The Week: Power shifts to California’s north

Though the trip was stealthy — blink and you missed him — President Obama traveled to California last week and by chance or design underscored the new political realities in the state.

There was no visit to Hollywood, the traditional source of succor for Democratic politicians, or anywhere else in Southern California for that matter. The presidential entourage moved like a targeted missile to Northern California and that more appropriate support group in times of economic trouble — the tech titans of the Silicon Valley.

A glimpse of where things stand these days, in the state’s political geography, came from the greeting party. There was Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, formerly the mayor of San Francisco. There was Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, formerly the district attorney of San Francisco. Jerry Brown, now governor and previously the mayor of Oakland, sent his regrets.

Not only are the governor and the best-known of the statewide officeholders from the Bay Area, so are the state’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. (Boxer and her husband, Stewart, moved to Rancho Mirage four years ago, but her political identity was forged in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco).


In the biggest statewide races last year — for governor and U.S. Senate — all four of the major party candidates hailed from the Bay Area or its next-door neighbor, Silicon Valley.

There are several Republican leaders from the south — Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton is from Rancho Cucamonga — but among the major figures in the majority party, only one lives south of Alameda County: Assembly Speaker John A. John A. Pérez of Los Angeles.

Southern California may have the people, but Northern California is home to the people’s representatives.

Obama’s visit was, however, also a reminder that the political stereotypes that California conveys are not just divided between movie star-rich Southern California and the hippie-liberal north. Silicon Valley has its own connotation, of magical inventions spawned in garages or college dorms, of American enterprise.

It was that spirit that Obama sought as his own last week, even if largely out of view. He landed Thursday night, but only his arrival and his departure Friday morning from San Francisco were public events.

In between, he headed to a private dinner in Woodside, at the home of venture capitalist John Doerr. The long-time Democratic donor had assembled the bright lights of techdom, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Apple chief Steve Jobs and Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt. Former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Steve Westly, another tech millionaire, also attended.

The dinner, the president’s spokesman said, was held to talk about ways to hike employment and encourage students to take on tough subjects that would prepare them for challenging jobs.

The symbolism, according to USC’s Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, was to convey Obama’s focus on the same.

“It’s both fertile fundraising territory and symbolic of the presidential focus on the economy and jobs,” she said, a focus he reiterated during a Friday visit to an Intel plant near Portland. “It does have to do as much with sending a political message that he’s engaged with getting the economy moving again. That’s not the message that would have come out of a visit to Hollywood.”

For all of its symbolism now, Silicon Valley’s tech world has not been a successful incubator for political campaigns. Both gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina in 2010, and Westly, who lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2006, proved that cachet in those circles doesn’t necessarily translate to political success.

Lately, success has been grasped by those closer to the epicenter of the Bay Area, San Francisco. In part that is because the area’s kill-or-be-killed political structure has nurtured winners, until fairly recently with an East Coast-style political boss system, and because of its unerring loyalty to Democrats. Not so Southern California, where power is diffused differently and Republican candidates have been able to compete, under the right circumstances.

“In Southern California, you’ve got the politics of Hollywood, the politics of occupation; we have homeowners groups we indulge in.... We’re larger and we look to different places to articulate ideas and to be activists,” said Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development.

The state’s sliding ideology has also been key to the north’s power.

Until recently, when Republican strength in the state began to ebb, the south held an edge. From 1966 until January, Southern Californians held the governorship, with the arguable exception of Jerry Brown’s first two terms. (He entered politics by winning a seat on the Los Angeles Community College District board and lived locally before returning to the Bay Area of his birth).

Successful in that period were Republicans Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Gray Davis. Southern California Republicans — and more conservative Democrats — also won other statewide offices then.

As the state has grown more liberal, however, the edge has turned to the area where Democrats are the strongest. Evidence of the next generation came at Obama’s welcoming party in the form of Newsom and Harris, two of the most ambitious of a younger cadre of Democrats.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that we here in Southern California have a life,” joked Bebitch Jeffe, after ticking off the list of California politicians from the Bay Area. “We’re too smart to get involved in the world of politics as it is today.”

She added, more seriously, “the avenues of access are much more in the north.”

For two years, The Week has examined the implications of major stories. After today, it will take a lengthy break as Decker moves on to cover the 2012 presidential campaign. Past columns are archived at