Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Never a dull moment in politics

Published: Sunday, Jun. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:08 pm

Unfortunately, the Republican presidential primary is over, voter turnout will be dreadfully low on Tuesday and Lt. Gov. Gavin "Ugh" Newsom won't be on the ballot.

But as Ugh derides Sacramento as "ugh" and "so dull" from the fancy San Francisco studios of the somewhat viewed Current TV, we connoisseurs of California politics will have plenty to watch on election night.

We'll be testing the new top-two primary system in legislative districts drawn by an independent commission, seeing if big money can shape the November runoffs, and learning whether Sacramento first lady Michelle Rhee can begin to school politicians about her vision for education by spending $300,000 on individual Assembly races.

Alas, we won't be witness to guys named Rick, Newt or Mitt groveling for votes in Redding. But we do have a Redding councilman seeking an Assembly seat who is a former big-league baseball player who left his mark by urinating in the outfields of baseball parks where he played. You could look it up.

Money usually talks in politics but not always. Two years ago, voters didn't buy a bogus initiative that PG&E tried to sell by spending $46.4 million. This year, we'll see whether health advocates, also known as breathers, succeed with Proposition 29 to raise cigarette taxes, or whether the tobacco industry, also known as merchants of death, will prevail with their $44.4 million.

We will decide whether to tinker with term limits in a way that could restore some dignity to the diminishing legislative branch, where legislators are unable to buck the tobacco industry by raising tobacco taxes even a little. Who pays for ads opposing the revised California term limit law? Wealthy real estate man Howard Rich, who lives in Philadelphia, of course.

Four years ago, Californians granted freedom to chickens and denied the right to marry to some adults. There's nothing so weighty on Tuesday's ballot. But voters in the Assembly district covering Roseville will decide whether Folsom lawyer Andy Pugno, author of the ban on same-sex marriage, makes it into the November runoff.

Pugno blasts his Republican opponent, Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, for being a (horrors) moderate, because wealthy Republican Charles Munger Jr., supposedly a moderate, has spent $260,000 to protect Gaines.

Say what you want about her legislative prowess, but in no universe could Gaines be considered a moderate. Gaines denounces Pugno as a "trial lawyer." That sounds despicable. It's also wrong. Pugno sits in court during Proposition 8 arguments. But he's a probate lawyer who doesn't do trials.

Just as the sun shines in California, politicians' sons aspire to office. There's nothing wrong with following a father's footsteps. But it's nice if offspring earn their positions.

Michael Breyer, son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, seems like a worthy Assembly candidate. A Stanford grad like the old man and a fifth-generation San Franciscan, Breyer, 37, actually created a money-making business by broadcasting court proceedings and streaming transcripts.

He might not win one of the top-two slots on Tuesday. But he never would have had a chance without the top-two primary. San Francisco's cliquey insiders would have blocked any chance he might have had in favor of Assessor Phil Ting, who has locked up labor and Democratic Party endorsements.

Down south, Assemblyman Charles Calderon hopes to hand the Calderon family dynasty to the next generation by easing son Ian Calderon into the lower house.

Although they'll never be mistaken for the Kennedys of Hyannis Port, the Calderons of Montebello include brothers Chuck, Sen. Ron and Tom Calderon.

Not to make your head hurt, but Tom is running for an Assembly seat he once held, and likely will run in 2014 for the state Senate seat held by Ron, who could run for the Assembly seat Tom hopes to keep warm.

Ian, 26, who was on the surf team at Long Beach State, has joined the family business, working as an Assembly staffer.

Of all the races in the state, Rhee has picked this one, spending $322,987 to make Chuck proud and help Ian Calderon defeat Rudy Bermudez, a former assemblyman and parole officer who hopes to skunk up the Calderon family picnic. Bermudez can serve only one more Assembly term, and run for a Senate against – who else? – Tom Calderon. All for a job that will pay $90,525 a year.

On Tuesday, we'll learn a little more about the value or lack thereof of a party endorsement when 20 percent of the voters reject party labels, when people can vote for the candidate of their choice, and when no one likes incumbents other than their dogs and mothers.

A test of the power of independents will occur in the San Diego mayor's race. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher is married to a former aide to President George W. Bush, and has been endorsed by Republicans Karl Rove and former Gov. Pete Wilson. So it made perfect sense for the San Diego County Republican Party to endorse San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio for mayor. Fletcher reacted by turning independent.

Long-time Democratic consultant Garry South helped Gray Davis become governor, and disdains Bush, Rove and Wilson. So it makes perfect sense for him to join them by endorsing independent Fletcher. Go figure.

It says something about the Republican Party's standing that I'm only now mentioning the U.S. Senate race, which includes 23 candidates who look in the mirror and see a senator, and one who actually is a senator, Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. Feinstein will have a bad day if she fails to outpoll the other 23 combined.

There are many congressional races to watch. My favorite is in the Ventura-Los Angeles County area, where Republican Sen. Tony Strickland hopes to make it into a runoff, as does Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Democrat who made her name by carrying legislation in 2010 to ban plastic bags.

Not to be out-nannied, Strickland this year answered with a bill to slap warnings on reusable grocery bags that they should be washed to rid them of food-borne pathogens. Get it?

Strickland used to work for anti-nanny Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, when McClintock represented parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. So did Scott Wilk, who is running for an Assembly seat in McClintock's old turf.

Strickland endorsed Wilk until then-Rep. Buck McKeon's wife, Patricia, stepped into the race. Angling for Rep. McKeon's blessing, Strickland pulled his endorsement of Wilk and flipped to endorse Mrs. McKeon. McClintock pointedly sticks with Wilk, and while he's annoyed with Strickland, still endorses him.

I could go on. Can pistol-packing Assemblyman Tim Donnelly hang on? Will Speaker John A. Pérez succeed in his attempt to help incumbent Democrats win in newly drawn districts in Santa Monica and Marin County against Democratic challengers? Will business groups set up the least liberal Democrats and the least conservative Republicans to win in November? There's so much more.

But as "Ugh" Newsom says, this town is so dull, and we don't want to get overexcited, at least not until November.

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