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California’s state Capitol is home to some of the most liberal lawmakers in America.
This year alone, the Legislature passed laws that require California’s public corporations to appoint more minority or LGBTQ directors to their boards, expand the state’s paid family leave law and initiate a reparations process for Black Californians who are descendants of slaves.
But Election Day issued a reality check to the Democratic supermajority in the Capitol, where Republicans are outnumbered four to one.
Through four ballot initiatives, voters rejected policies on labor, criminal justice and voting that lawmakers passed in recent years, demonstrating a sharp ideological divide between progressives in Sacramento and the general California electorate.
With their votes, said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman, Californians sent a clear message to their representatives in the Capitol: “Don’t get too progressive. Focus on what matters to people.”
“Democrats and the governor have to ask themselves if they’re not a bit out of touch with the electorate after seeing these results,” Stutzman said. “I think there’s enough evidence here to reasonably conclude that the policy coming out of the Legislature is more liberal than California.”
Voters handed a win to gig economy giants Uber and Lyft by approving Proposition 22, a proposal that undermines a landmark labor law Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last year.
Californians blocked an initiative to reinstate affirmative action, which legislators sent to the ballot in June amid protests against police brutality that inspired a summer of racial reckoning.
Voters also halted a 2018 law to end cash bail, and are currently disapproving of a constitutional amendment to let 17-year-olds vote in primaries if they turn 18 by the general election.
Bob Mulholland, a longtime Democratic strategist, said the demise of some of the Democrat-championed ballot initiatives Tuesday showed what happens when party leaders listen to the loudest voices on the furthest fringes of their party — instead of the moderate voters who continue to hold a lot of sway.
“If you’re in public policy,” Mulholland said, “never respond to the loudest activists yelling in the room.”
This year was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that Californians were allowed the deciding vote over policies enacted in the Legislature. In 2010, for example, the oil industry launched a campaign to suspend a climate change law Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger considered one of his greatest accomplishments.
While that left-leaning policy withstood a challenge at the ballot box, the decisions made this year boil down to a glaring division between a Legislature trending farther to the left — pushed largely by unions — and moderate voters concerned more with kitchen table issues like the economy.
“The disconnect you’re seeing is a Capitol dominated by special interest groups who try to dominate the proposition process,” said Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin. “And the people of California are pushing back.”
A blow to unions
One of the most controversial measures this year was Proposition 22, which Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy giants pledged to put on the ballot almost immediately after Newsom signed a law in 2019 that requires businesses to give employment benefits to more workers.
The companies funneled more than $200 million into passing Proposition 22, which will exempt them from that law, Assembly Bill 5. Unions largely financed the $20 million raised to kill the proposal.
David Townsend, a political adviser to moderate Democrats, said the initiative’s passage should a send a message to the party’s more liberal wing.
“Proponents of AB 5 were labor and pro-labor Democrats,” Townsend said. “They said, ‘Ok if this is something (unions) want, then you’re our people and we’ll put it through. It had nothing to do with the people of California, and the voters proved that.”
But Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego Democrat who wrote AB 5, said the jaw-dropping sum of money raised by the companies is what propelled Proposition 22 into law, not a liberal Legislature gone rogue.
“Given the overwhelming support for basic worker rights and unions in California,” Gonzalez said in an email to The Sacramento Bee, “I’m confident the Legislature has not gotten anywhere close to skewing too far left.”
Upholding an affirmative action ban
Democrats had hoped national protests this summer would not only spark a conversation on racial equity in America, but also help repeal California’s 24-year-old ban on the consideration of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in university admissions, public employment and contracting.
It was a risky bet from the start.
Polls have consistently shown in recent years a lack of enthusiasm for reinstating affirmative action. The data didn’t stop Democrats from feeling confident that this year’s reexamination of racial dynamics in America would bolster support for Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, which then became Proposition 16.
Proposition 16 instead foundered at the ballot box, with 56% tallied so far against the proposal.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, acknowledged the energy among supporters didn’t necessarily match enthusiasm on the ground.
“That bizarre, always-optimistic campaign speak is always baffling to me,” Rendon said. “I don’t know why people always do that. It seems silly and disingenuous.”
Keeping cash bail
Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to end California’s cash bail system two years ago through Senate Bill 10.
Proposition 25 was placed on the ballot after the bail industry challenged the law.
Voters then killed the measure by referendum, 55% to 45% as of Thursday.
Along with the bail industry, some civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union opposed Proposition 25, raising concerns that the risk-assessment algorithms that would’ve been used in place of cash bail are “racially and socioeconomically biased.”
Rendon called the campaign a “tough one.”
“I thought it was great policy,” Rendon said of SB 10. “It’s fair to say everyone other than bail companies know cash bails unfair and it doesn’t work.”
These teens shouldn’t vote
Democrats also put a measure on the ballot this summer to let almost-18-year-olds vote in primaries if their birthday is before the general election.
That plan was struggling with voters as of Thursday, with 55% of 12.1 million ballots recorded so far in opposition to Proposition 18.
The idea to expand voter access to young Californians certainly was ambitious, said Assemblyman Evan Low, a Campbell Democrat who helped lead the charge for Proposition 18, but not outlandish.
“We just didn’t have the resources to support it,” Low said. Supporters raised about $1.2 million for the campaign, a paltry amount compared to other initiatives.
But Andrew Acosta, a longtime Democratic consultant, said it’s more likely that Proposition 18 didn’t pass the “common sense test” in an election year plagued by political division and the coronavirus.
“Looking at COVID and the economy, not sure they hit the mark of ‘are these measures important to me?’” Acosta said. “I think voters looked at it and were like why are we doing this?”
Sacramento Bee reporters Jason Pohl and Ryan Sabalow contributed to this report