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Stepping Back from the Brink

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eye on the news

Stepping Back from the Brink

California has a long way to go, but results in San Francisco’s recall election and L.A.’s mayoral race suggest that some restoration of common sense is possible. June 8, 2022
California
Politics and law

In yesterday’s primary elections, California took a small step away from the brink. San Franciscans recalled one of the most notorious “progressive prosecutors”—ultra-lenient DA Chesa Boudin—while in Los Angeles, voters made billionaire and former Republican Rick Caruso the front-runner for the November mayor’s race.

These are encouraging developments for anyone who wants a return to sanity in the Golden State, though they fall far short of what conservatives hoped would be a red wave. Nothing better illustrates the lack of a conservative or even centrist counterpoint in California than its not particularly popular governor, Gavin Newsom, winning 56 percent of the vote in an open primary with extraordinarily light turnout. Michael Shellenberger, a skeptical and reality-based progressive, generated lots of positive coverage for his stinging critiques—but alas, few votes, as he polled below 4 percent. The leading Republican, the barely known Brian Dahle, could not break 17 percent.

Why wasn’t voter reaction stronger in a state that most here think is past its prime, becoming ever more unequal and crushed by high taxes and regulation? It’s called political monopolization. Democrats control every statewide office and seem assured of a veto-proof majority in both houses. They dominate local media. They are, in effect, the only party with power and reach statewide, and, notes analyst Dan Walters, they now operate in increasingly stealthy fashion, with few worries about Republican or media scrutiny.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that voters appear to be abandoning the process, retreating to shore up their own situation or planning to leave. But quiescence does not suggest voter satisfaction. Public opinion struggles to find political expression in a one-party state. A survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found that roughly two in three state residents believe inequality has worsened and will continue to do so. Nearly two-thirds of Californians think that the state’s best days are behind it. These views are not confined to whites: a 2019 Berkeley poll, showed that 58 percent of African-Americans were interested in leaving California, more than any other demographic group. And 44 percent of Asians and 43 percent of Latinos wanted to do the same.

It helps, of course, to have inept opposition. Republicans have not produced a serious gubernatorial candidate since Arnold Schwarzenegger (a questionable sign of seriousness). California’s “blue” transformation is less about Democrats’ gains—their share of the electorate remains remarkably stable—than the precipitous decline of the GOP, whose share has dropped in two decades from 34 percent to under 24 percent. Dahle, the GOP’s most plausible gubernatorial contender, reminds no one of Ronald Reagan. The only centrists who do well are those who, like Caruso, can fund their own campaigns. In California’s desiccated political culture, Republicans are repeatedly outspent by Democrats and outflanked in the media.

And yet, at least modest signs of recovering sobriety emerged last night from two cities, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, that have been the linchpins of the progressive takeover in the state. It could simply be the case that some things become impossible not to see. In San Francisco, homelessness, petty crime, and a general deterioration of what was once America’s most gorgeous city has spurred a grassroots rebellion, backed by business, to get rid of Boudin, the far-left prosecutor who was loath to prosecute.

The Boudin defeat parallels a similar reversal of far-left politics earlier this year, with the city’s recall of three school board members. A new centrist coalition could be in the offing, combining the remaining middle class with Asian residents and business interests. Naturally, progressives see Boudin as a victim of incipient Trumpism.

In Los Angeles, too, signs of progressive failure are hard to miss. Just drive around, or visit a park, where homelessness is ubiquitous. Small businesses are fed up with petty crime and people sleeping in their doorways. And the economy, here as well as in San Francisco, has been slow to recover. Los Angeles and San Francisco rank near the bottom of all U.S. metros in terms of job recovery.

Though Caruso, who ran a focused and well-funded campaign, came in a surprising first, his opponent, Congresswoman Karen Bass, cannot be counted out in November. Caruso may have won 41.2 percent of the vote, but most of the other remaining candidates, like city councilman Kevin de León, come from progressive positions. Caruso will need to keep the pressure on as Democrats from around the country try to hold L.A. for the Left and the party’s public employee-funded voter-turnout machine swings into action.

The key issue for Los Angeles, and for California, lies in jettisoning one-party rule, particularly as that one party shifts ever further leftward. At the moment, this seems unlikely, at least on a statewide level. But reality could soon impinge upon the state’s progressive dream. The media and political elites suggest that the state is “roaring back,” but California enters a potentially recessionary environment with the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and one of its slowest job recoveries.

Sometime next year, push will probably come to shove. Newsom’s operatives celebrate a current $100 billion surplus, but the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts the likely reappearance of budget deficits in the near future. To fund an expanded welfare state without massive infusions of capital gains from Wall Street or Silicon Valley could prove an existential challenge.

It’s possible that bad times and declining revenues could push the state further to the left. Some among the huge Democratic majority in Sacramento seek to raise the state’s income tax, already the nation’s highest, and add new payroll taxes to pay for universal health care. Worse yet, the prospect of wealth taxes—including provisions to force people to pay even if they leave the state—could hasten the departure of high-profile billionaires such as Elon Musk and Larry Ellison.

Newsom may soon find himself in a conflict between his core supporters: on the one hand, public employees and, on the other, the tech elites, who, like their counterparts on Wall Street, may accelerate their move to less heavily taxed states. If tax revenues drop, Newsom will come under pressure to raise income and payroll levies even higher, and perhaps even to adopt a statewide “Medicare for all” plan financed by such charges. Some Democrats are even proposing to reduce the workweek to four days and 32 hours, with all additional work counted as overtime.

The battle for California’s future has begun, though it’s only been a minor skirmish so far. It will take more than critiques of state failures by lone journalists or outlier political candidates to turn the state around. It will require the mobilization of grassroots voters and businesses, particularly those outside the charmed circle of the tech giants. By any measure, California has a long way to go—but yes, the Caruso and Boudin results suggest that some restoration of common sense remains possible.

Photos by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (left) / Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images (right)

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