In a rebuke to the clout of business-oriented California Democrats, a sitting assemblywoman succumbed to a challenger from the left despite benefiting from the full support of her party’s apparatus.
On a night when the country was fixated on the upset victory of Republican president-elect Donald Trump, the defeat of Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, offered the latest California counterpoint.
Her defeat underscored liberal frustration with the influence of moderate Democrats who side with business groups over issues like the environment and employment policies. As Democrats have cemented total control of California government, business groups have increasingly backed sympathetic Democrats rather than Republicans, a development aided by a primary system that allows the top two vote-getters to advance regardless of party affiliation.
After Brown joined centrist Democrats in rejecting a proposal to slash petroleum use, labor and environmental groups backed a challenge by attorney Eloise Reyes. What followed was an expensive campaign that saw liberal allies rally spend $1.5 million for Reyes and $2.2 million from groups backed by Realtors, oil companies and others flowing to support Brown, prompting her detractors to dub her “Chevron Cheryl.”
“The big message here is in districts in which Democrats have large registration advantages, there’s no reason folks representing those districts should be voting the corporate-moderate line,” said Jim Araby, executive director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council, which backed Reyes. “We won because we hit a nerve with voters feeling left out and not feeling represented by the institution.”
Assembly leadership was compelled to support Brown, who won the endorsement of the California Democratic Party, and Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, campaigned for her. But that institutional support was not enough.
“I thought we were going to win,” Rendon said, arguing the result shows “the volatility of the top two system.”
But Rendon stopped short of reading a broader rejection of moderate Democrats, noting business-friendly Democrats won in other races around the state.
“It was a good night,” said David Townsend, a political consultant who has been instrumental in bolstering the moderate bloc.
Here are results from some expensive Democrat-on-Democrat races, with references to outside spending that helped sway the intraparty battles:
▪ In the East Bay, Tim Grayson prevailed over Mae Torlakson, a victory for the business groups and advocates of overhauling teacher employment policies who backed Grayson and a defeat for the teachers unions and other labor groups that favored Torlakson.
▪ In the South Bay, Marc Berman defeated Vicki Veenker. Groups funded by the medical industry and apartment owners backed Berman, while Veenker got support from a group funded by trial lawyers and organized labor.
▪ In the San Jose-anchored 27th Assembly district, the race between Madison Nguyen and Ash Kalra remains too close to call. Charter schools spent heavily on Nguyen; Kalra had teachers unions in his camp.
▪ On the Central Coast, charter school-backed Anna Caballero crushed Karina Alejo, whose support from labor lagged behind outside spending for Caballero.
▪ Former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra reclaimed the seat he lost last cycle to Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, after benefiting from support from charter schools, oil companies and other business groups.
▪ Aided by a wave of charter school spending, Laura Friedman easily defeated Ardy Kassakhian for a Los Angeles area seat.
▪ In three other Assembly races, incumbent Democrats faced Democratic challengers with no outside backing. All three incumbents won: Assemblymen Adrin Nazarian, Freddie Rodriguez and Miguel Santiago will all return to the Legislature.
▪ In the fight to replace outgoing Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, Assemblyman Bill Dodd, D-Napa, beat former Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada. Dodd benefited not just from heavy support by education reformers and business groups – he also won a coveted endorsement from Gov. Jerry Brown. Yamada, by contrast, got relatively light support from nurses and teachers unions.
▪ In a clash of two former Assembly members, Nancy Skinner topped Sandré Swanson. A business-funded PAC backed Swanson in the primary but stayed out of the general, and dentists kicked in some late money for Skinner.
▪ San Franciscans chose Scott Wiener over Jane Kim. In a race featuring two candidates who would have been the lefty choice almost anywhere else in California, Wiener got the support of charter schools and Equality California while Kim was the choice of labor and liberal stalwart Sen. Bernie Sanders.
▪ Oil companies suffered a defeat in San Jose, where Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, fended off a challenge from Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, who was backed by a committee funded by companies like Chevron and Valero. Beall got support from both environmentalist Tom Steyer’s NextGen California and organized labor and from business interests like the real estate industry.
▪ In another struggle between two former Assembly members, Steven Bradford overcame Warren Furutani. There wasn’t much outside spending in this one, though wealthy donor Bill Bloomfield backed Bradford.