Newsletter: Essential Politics: Prison leadership, presidential pranks


Good morning from the state capital. I’m Sacramento bureau chief John Myers, today’s Essential Politics host. The countdown is on to 2016, but the political world already seems prepped and ready to go, both across the country and in California.

And that includes a new leader to tackle one of state government’s biggest jobs, a man tapped for the role on Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown.


Few jobs in state government are as complex and daunting as running California’s $12.6-billion prison system, which may explain why Brown is turning to a seasoned hand to lead the way.

Paige St. John reports that Brown has selected Scott Kernan to be his new secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the successor to retiring Secretary Jeffrey Beard.

Kernan is steeped in state prison operations, from roles as a corrections officer to a prison warden and beyond. That’s in contrast to Beard, who arrived three years ago with a national reputation after leading the state prison system in Pennsylvania.

The job may be slightly simpler for Kernan than it was Beard — who presided over California’s prisons during a tense showdown with federal judges on overcrowding — but it will nonetheless remain a challenge, given prison healthcare remains under the supervision of the federal courts. Then there’s the legal limbo of the death penalty in California, and the lingering impact from 2011’s diversion of more felons to local jails.


Not widely noticed in the recent federal budget deal was the decision to make permanent a cut in federal taxes for low-income Americans, what Noam Levey writes is “the largest growth of government social programs in half a century.”

But the bipartisan action on a number of tax breaks doesn’t quite jibe with the rhetoric of the GOP presidential hopefuls, many of whom are adamant that the federal government rein in its offering of “free stuff.”


And speaking of the presidential campaign, there are plenty of political morsels in our Trail Guide coverage, including Donald Trump’s battle with New Hampshire’s most influential newspaper and former President Bill Clinton prepping to hit the campaign trail in the Granite State for his wife, Hillary Clinton, next week.


Yes, you read that headline right. Well, sort of. Sarah Parvini reports that Southern California drivers received an unexpected dose of presidential politics by the side of the road on Christmas: a Caltrans road sign that was apparently hacked to read, “Vote Donald Trump.”

The sign shone brightly on the side of Interstate 15, but it’s unclear who pulled off the political prank. Of course, the sign has since been fixed.


-- Evan Halper writes that the murky mess of federal and state law regarding medical marijuana isn’t likely to be cleared up anytime soon. It’s a conflict, he writes, rooted in deciphering the difference between “healers and drug dealers.”

-- With the year-end fundraising deadline just days away, Christine Mai-Duc reports that the California Legislature’s African American leaders are trying to underscore what’s at stake in 2016 in Senate District 35. In an email sent to supporters Monday, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, encouraged donors to back former Assemblyman Steve Bradford. The email notes that Bradford is the only African American running to replace state Sen. Isadore Hall (D-Compton), another member of the caucus who is running for Congress. The race could feature at least three other Democrats and is likely to result in an intraparty runoff next November under the state’s top-two rules.

-- Want an insider’s view of what Christmas dinner with Gov. Jerry Brown looks like? Brown and First Lady Anne Gust Brown hosted about 30 friends and family on Christmas. The Sacramento Bee has photos and a 360-degree video of the mansion. Brown is the first governor to occupy the downtown Sacramento mansion since 1967, when Ronald Reagan was governor. The Browns moved in after renovations were completed earlier this year.

-- Two Californians made CNN’s list of “9 politicians to watch in 2016.” Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, who is running for U.S. Senate, the network says, is “poised to deliver” in 2016 after raising her national profile for years. CNN predicts she’ll be highlighted during the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia next summer. Harris’ fellow Democratic contender for the Senate seat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), might take issue with that.

Also on the list is state Controller Betty Yee, who earlier this year proposed tax reforms that would leave California relying less on the wealthy.

-- David Savage takes a look at the year ahead for the U.S. Supreme Court, finding that upcoming decisions on a series of politically charged cases, from abortion to the power public employee unions, are unlikely to resolve fierce battles being waged in the halls of Congress, the state Capitol or the campaign trail.


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