California voters delivered a victory Tuesday for Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed $6 billion-a-year tax increase, while they weighed whether to set aside the state's death penalty and refused to require manufacturers to label genetically modified food.
The state's congressional and legislative landscape was poised for transformation. The longest-serving congressman in the state, 80-year-old Democrat Pete Stark, was ousted by a rival from his own party, Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell. And in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, a bitter fight between Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman ended with Sherman winning.
They were among a number of closely contested House seats, a product of California's new independent redistricting process.
In the state Legislature, Democrats in the Senate were aiming at winning enough seats — a two-thirds majority — to give the party a virtual lock on power in the chamber.
President Barack Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein secured easy victories in the state, reaffirming California's prominent Democratic tilt and helping launch the president back to a second term.
Mitt Romney bypassed California, a graveyard for Republican presidential candidates for a generation where GOP registration has fallen below 30 percent. Obama won California and its 55 electoral votes by a double-digit margin, according to early returns.
Pamela Caton, 42, a Green Party member from Berkeley, said she voted for the Democratic president to preserve his health care overhaul, which she said was critical for Americans marooned without costly coverage.
“It would be a big step backward to have Romney in office and dismantle that,” she said. Obama “has done a very good job the past four years, given the political climate.”
No state politician had more at stake on the ballot than Brown, who was elected after promising to lift the state from its long-running budget crisis. He personally championed the tax boost — Proposition 30 — that he said would restore California's luster, especially for its schoolchildren. He promised to enact automatic spending cuts that would hit public schools hardest if it failed.
The initiative — the first statewide tax increase since 2004 — would boost the sales tax by a quarter cent for four years, and income taxes for people who make more than $250,000 a year would be raised for seven years. Earlier Tuesday, the governor was greeted by more than two dozen supporters as he cast his ballot near his home in the Oakland Hills.
“I think that's a proposition that speaks for itself, and I wouldn't be surprised if the outcome is more positive than most of you are probably expecting,” Brown said.
Voters turned away a competing plan, Proposition 38, sponsored by wealthy attorney Molly Munger, which would have increased income taxes to inject schools with billions of dollars in new spending. Munger told supporters gathered at a trendy Los Angeles restaurant that the vote was not the end of the fight for increased school funding.
“Obviously this is not the outcome we all hoped for, but transformational change can take a long time and we all know that,” Munger said.
In the race for president and the Senate, it's fair to say the outcome was never in doubt in the nation's most populous state, home to one in eight Americans.
Feinstein, in a commanding position from the start, essentially ignored Republican Elizabeth Emken, a political neophyte who tried to parlay her experience as an autism advocate and unsuccessful congressional candidate into a campaign against one of the state's most enduring politicians. She had little name recognition or money, making it virtually impossible to run a statewide campaign.
An array of ballot proposals — 11 in all — touched on everything from taxes to food labeling, with many of the most contentions initiatives remaining too close to call hours after the polls closed. Voters rejected Proposition 32, an attempt to curb union clout at the statehouse, and Proposition 37, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods. Proposition 34, a repeal of the infrequently enforced death penalty, was in play.
California has the nation's most populous death row, with 726 inmates, yet has carried out just 13 executions while spending $4 billion for housing Death Row inmates and paying for their appeals since capital punishment resumed in 1977.
At least $370 million has been spent on the 10 initiatives and one referendum on Tuesday's ballot.
While the presidential and U.S. Senate races had been a yawn in the state, California is a nationally watched battleground for the House of Representative as Democrats try to position themselves to regain the majority in 2014. About a dozen congressional races are considered competitive, thanks in large part to California's new independent redistricting process that redrew congressional and state legislative boundaries and a so-called open primary in which the top-two finishers advance to November, regardless of party affiliation.
The amount of money spent so far on House races by super PACs and other outside groups — $54 million, and rising — shows their importance to both major parties.
In the state Senate, Democrats are aiming at a supermajority — a grip on two-thirds of the seats — which would allow the party to punch through tax increases without Republican votes. The Assembly should remain firmly in Democratic control, but the party is expected to fall short of the two-thirds margin that would push Republicans to the sidelines.
In San Diego, the new mayor will represent a break from the past, regardless of who wins. Democratic hopes are riding with Rep. Bob Filner, who could capture an office that has eluded the party for most of four decades, but City Councilman Carl DeMaio could make San Diego the most populous U.S. city to choose an openly gay Republican leader.