California’s political landscape at 30,000 feet

Although today California is as blue a state as blue can be, to understand what that means requires an appreciation of three underlying pieces of recent political history.

First, it was not always thus. From 1900 until 1998, Californians elected only three Democratic governors, two of them related by blood. As late as 1994, inspired by Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, Republican Pete Wilson was reelected governor and his party regained control of the State Assembly. (Today, Newt Gingrich is a Dentons Senior Advisor in Washington, D.C.)

But in 1996, the Assembly Democrats, occupying only 39 of the 80 seats, brought in a new campaign strategist who guided them to a gain of four seats that year, five in 1998 and two in 2000. At the turn of the century, the Democrats held 50 seats and were back in firm control of the lower house. (That campaign strategist, Darry Sragow, is today a Dentons Partner in Los Angeles.)

Second, by the early 2000’s California’s business leaders, contemplating the possibility of a permanent Democratic majority in the legislature, began to identify and recruit business-friendly candidates to run in safe Democratic seats that were opening up under strict term limits. The California Chamber of Commerce and its members and allies were at the center of this effort. (The Vice President of Government Relations for the Chamber was Marc Burgat, today a Dentons Principal in Sacramento.)

Third, in 2010 California voters approved a ballot measure instituting a top two primary system, dramatically increasing the prospects that business friendly Democrats could be elected to the legislature.

Today, policy debates in the California legislature are often between the liberal and moderate wings of the Democratic caucus, to the exclusion of the Republican membership. Their two-thirds super majorities in both houses afford the Democrats total control of legislative policy. But with that power comes the unavoidable responsibility for essentially all outcomes.

The influence of the so-called “Mod Democrats” is rarely reflected in vote counts but can be seen in legislative amendments that temper the impact on business of more liberal legislation, and in the abandonment of bills that are likely to fail on the floor.

Until such time as the California Republican Party stops its free-fall in voter registration and support, public policy in the state will be shaped by the continuing struggle between moderate and liberal Democrats.

Our public policy team in California is prepared to guide businesses doing business in the state through this complicated by critically important terrain.