California’s old political machine losing steam


A quiet revolution is occurring in California politics. Centrist Democrat Steve Glazer’s victory over more doctrinaire Democrat Susan Bonilla in a special election for a state Senate seat in the East Bay is just the latest, and perhaps most profound, evidence that public-employee unions are losing their control over the California Legislature.

The unions clearly overplayed their hand in trying to vilify Glazer, a longtime Democrat who has served as a close adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, as an enemy of working people. In truth, Glazer was yet another in a series of Bay Area Democrats who largely follow the party line, but would be willing to challenge its orthodoxy on issues such as education and pension reform.

“We do have thoughtful legislators who get trapped,” said Glazer, who secured a solid nine-point victory. “They can’t be thoughtful ... because they’re fearful.”

Glazer was not. Neither was San Rafael Democrat Marc Levine, who defeated Assemblyman Michael Allen, the choice of labor and party kingpins, in November 2012. Nor was Sam Liccardo, who defeated fellow Democrat Dave Cortese for mayor of San Jose last year by committing to continue union-loathed pension reforms. The unions and Democratic Party suffered a particularly stinging defeat when centrist Republican Catharine Baker edged union leader and staunch Democrat Tim Sbranti for an Assembly seat in the East Bay last year.

Anyone suspect a pattern here?

“It’s changing,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks elections statewide. He suggested the top-two primary, which allows the top two finishers to advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation, is having its intended effect of helping candidates, like Glazer, who are willing to appeal across party lines.

No one, including Glazer, disputes that he would not have had a chance in a Democrat-only primary. Hoffenblum said the phenomenon similarly has elevated the chances of centrist Republicans.

“That’s why both the left and the right hate the system,” Hoffenblum said.

So what does this mean for the ability of Sacramento to address the big issues of our time? Plenty. If the trend continues, it could mean that long-ignored problems from education reform to future pension obligations could be addressed. Public-employee unions have been near-absolutists in their resistance to significant changes on these and other issues — and their ability to keep Democrats in line against even the most modest and sensible changes has been disturbing.

Steve Westly, a Democrat and former state controller who endorsed Glazer, said last week that he routinely encounters people of both parties who regard the partisan gridlock in Washington as “a tragedy for our country.” Sacramento, with its one-party rule, has not been much better at addressing the major issues facing the state.

“Slowly but surely, we’re seeing candidates from both parties step up and say, ‘I’m here to fix problems,’” said Westly, a leading voice for the voter-approved reforms for the top-two primary and independent redistricting. “I’m glad I took the arrows in my back for those two ideas.”

Hoffenblum said those reforms already are having effects on the California Legislature. The Republican caucuses are more diverse and less ideologically rigid. The ruling Democrats are more open to engaging with the minority party.

“It’s a much different Legislature than it was a couple of years ago, when they weren’t even talking to each other,” Hoffenblum said.

Not surprisingly, labor and its allies attempted to downplay the larger significance of the Glazer victory. They noted that it was a special election with about a 25 percent turnout. They reminded that they were outspent by Glazer’s business-minded supporters. They pointed to his less than 30 percent support from district Democrats, which could spell trouble in a general election. They vowed to unseat him in 2016.

Yet even Steve Maviglio, one of the state’s most aggressively partisan Democratic consultants who worked on Bonilla’s behalf, acknowledged that labor may have overplayed its hand in this one. “People were sick of the mail from both sides,” he said.

Maviglio suggested that Glazer ran “an antiunion campaign” with his proposal to ban BART strikes and his emphasis on the undue power of unions in Sacramento.

“He ran right at them: So they had no choice but to respond in that way,” Maviglio said.

But the key point remains: They lost. Glazer’s message resonated, at least with those who bothered to vote.

“They had to make it so broad and so corrosive as to justify the use of labor money and labor action across the state to stop someone like me,” Glazer said. “You had an overreach. Does that explain the overreach in Sacramento? Yes. Any Democrat is scared to stand up and do what is right for his or her district if it goes against these powerful interests. Things have gone too far. We’re out of balance.”

What is striking about the Seventh Senate District, which includes a wide swath of Contra Costa County and Alameda County’s Tri-Valley, is it bears an uncanny resemblance to the voter registration of the state: 43 percent Democrat, 28 percent Republican, 22 percent no party preference.

Glazer won by building a coalition that included Republicans. His success could provide a template for statewide Democratic candidates in the event that two emerge in a general election. For that matter, it could offer Republicans a hint on how they might return to relevancy in a state where Democrats have a significant registration edge.

“I’ve seen the cycles: Parties that create big tents win elections,” said Westly, a potential 2016 gubernatorial candidate. “It’s important for Democrats to speak to labor’s issues. It’s also important for Democrats to speak to small business and business concerns. That is a winning formula.”

It certainly worked for Steve Glazer.

John Diaz is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @JohnDiazChron

Showing 5 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.