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The Sacramento Problem

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In San Francisco politics, Assemblyman David Chiu may be the unprincipled lapdog of Ron Conway, but the so-called “moderates” in Sacramento are beholden to just about everyone else. (Noah Berger/2012 AP)


In San Francisco, we contort ourselves crafting ambitious policies to solve problems inside the tiny plywood box California law gives us. The reason we can’t procure a bigger box from Sacramento isn’t Republicans; it’s corporate Democrats.

We can’t expand rent control because of Costa-Hawkins. We can’t stop evictions because of the Ellis Act. The state eliminated redevelopment funds for affordable housing. State law requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. Prop. 13’s protection of commercial property starves public services. Health care costs rise because California won’t regulate insurance rates. We have a drought because the state won’t regulate agribusiness and rising sea levels — because the state won’t ban fracking or oil drilling.

Do you see a pattern?

Democrats have controlled the California governorship and the legislature since 2011, and even had a two-thirds majority in 2013. Democrats need 53 votes in the assembly for a two-thirds vote and currently have 52. Democrats tell frightened children and gullible liberals that electing enough Democrats to enough branches of government makes progressive utopia politically attainable.

The reason electing Democrats wasn’t enough is the corporate Dems, the so-called moderates. They are moderate only relative to the lunatic fringe Republicans. They’re moderate relative to harbingers of apocalypse, like Assemblymember Shannon Grove, Republican of Bakersfield, who declared banning abortion would end the drought and whose website features her headshot against an alternating background of oil drills and fighter planes. (For all the dirt, see my old friend Laurel Rosenhall’s reporting for Cal Matters.

Moderate Democrats have a diabolical modus operandi. There is no moderate caucus recognized by the legislature. They have no website, no legislative staff and no roster, but they are all linked by overlapping PACs and consultants. They depend on their progressive colleagues not confronting them publicly. Corporate lobbyists let them vote the party line most of the time, except when a favor is called in.

They don’t tend to vote with Republicans. Instead, they may go to the bill’s sponsor and demand an amendment to weaken the bill. For example, California passed landmark climate bill SB 350. There was a provision in it to ban oil drilling in California. The oil lobby was displeased. The sponsor was made aware the bill wouldn’t pass a party-line vote without moderates, so drilling came out. The weak bill passed, mods hands are clean, oil stays greasy. They serve their patrons without casting an unpopular vote for which they could be held accountable.

Last week, Courage Campaign, ACCE, Presente and others released a progressive scorecard ranking assembly voting records on racial, economic and environmental justice bills. San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu was one of only six legislators who got a 100 percent progressive-voting score. In San Francisco politics, Chiu is an unprincipled lapdog only of Ron Conway, whereas those people are unprincipled lapdogs of everyone.

Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno, the Littlefinger of the mods, quit one year into a two-year term to lobby for Pharma. Another Dem from the Central Valley resigned to lobby for Chevron.

I assumed mods came from white suburbs, where opportunists who used to be Republicans switched to the majority party. In fact, according to the Courage Campaign’s list of legislators whose record is more conservative than their constituents, these assemblymembers mostly hail from districts that are mostly black and Latino and, what with structural disenfranchisement of people of color, have low turnout. Many of them get elected with 25 percent turnout or less.

San Bernardino Assemblymember Cheryl Brown helped kill Ellis Act reform, and is up for re-election in a contested race. She was last elected with 23 percent turnout in a majority Latino district.

This year, new term limits kick in, so everyone in the Capitol is assuming whoever wins in 2016 will remain for the next 12 years.

For Bay Area residents who want to fix state law, the road to victory winds through San Ramon, Stockton, Compton, Riverside and Salinas.

Nato Green is a comedian who will be performing at the Punch Line Comedy Club on Tuesday. Debate the finer points @natogreen.

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  • Ryan

    Oh boy. I could go into a whole essay here, but has it occurred to Mr. Green that moderation is a virtue? Notice how moderate states like Washington & Colorado are thriving with a balanced approach to taxes & regulation coupled with being progressive on social issues? Stick to comedy.

  • Pontifikate

    Many of them (even Bay Area Dems) think the Parcel Tax is the answer to everything. A parcel tax is a regressive tax (same on 600 sq feet as it is on 600,000 sq. feet). It’s a blunt instrument.

    Thank you for brining attention to the problem with many Dems in Sacramento.

  • ImYourNeighbor

    The author is a comedian, so I consider this is political satire. After all, he’s just proving he’s no better than any Tea Party Republican.

  • goodmaab

    Excellent critique of the wolf in sheeps clothing we have in politics.

    Chiu was a tightrope walker , backing the horse where it suited his interests.

    Unfortunately many people were negatively impacted by his decisions and meddling.

    How he got to Sacramento is only a sign of his cunning not his support by the communities he has impacted.

  • thomasglee

    California is going the way of Detroit. Have a nice ride!

  • c in sf

    The pattern is the progressives are getting out of control.

  • RealFakeSanFranciscan

    What?! Actual effort on Prop 13 reform at the state level? Nah. SF progressives should just stick with what they know and push out more local ballot initiatives banning all new buildings over five feet tall and requiring landlords to wear clown suits, or whatever. It’s all worked so well so far.

  • pdquick

    We were told when the California single-payer bill was vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, that all we needed to do was get a Democrat elected governor to get single-payer health insurance. When Obamacare passed, we were told it was a stepping stone to state-by-state single-payer. So we elected Jerry Brown, along with supermajorities in both houses, and what happened? When the bill came up, enough Dems went AWOL to make sure it didn’t pass.

    Were any of them subjected to any form of party discipline, like being deprived of committee assignments or primary endorsements, or … anything? Oh you silly child. That’s not how it works. ;)