California’s Newest Fault Line
As Republicans decline, Golden State Democrats divide over race.
The California Republican Party—an institution accustomed to embarrassment—suffered a novel and stinging indignity in the June 7 Golden State primary. Once the votes were tallied, it was revealed that the GOP’s candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Barbara Boxer in the November election would be . . . nobody. It’s not that Republicans failed to recruit any contenders. Two former (and relatively obscure) state party chairmen, Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, competed in the primary, as did activist businessman and one-time gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz. Rocky Chavez, a state assemblyman from San Diego County who led the GOP field in early polling, had also been in the mix before abruptly withdrawing—at the beginning of a debate, no less—in February. So how does a party enter a race with four candidates and still emerge without a nominee?
Like most riddles associated with California politics, the answer is direct democracy. In 2010, voters approved Proposition 14, a ballot measure that abolished conventional party primaries for statewide and congressional races. Instead, the initiative created a system wherein primary voters get to cast their ballot for any candidate, regardless of party—but where only the top two finishers compete in the general election. This year, that process yielded a U.S. Senate contest between two Democrats: Attorney General Kamala Harris and Orange County congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.
Among California’s political and media elite, the result is being discussed mainly as a sign of the GOP’s irrelevance in the nation’s most populous state—a reading with plenty of evidence to support it. Higher office has now been out of the party’s grasp for a decade, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection as governor marking the last time that a Republican won any statewide contest.
Yet, while public attention is focused on the GOP’s deathbed vigil, another equally consequential trend is unfolding largely under the radar: California Democrats, far from enjoying a frictionless ascendancy, are finding themselves sharply divided along racial lines. The breakneck demographic shifts in the state over the past few decades partly explain the tension. In 1990, California was more than 57 percent white, while Latinos made up just over a quarter of the state’s population. By 2014, however, Latinos had surpassed whites as the state’s largest ethnic group. At the same time, the state’s Asian population (the nation’s largest) had grown to 14.4 percent, more than double the number of California’s African-Americans. In a minority-majority state dominated by a party that practices identity politics, each group now finds itself in a zero-sum competition for a handful of positions at the commanding heights of Golden State politics.
Those spots don’t come open very often, making competition that much fiercer. Boxer and her Senate colleague Dianne Feinstein were both first elected to the upper chamber in 1992, a time when California was, in demographic terms, an entirely different place. They’re not the only members of California’s governing class who seem like relics of a bygone era. While the state’s population is ethnically diverse and young (in 2014 the median age was 36, sixth-lowest in the nation), its most visible political figures—Boxer, Feinstein, Governor Jerry Brown, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi—are lily white and have an average age of nearly 78.
When Boxer announced her retirement in early 2015, it unleashed a frenzy of activity among California Democrats aiming to make their leadership more reflective of the party’s diversity. The problem was that no one could agree on exactly how to fulfill that mandate. Certainly Harris, born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, represented a break from the past. But the swiftness with which she attracted endorsements led to a backlash from Latinos, who felt they were being taken for granted. When the attorney general garnered near-instant backing from influential national Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, California State Senate president pro tem Kevin de Leon told Politico, “National figures should slow their roll a bit.” Arturo Vargas, head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, cautioned, “Hispanic leaders are concerned about some kind of coronation, as opposed to a real electoral campaign.”
The coronation, however, largely proceeded apace. Harris’s substantial war chest and stack of endorsements deterred some of the state’s most prominent Latinos—namely former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and House Democratic Caucus chairman Xavier Becerra—from mounting a challenge. Sanchez, previously more of a comic figure than a serious political force (her main contribution to California politics has been a series of increasingly bizarre Christmas cards featuring her cat), exploited the vacuum for a Latino alternative, riding the discontent all the way to a spot on the November ballot.
Most observers—though not all—expect Harris to prevail in November, but the underlying tensions show little sign of abating. In May, Texas Democratic congressman Filemon Vela blasted the California Democratic Party for endorsing Harris, calling the act “insulting to Latinos all throughout this country” and “a disrespectful example of wayward institutional leadership which on the one hand ‘wants our vote’ but on the other hand wants to ‘spit us out.’” California Hispanics may share that sentiment. Though Harris won 40.3 percent of the vote to Sanchez’s 18.5 percent in the primary, a USC/Los Angeles Times poll released shortly before the contest showed 43 percent of Hispanics supporting Sanchez to just 16 percent for Harris.
Status anxiety is now pervasive among the racial caucuses within California’s Democratic Party. Hispanics worry that their votes will be taken for granted, while their elected officials are passed over for higher office. African-Americans, outnumbered two-to-one by Asians and six-to-one by Hispanics, fret that they’ll be relegated to junior-partner status within the party. Asians, meanwhile, chafe at certain liberal orthodoxies—a tension that became public in 2014 when a small band of Asian Democrats in the legislature blocked their black and Hispanic colleagues’ efforts to revive racial preferences in California college admissions.
Intra-party friction, of course, isn’t exclusive to California. However, with the Republican Party in steep decline in the state and the top-two primary system as the law of the land, the situation in California is particularly combustible. California Democrats have long dreamed of the unfettered power that would accompany vanquishing the state’s rump Republican Party. Few, however, seemed to anticipate the stress fractures that inevitably emerge in a political monoculture. With no worlds left to conquer, they’re now left warily circling each other. And no one seems inclined to slow his roll.
Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images
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