometimes clashed with the moderate caucus. Despite setbacks on bigger policy initiatives in 2016, Maviglio said, "I wouldn't say they were taken to the cleaners this year."
Though allegiances can be fluid, the caucus can typically count on 10 committed members and around eight others in the Assembly who join them on certain causes varying from climate change policy to labor rules.
With 80 Assembly members, 28 of them Republican, moderates usually need around 13 members to block most bills on the Assembly floor. Increasing their numbers with even half of the seats they're eyeing could go a long way to increasing that clout.
"We anticipate seeing the numbers of moderate Democrats grow," said Chris Tapio, a political consultant who works closely with the caucus and runs a fundraising committee that spends heavily to elect new members.
Tapio said the caucus sees potential in six to eight candidates on the ballot Tuesday. How many of them actually get elected, and how consistently they support centrist views, he said, has yet to be seen.
Business interests have picked their favorites in a handful of legislative races statewide, funneling money to independent expenditure committees that can spend unlimited amounts to support a candidate. The spending this year has been focused as much in the suburban districts of Los Angeles and the Bay Area as it is in the fiscally conservative regions of California's Central Valley and Inland Empire.
Some of top candidates business groups have invested in are:
Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, mayor of the rural community of Winters, who owns a walnut farm and is up against a Republican in a safe Democratic seat;
Madison Nguyen, a former San Jose City Council member who backed public employee pension reform;
Timothy Grayson, a Concord city councilman and former Republican who is a member of the local Chamber of Commerce;
Raul Bocanegra, who is locked in a battle to regain the seat he lost in 2014 to Patty Lopez;
and Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino), who is facing a major progressive challenger in Eloise Gomez Reyes.
In the battle royal between Brown and Reyes, committees backed by labor unions and environmental groups have gone after Brown, labeling her "Chevron Cheryl" in part for her role in the maneuvering to weaken the climate change bill. Chevron has rushed to her defense, pouring more than $2.6 million into a oil industry-backed committee that has spent seven figures on her behalf.
Nguyen has benefited from outside spending by real estate groups and the pharmaceutical industry, while her opponent, San Jose Councilman Ash Kalra, has been backed by major labor unions. More than $4.5 million has been spent by outside groups in that race since June 7.
Nearly all the money aimed at electing Aguiar-Curry, on the other hand, was spent in the primary by committees like JOBSPAC, funded in large part by tobacco and oil companies, a situation she called "awkward."
In races like hers, in which candidates are newcomers to state politics who have served mostly in local posts, independent expenditure committees often make educated guesses as to who might be friendly to their interests.
"There's a lot of money being gambled on outcomes here," said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist who once worked as a consultant to the California Chamber of Commerce in its effort to elect centrist Democrats. Then, as now, Sragow said, most backers relied on interviews with candidates or issue questionnaires to judge a candidate's stances.
Sragow says that effort largely faltered, in part because the primaries, which were closed then, tended to attract voters who were party loyalists who eschewed more moderate candidates, but also because questionnaires were an imperfect science.
"It was clear that grilling candidates on paper or in person had limited predictive value" for what a legislator might do once in office, Sragow saidd. "What you really want to do is get to know these candidates as people."
Bets like that have backfired for business groups in the past. In 2014, independent expenditures funded by oil and tobacco companies helped elect Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond).
"It was a shock," said Thurmond, who went on to sponsor a bill banning smokeless tobacco from all of California's major league baseball stadiums, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last year. "If anyone made any assumptions, they never shared them with me."
For now, Cooper says, his caucus members are focused on electing more Democrats on Tuesday, no matter which way they lean, as leaders seek super-majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
Tapio says the chances of those efforts paying off for moderates next year is good: The seats that Democrats would most likely gain are in competitive districts where newly elected members would need to toe the moderate line to ensure reelection.
Those additions could help this caucus-within-a-caucus move on from what many have described as a lukewarm legislative year.
"I think we're influential and we will still be influential," if Democrats capture a super-majority, Cooper said. "This is a marathon, not a sprint. The mod caucus can't be defined by just one year."
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