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Newsletter: Essential Politics: America’s fear and loathing political season marches on

People celebrate in the streets outside the White House
People celebrate in the streets outside the White House after the announcement of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris winning the election.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The American political landscape still looks like one big Rorschach test at the beginning of the week after the 2020 presidential election.

While some voters see victory and relief, others insist the picture is one of corruption and chicanery. There may be little anyone can do to change those viewpoints. Consider, for a moment, the seemingly agreed-upon idea of counting “legal votes.” That sounds great, until realizing a bitterly divided electorate seems unprepared to settle on a definition.

In last week’s Monday newsletter, I put it this way: “The best-case scenario is a much-needed period of reconciliation. The worst-case scenario is a season of heightened confrontation.”

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As the projected winner begins making his case for the former, the likely loser seems unwilling to help stave off the latter.

Biden’s beginning, Trump’s turndown

The projection Saturday that put President-elect Joe Biden over the top in electoral college votes was second only to the 2000 election for the caution that was exercised by television networks and the Associated Press. The Democratic nominee had passed President Trump the day before in votes counted in Pennsylvania and maintained an edge in results from Arizona and Nevada. Georgia, a state last won by a Democrat in 1992, also looked to land in Biden’s column.

Biden, declared the winner 48 years to the day his election to the Senate launched a political career built on consensus, sought to deliver a singular message in his Saturday night speech.

“It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again,” he said. “To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”

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For Trump, who spent the weekend out of public view at his Virginia golf course, the options for retaining the presidency some 10 weeks from now look slim — except to his most loyal supporters, who have continued to insist, without clear proof, that widespread fraud is to blame for the election results.

Not that all Republicans were on board with a possible longshot legal strategy. Former President George W. Bush issued a statement Sunday congratulating Biden and saying that a winner has been chosen.

“The American people can have confidence that this election was fundamentally fair, its integrity will be upheld, and its outcome is clear,” Bush said in the statement.

Even if he can’t reconfigure the counting of votes in a handful of states, Trump is poised to lash out at the status quo in his administration — with potential firings of senior officials or invoking his power to pardon. Less likely, for now, is an agreement with congressional leaders on a new COVID-19 stimulus package.

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For the president-elect, congratulatory messages for also came in from around the world and his supporters celebrated in the streets — in Washington, Los Angeles and beyond — and on social media.

Biden is making news Monday with the announcement of his coronavirus task force, to be led by former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and Yale University associate professor Marcella Nunez-Smith.

Mark these dates on the calendar

If Trump pushes forward with significant court challenges in battleground states, the clock is ticking. The half-dozen states that have been at the heart of the presidential battleground will certify their final vote tallies over an eight-day period beginning in two weeks.

Certification doesn’t fully preclude some kind of judicial intervention, but the Trump campaign’s effort would seem demonstrably tougher once the counting ends.

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Nov. 20: Georgia
Nov. 23: Michigan, Pennsylvania
Nov. 30: Arizona
Dec. 1: Nevada, Wisconsin

From there, it’s the convening of electors in the capital cities of each state on Dec. 14 and the reading of the electoral college results in the Senate chambers on Jan. 6.

Then again, there are Trump confidantes who have suggested the threat of lawsuits is mostly an off-ramp for a loss the president doesn’t want to admit and less about a change in the election’s outcome.

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Harris’ ascension, Newsom’s decision

It is hard to overstate the size and power of the political rocket ship on which Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has been riding since election night in 2010, when the then-district attorney of San Francisco found herself in a too-close-to-call race for California attorney general. From there to the U.S. Senate, arriving in Washington at the same time as Trump, and now on the way to the nation’s second-highest office.

Harris’ supporters have praised her work and her political platform. Even more, though, will see her election for the major milestone it marks in U.S. history.

“My 9-year-old will believe for the rest of her life that there is no ceiling for Black girls,” Lateefah Simon, a Bay Area-based civil rights advocate whom Harris has mentored for nearly 20 years, said in an interview with The Times’ Melanie Mason.

Harris shared a similar message in her Saturday speech.

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“To the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before. And we will applaud you every step of the way.”

Times columnist Erika D. Smith argued that Harris can be an “unapologetically Black vice president,” an important distinction from the more careful path that former President Obama walked during his eight years in office.

As Smith writes about Black Americans, “We aren’t as restrained in public as we used to be, which, in turn, has created space for Harris to be her full self in public, to embody all of her identities and feel less of a need to code switch.”

It’s important to note what Harris will leave behind: an empty California seat in the Senate, a lot of hungry Democrats who want it and a can’t-make-everyone-happy choice facing Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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Newsom, close to Harris for the last two decades, will have to choose someone to serve the final two years of the current Senate term. Our conversations with political watchers identified at least five early contenders: Reps. Karen Bass and Barbara Lee, state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia.

The key phrase above is “at least,” because a half-dozen more names popped up in our reporting, though less frequently than the ones above. And within hours of that story publishing, advisers to other Democratic officials were complaining behind the scenes that their person should have been mentioned, too.

Perhaps the most frequent comment is that Newsom should make history by appointing the state’s first Latino or Latina senator. And it’s often pointed out that if the governor chooses a sitting statewide official, then he gets to select someone to fill that position, too, for the next two years.

National lightning round

— For more than a century, a routine of American democracy has been a public concession by losing presidential candidates. The message varies in all particulars except one: the vanquished calling on the country to unify behind the new president.

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— On a block along Berkeley’s Bancroft Way, in front of the small, yellow house where Harris grew up, there was a small but festive celebration Saturday afternoon.

— A texting company run by one of Trump’s top campaign officials sent out thousands of text messages urging supporters to rally where votes were being counted in Philadelphia, falsely claiming Democrats were trying to steal the election.

— Muslim voters want more than “just a seat” at the table from the president-elect.

— A divided Congress could make action to combat climate change harder, but there’s a lot Biden can do on his own as president.

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— White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has tested positive for the coronavirus amid a new record for daily confirmed cases in the United States.

Ballot measure losses for California labor unions

Of the 12 ballot measures weighed by California voters in the November election, three featured high-profile fights between organized labor and either a particular sector of the business world or a broad coalition of companies and corporations.

Union groups appear to have lost all three, a reminder that there can be limits to the power wielded even by the most influential forces in politics.

On Proposition 22, the app-based industry’s attempt to write specific employment rules for drivers who offer rides and deliver food, labor’s opposition came up short. Voters sided with the companies, even as labor pointed out — in a campaign in which it was vastly outspent — that the drivers would be eligible for more generous benefits if the companies were forced to comply with existing workplace laws. Interestingly, one of the companies now wants to cut a deal with unions to avoid future showdowns.

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On Proposition 23, a skirmish between one healthcare union and the kidney dialysis industry that began two years ago, voters refused to impose new operating rules on dialysis clinics. It’s the same result as the first time the two sides clashed in 2018.

Current election returns also suggest labor’s biggest wish, to loosen property tax rules for corporations and use the money for schools and government services, is also unlikely to prevail. Proposition 15 wasn’t just another fight over taxes — it was the long-expected battle over the legacy of Proposition 13, a decades-long quest by unions and liberal activists to largely limit the 1978 law’s protection to homeowners.

The Times’ data analysis team crunched the numbers on all ballot measure campaign cash since the advent of electronic record reporting. These three campaigns all made the top 10.

And more broadly, the November election served as a powerful reminder that California’s century-old system of direct democracy, created to empower citizens, is clearly dominated by powerful and wealthy interest groups.

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Today’s essential California politics

— A ballot measure to authorize $5.5 billion in new funding for stem cell research, Proposition 14, continues to hold a lead.

Proposition 16, an effort to restore the use of race and gender preferences in state government and college admissions, was sharply rejected by California voters.

— Californians convicted of felonies but who are on parole will be allowed to vote in elections under Proposition 17, a ballot measure that won approval by state voters Tuesday.

Proposition 18, which would have allowed 17-year-olds to vote in primary and special elections if they turn 18 before the next general election, was defeated.

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— A new property tax break for older California homeowners, Proposition 19, held on to its lead in unofficial results.

Supporters came up short on Proposition 20, a statewide initiative to toughen sentencing in criminal cases and reduce the number of prison inmates eligible for early parole.

— California voters have again decisively rejected a bid to expand rent control statewide, this time under Proposition 21.

— The state’s voters chose to rewrite the rules of the internet, with a strong majority of voters supporting Proposition 24.

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— The defeat of Proposition 25 means voters have overturned a law to replace the use of money bail as a condition for getting out of jail while awaiting trial with a system allowing release by judges based on a determination of public safety or a defendant’s flight risk.

— For the first time since its inception more than 150 years ago, the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will consist of all women, each with a significant background in politics and government.

— San Diego has elected the youngest U.S. House representative in California, 31-year old Democrat Sara Jacobs.

— Four years ago, Alex Lee was student body president at UC Davis. On Tuesday, the 25-year old overwhelmingly won a seat in the California Assembly and will be the youngest state legislator in more than 80 years.

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