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Five things to watch in California politics in 2021

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The first full week of 2021 will kick off with huge national political news — a decisive special election in Georgia and an expected intense showdown on Capitol Hill during the final step in November’s presidential contest.

But before we all shift our gaze eastward, let’s take a moment to consider the year that lies ahead in California politics. In the old days — that feels so quaint to say — odd-numbered years were generally thought to be a bit quieter on the politics front.

No chance of that happening over the next 362 days.

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Watch this space: California politics 2021

There’s always a risk in assembling any kind of list that sounds like predictions of the year ahead, which is why this grouping is about topics — not outcomes. Nor should it be considered definitive; as noted below, there are some honorable mentions and those could produce important news, too.

So let’s dig in, shall we?

Tackling the pandemic: Rightly so, every viewer’s guide for 2021 begins with the public health and economic crisis that’s now firmly gripping California, with a post-Christmas surge in COVID-19 cases already happening in Los Angeles and the appearance of a new strain of the virus and shocking outbreaks in hospitals and other locations.

So what will California legislators and Gov. Gavin Newsom do now? Almost three dozen coronavirus-related bills have already been introduced in the Legislature — including efforts to extend eviction moratoriums for renters, changes to the beleaguered state unemployment insurance system and demands to pave the way for K-12 school campuses to open as soon as conditions improve. Schools will be an especially big topic after Newsom’s recent push for a partial reopening plan in February and March. So, too, will state-led efforts on ensuring COVID-19 vaccines are quickly and properly distributed.

And don’t forget the procedural crisis: Can lawmakers safely return to the state Capitol? The year’s legislative session was supposed to begin on Monday but has been pushed back to Jan. 11 due to current public health conditions. The process of governing ground to a halt several times last summer, and big delays in 2021 could impede those issues that need legislative approval.

Newsom’s political peril: The governor no doubt expected to tussle with legislators this year about defining the boundaries of his executive authority, especially after an embarrassing rebuke in the fall by a state judge. A much more stinging moment could be on the horizon for the coming fall: a possible statewide special election on whether he should be removed from office by year’s end.

Critics of the Democratic governor say they are halfway toward gathering the voter signatures needed to qualify what would be only the second recall election of a California governor in history. (We all know how the first one turned out.) The key here is that the loosely organized effort — already seeing some infighting about who’s really in charge — needs to complete the signature collection process by the middle of March. It will be interesting to see whether Newsom continues to ignore the effort, even as some veteran operatives believe he should attempt to label it as a Republican power grab, or whether he’ll strike early by opening a political action committee — one which, under California recall election law, could raise money in unlimited amounts. And over the weekend, a potential GOP challenger threw his support behind the recall: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Whither Dianne Feinstein? Now that Newsom has appointed Alex Padilla to replace Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the Senate (and Shirley Weber to replace Padilla as secretary of state), it’s impossible to not wonder whether the governor will end up having to make a second Senate appointment. A troubling article in the New Yorker last month detailed concerns about the health of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who will be 91 when her current term expires in 2024. Feinstein’s supporters swiftly came to her defense, but not before even some Democratic activists wondered whether she might ultimately allow Newsom — a fellow San Franciscan and a longtime ally — to choose her successor.

The jockeying among California Democrats: The selection of Harris by President-elect Joe Biden set off a domino effect inside state Democratic Party ranks. Padilla, long known to be interested in a Senate seat, now will run as an incumbent in 2022. But might he be challenged by those overlooked by Newsom? And what about the job of secretary of state, which he would have left due to term limits next year? Weber has said she’ll seek a full four-year term, possibly thwarting the nascent candidacies of two fellow Democrats in the state Assembly, Lorena Gonzalez and Evan Low. Another big moment is coming if state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra wins confirmation as Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary. Newsom will again get to fill a statewide post by appointment — one that’s probably only second to the governor in terms of power. That job will also be up for grabs in 2022, making next year one of the biggest election seasons in the state in a long time.

The California condition: No surprise here, but we’re in the midst of another intense and important discussion about the quality of life in the Golden State and whether it’s on a steady course to force a mass exodus of historic proportions. New data released last month showed the smallest net population growth for the state since 1900.

So many issues to watch fall under this topic, all sloshed in with the political rancor of an era in which blame is often more important than solutions. Few topics loom as large for elected officials as the high cost of housing and the steady growth in California’s homeless population. Business climate shortcomings and fears of overregulation are familiar refrains, with critics taking note of Elon Musk‘s public breakup with the Bay Area in favor of Texas and iconic companies such as Hewlett Packard — founded in a Palo Alto garage — also moving its leadership to the Lone Star State. A sobering number: 63% of Californians in a public poll released last month think that the next generation of Californians will be financially worse off than their parents. And almost 7 in 10 respondents said the state’s gap between the rich and poor is growing larger.

Honorable mentions: A good case could be made for a few other things to watch in California’s political year ahead. For starters, few believe the battles over employment rules for app-based companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are over just because voters approved Proposition 22 — to say nothing of legislative wrangling over Assembly Bill 5, the law that still sparks intense debate over who should and shouldn’t be considered an independent contractor.

It will also be important to keep watching the ways in which key constituencies of the Democratic Party — green tech supporters and blue-collar workers — either resolve their differences or launch a full-scale battle. California’s powerful trade union council, in particular, looks poised to take some environmental groups to task over topics such as oil and gas production.

Finally, remember that 2021 is the year when the state’s congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization maps are redrawn by the second generation of its independent citizens redistricting commission. The first big bombshell will drop perhaps by the end of this month when we see whether California loses a seat in the House of Representatives, something that’s never happened in the state’s history. But the commission’s work will be challenging as it seeks to determine which communities should be kept whole for representation in Sacramento and Washington.

New year, new California laws

The shortened legislative session of 2020 resulted in Newsom signing only 372 bills into law, the fewest of any governor since 1967.

Our annual overview of some of the more notable laws for the new year includes several aimed at COVID-19 concerns in the workplace and skilled nursing facilities. It also includes new employment laws (also see a detailed look at those issues from my Times colleague Margot Roosevelt), racial justice proposals and lifestyle laws on food delivery, youth football and pet stores.

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‘I just want to find 11,780 votes’

The 62-minute audio recording that became public Sunday of President Trump cajoling, challenging and ultimately pleading with Georgia election officials seemed to offer a rare glimpse into the thinking of the nation’s chief executive after he’s spent most of the past few weeks out of the public eye.

And the phone call, which took place on Saturday, also made clear Trump hasn’t changed his tune: He doesn’t think he lost to Biden.

Legal experts and some Democrats suggested the president’s actions may have violated the law. And the recording’s revelation comes two days before twin Senate runoff elections in Georgia that will determine control of the chamber, and 17 days before Biden and Harris take the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

National lightning round

— As the nation’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed 350,000 Sunday, Trump claimed the country’s fatality count toll was “far exaggerated,” an assertion that was quickly refuted by the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert.

Nancy Pelosi was narrowly reelected Sunday as speaker, giving her the reins of the Democrats’ slender House majority as Biden sets a challenging course of producing legislation to tackle the pandemic, revive the economy and address other party priorities.

— All 10 living former U.S. Defense secretaries called for a peaceful transition of power this month and warned that any effort to involve the military in resolving election disputes “would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”

— Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert suggested that “violence in the streets” may be the only remaining option to block Biden from becoming president.

— A bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Mitt Romney of Utah, issued a statement calling for Congress to certify President-elect Biden’s win. Meanwhile, 11 Senate Republicans said Saturday they plan to challenge Congress’ certification of electoral college results.

— The Senate voted Friday to override Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, marking the first override of his presidency and delivering a rare, emphatic and final rebuke by GOP lawmakers.

— Vandals lashed out at Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the holiday weekend, blighting their homes with graffiti after Congress failed to approve an increase in the money being sent to individuals to help cope with the pandemic.

— Biden’s choice to be Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, collected more than $7 million in speaking fees over the last two years from major financial firms and tech giants, according to disclosure forms filed as part of her nomination.

— Democrats have a slim majority in the House, and control of the Senate isn’t set. What can actually get done?

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