The Contenders to Watch in the Fight for the California Democratic Party’s Soul

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Commentary Politics

The Contenders to Watch in the Fight for the California Democratic Party’s Soul

Asher Huey

Many people expect Sen. Dianne Feinstein to join Sen. Barbara Boxer in retirement in 2018, the same year Gov. Jerry Brown will be termed out. The ensuing scramble for California’s top three seats could determine whether the state’s dominant Democratic Party swings in a conservative or progressive direction.

The retirement of California Sen. Barbara Boxer, while not unexpected, heralds the first of several big changes the state is likely to see in the next few years. Many people also think Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was elected along with Boxer in 1992, will retire in 2018, the same year Gov. Jerry Brown will be termed out. The ensuing scramble for California’s top three seats could determine whether the state’s dominant Democratic Party—which controls every statewide office and has a large majority in both chambers of the legislature and in 39 of the 53 congressional districts—swings in a conservative or progressive direction.

California may be a deep blue state, but it is by no means a unilaterally left-leaning one. Fortunately, legislators do have fairly settled, progressive stances on certain key topics—namely LGBT and reproductive rights. However, other issues, such as as economic justice, support for public education, or environmental advocacy, will be sure to separate the state’s politicians along an ideological spectrum in the coming years.

As discussion ramps up about Boxer’s replacement, it’s vital to keep an eye on possible contenders for the seat, as well as those who could run for Senate or governor in 2018. Here’s a list of potential candidates in California we should be keeping an eye on in the next few election cycles:

The Progressives

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris: Pundits and commentators widely see Harris as the top prospect for Boxer’s seat in the state, so her announcement to run was no surprise. As a prosecutor, Harris has charted a progressive path. She tends to look at society as an ecosystem, making the case for a holistic approach to issues of social justice and policy. She has said, for example, that in order to reduce crime and have safe neighborhoods, civic official must invest in public schools. In her first race for attorney general, her opponent promised to defend Prop 8 to the Supreme Court, while Harris refused to do so; after the Ninth Circuit overturned the law, Harris moved swiftly to usher in marriage equality throughout the state. One of Harris’ most impressive accomplishments, though, has been her response to the mortgage crisis. She secured more than $18 billion from big banks to help California homeowners with underwater mortgages and introduced the California Homeowner Bill of Rights to prevent unfair practices from banks and lenders in the future.

Harris’ legacy is not without controversy, however; advocates for abolishing the death penalty have been disappointed in her office’s support for the law, though Harris says she is personally opposed to it. Thus far, activists have drawn particular attention to Harris’ office’s actions surrounding the Daniel Larsen case: When a federal judge declared Larsen, who had been convicted and sentenced under California’s draconian three-strikes law, to be innocent, Harris’ office held him for an extra four years based on the technicality that he missed a filing deadline. She may also have to clarify her statement to BuzzFeed that “in general” the police have not become too militarized.

Harris should address those very serious issues; without dismissing those, though, she is also one of the leading progressive figures in the state. Furthermore, the importance of having another woman of color in the Senate cannot be understated.

Rep. Jackie Speier: San Francisco Bay Area Rep. Jackie Speier is a dream figure for progressives. After decades in county office and the state legislature, Speier was elected to Congress in 2008. Speier is one of the strongest advocates for reproductive freedom in the House, and her voice could certainly be used in the Senate. NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood have given her 100 percent approval ratings; she has also discussed her own experience with having an abortion on the floor of the House. In addition, Speier has been an advocate for gun safety, including background checks and safety locks. She is a member of the LGBT Equality Caucus and has stood up for marriage equality. And she has fought for strong environmental regulations and an energy plan that focuses on creating green jobs, addressing climate change, and regulating polluters.

Tom Steyer: It’s unusual to put a white male hedge fund manager in a list of progressives. Still, Steyer is a big environmentalist; he’s pumped millions of dollars into campaigns in California and around the country for pro-environmental candidates and ballot measures. He put $2.5 million into the campaign against Prop 23, helping defeat the Dirty Energy Prop, which would have rolled back clean energy standards in California. Through his NextGen Climate PAC, he’s supported candidates across the country with mixed success. That said, he has yet to take sides publicly about other issues, such as corporate education reform—a hot-button topic that other hedge fund managers tend to approve of. And will he favor economic and labor regulations for companies, the way he favors environmental regulation? Plus, some activists worry that spending big on his own underdog campaign could be a waste of money that he could put toward competitive races around the country.

John Chiang: Chiang was elected state treasurer in 2014, having previously served two terms as state controller. He has a good record as an economic progressive, including a pivotal moment in 2008, when he refused to allow then-Gov. Schwarzenegger to use state employees’ pay as a bargaining chip during a budgetary battle. He could be a strong alternative if a conservative or neoliberal Democrat makes a push for one of the seats.

The Conservatives and Neoliberals

Antonio Villaraigosa: As he publicly considers running for Boxer’s seat, the former Los Angeles mayor has been more frequently referring to himself as a progressive. Villaraigosa’s record, however, suggests otherwise. He has embraced corporate education reform, even holding an event with corporate education lobbyist Michelle Rhee during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He’s also joined the board of Campaign to Fix the Debt, a corporate group dedicated to cutting Social Security and Medicare, which prompted progressive organizations such as Courage Campaign to call on him to resign from it. He did not do so; he has, to date, refused to meet with the tens of thousands of constituents who started and signed a petition about their concerns about his involvement.

Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom: Lt. Gov. Newsom has already bowed out of the race for Boxer’s seat, leading some people to believe that he’ll either running for governor or Senate in 2018. Newsom is known to both state and national audiences for his bold stance in favor of marriage equality while he was mayor of San Francisco. But while he has a generally liberal track record on social issues like those, as well as environmental ones, he has a history of being not-so-great on economics. Alarmingly, Newsom has embraced a Silicon Valley “tech-bro” mindset on regulations—in his book Citizenville, he made the argument that government should get out of the way of corporate innovation. He also sent an email during his re-election campaign claiming regulations hurt tech businesses. When Democrats want to loosen regulations—which, in turn, widens the inequality gap throughout California and puts workers at risk of exploitation—then you have to ask what Democrats actually stand for.

Mayor Kevin Johnson: Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has signaled that he may seek higher office in the next few years. When his wife, Michelle Rhee, stepped down from her position at StudentsFirst, she said it was to support her husband’s future plans. There are many reasons progressives shouldn’t support Johnson. He’s embraced corporate-style education reform and bills. Local news outlets have reported his improprieties with fundraising, noting that he was using his office for his own pet projects: In 2012, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission fined him more than $37,000 for failing to report contributions to these nonprofits from Wal-Mart’s foundation and other groups. While progressives in California were fighting against Prop 8 in 2008, Johnson opposed marriage equality, stating that he believes marriage is between a man and a woman. He eventually switched to opposing Prop 8, but the statement was worrying nonetheless. In addition, he has a shady history involving allegations of sexual misconduct, which came to light during a federal investigation.

Rep. Raul Ruiz: Rep. Ruiz is a second-term member of Congress from the Palm Springs area, holding a decidedly moderate swing district. He’s broken with the Democratic Party on some key decisions, including recently voting with Republicans to condemn Barack Obama for a prisoner exchange that freed a U.S. soldier who had been held captive for nearly five years. In fact, CQ Weekly found that he was one of the most likely House Democrats to vote against the Democratic leadership.  He either believes in his conservative voting record or he does it because he thinks it makes good politics. Either way, he’s not the candidate progressives will want.

The People No One Is Talking About—But Should Be

Rep. Mark Takano: Rep. Takano is serving his second term for a moderately Democratic district based in Riverside, Calif. Takano is one of those true gems: a genuine progressive who works hard and is committed to maintaining his values. He’s gained headlines for his clever use of social media, including highlighting his past as a teacher by taking a red pen to Republican letters. Takano is the only openly gay minority member of Congress and has spoken about the intersection of the LGBT and labor movements. He’s a proud member of Democrats for Public Education, and he’s also worked hard to protect taxpayers and seniors from unscrupulous lenders where reverse mortgages are concerned. Unfortunately, as of now, no one has discussed him as a potential candidate for Boxer’s seat in the Senate. If progressives are looking for a strong candidate, Takano should be a top draft pick.

Rep. Karen Bass: Rep. Bass has served as a member of Congress from Los Angeles since 2010. She’s been outspoken on gun safety issues and has supported rules that would require gun dealers to report their sales to the Justice Department. She’s used her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to push for domestic job creation rather than overseas outsourcing, and she has voted against unfair trade deals that would harm workers in California. In addition to her position as secretary of the Congressional Black Caucus, she’s a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the LGBT Equality Caucus, and several other caucuses that matter to many progressive California voters. Electing a progressive Black woman to the U.S. Senate would be a win for California.

Supervisor Hilda Solis: Supervisor Solis was elected to her seat in November, so it’s too early for her to run for another office just yet. If progressives push, though, we may be able to convince her to run for one of the seats in 2018. Solis has a long history in California and national politics. As the U.S. secretary of labor from 2009 to 2013, she focused on workplace safety and veterans’ workforce issues in addition to overseeing the Labor Department’s successful fight for back wages for employees who had been cheated by their employers. Prior to her stint as labor secretary, she served as a Los Angeles member of Congress and was an active member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. As a Latina in an increasingly diverse state, Solis would be a strong pick for progressives. Hopefully, her name will be floated for future cycles.

Rep. Ted Lieu: Rep. Lieu was elected to his first Congress term in November, so like Solis, it’s too early for him to run for Boxer’s seat. But Lieu would be a valuable contender for progressive votes if he ever decided to move up. With strong environmental, labor and economic credentials, Lieu would be able to unite the left around a progressive vision. Notably, as a state senator in 2013, Lieu authored California’s ban on harmful anti-gay conversion therapy. His record in the state legislature also includes combating cyber-bullying and standing up for survivors of domestic abuse.

There are a wealth of options for progressives to support and to urge to run for office, both in this election cycle and those to follow. For a progressive victory, it will take us working together. Environmentalists, for example, will need to screen candidates for education reform, because privatization often means not teaching science. LGBT groups will need to push for labor advocacy, because workers’ groups have a track record—including concerning California’s anti-equality Prop 8—of being financially strong allies in the fight for LGBT rights. Reproductive rights organizations will need to screen for environmental support, because fracking matters to the quality of life of families throughout the state. If and when progressives come together to hold these candidates accountable for all of these issues, California will be able to elect fantastic progressives to top offices.