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A blue wave, a frugal governor and California’s ‘resistance’ - Our top 2018 political stories

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California Gov. Jerry Brown introduces Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to the media in front of the bear statue in the State Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.
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California Gov. Jerry Brown introduces Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to the media in front of the bear statue in the State Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.

A blue tsunami knocked out the California GOP. California Democrats fought President Donald Trump on Twitter and in court. Gov. Jerry Brown stockpiled an “unprecedented” state surplus as he readied his retirement move to the family ranch.

Those stories and more stand out in what was a year of nonstop news in California politics. Here’s our entirely subjective list of the past year’s biggest stories, and a nod to some of the ones that will shape 2019.

California got hit by a big “blue wave”

In California, the blue wave was more like a blue tsunami: All seven Republican-held California congressional seats targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee flipped to the blue side, including Orange County — the birthplace of the Nixon and Reagan revolutions.

“It was, as we called it, ‘the orange curtain’ and it has now fallen,” Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman said, in an interview with NPR.

Central Valley Republican Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao lost, too.

But the Democratic gains weren’t restricted to congressional seats. Democratic candidates won every single statewide race, most notably the race for governor that featured Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom squaring off with Republican businessman and Illinois transplant John Cox.

Democrats also routed Republicans in state legislative races, with Dems winning 60 seats in the Assembly and moving up to 29 seats in the State Senate.

With a massive supermajority and the governor’s mansion, California Democrats are poised to pass some big legislation in the coming year. Meanwhile, California Republicans are left to do some soul-searching.

California led “the Resistance”

California voters don’t think much of how President Donald Trump is doing the job. One August poll showed that two-thirds of Golden State voters disapproved of his performance at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Those numbers help explain why Newsom spent far more time on the campaign trail discussing Trump than he did his opponent, Cox. They also shed light on why the state of California is embroiled in some 45 lawsuits that pit its policies against Trump’s.

For his part, Trump was game to rile up his antagonists on the Left Coast. He used Twitter and political ads to criticize California’s openness to immigrants and its overgrown forests.

Still, when the Camp Fire ripped across Northern California, killing 86 people and destroyed thousands of buildings (including the town of Paradise), Trump joined his foils Newsom and Gov. Jerry Brown in a rare show of unity.

A four-term governor said farewell

Don’t ask him about his legacy.

Gov. Jerry Brown has $15 million in a campaign finance account and he says he has every intention of staying involved in California politics when he retires to the family ranch in Colusa County.

He used his 16th and final year as California governor to stockpile reserves and an “unprecedented” $14.8 billion surplus that could cushion budget cuts in a recession or give Newsom room to make good on campaign promises.

Brown used his platform to speak up on climate change, nudging leaders around the world to prepare for a warming planet. He hosted his own climate summit in San Francisco, where he announced an initiative to give California its own satellite to monitor air pollution.

He also signed a bill pledging to move California to 100 percent zero-carbon energy by 2045.

The #MeToo reckoning continued at the Capitol

The #MeToo movement launched a nationwide soul-searching in late 2017, as Americans grappled with the revelation that some of the nation’s biggest celebrities and media personalities had engaged in predatory behavior ranging from unwanted sexual advances and harassment to outright sexual assault.

Politicians in Sacramento were no exception. Two lawmakers resigned before the end of 2017 amid accusations that they harassed subordinates.

Over the past year, the Legislature investigated more complaints against lawmakers and sought to put in place policies to help victims report misconduct.

Gov. Brown, prompted by a Sacramento Bee investigation into sexual harassment in the state workforce, created a new program to track public employees who are accused of misbehavior.

New rules weren’t the only story, though. Public officials continued to face #MeToo allegations.

Less than a month after the Democrats’ historic midterm election victory, the chairman of the California Demotic Party resigned after allegations emerged that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with staffers.

A long-time staff member to Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris resigned suddenly after the Sacramento Bee reported that the state paid a $400,000 settlement to resolve a harassment and retaliation lawsuit that alleged he mistreated a subordinate at the Department of Justice.

While serving as then-Attorney General Harris’ director of the Division of Law Enforcement, Larry Wallace allegedly demeaned and harassed a female employee. Harris, who grilled U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings about an alleged sex assault, said she did not know about the settlement until the Bee asked about it. The state approved it after her election to the Senate.

Cannabis is (mostly) legal

On Jan. 1, 2018, California joined Washington, Oregon and Alaska as the latest state to allow the lawful sale of recreational cannabis to adults 21 and older.

But although 2016’s California Proposition 64 to legalize marijuana passed with 57 percent of the vote, the cannabis industry still faces several obstacles to operating in the Golden State.

For starters, there’s the fact that marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal government. Since it’s technically a federal crime to sell marijuana, federally insured banks and credit unions are squeamish about doing business with cannabis growers and sellers, lest they face sanctions from the U.S. government.

The prospects for a state-run, cannabis-friendly bank aren’t great, either.

Then there’s the fact that several cities and counties have outright banned cannabis cultivation and sales — one of Prop 64’s selling points was that local governments would retain the ability to regulate the sale of cannabis even if it became legal statewide.

That has led to a patchwork of legal statuses for cannabis, with laws varying county by county, city by city.

And the honorable mentions

A full list of the biggest news in 2018 California politics would be an unreadable mess. So here’s a brief rundown of some of the other (again, completely subjective) big political stories in 2018. Did we miss something? Be sure to let us know in the comments.

  • U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, and his wife were indicted on multiple federal felonies for misuse of federal funds. Hunter blamed his wife for any financial shenanigans, and handily won re-election to his congressional seat.

  • Facing a tough re-election campaign, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, an prominent supporter of President Trump, adopted Trump-like tactics in his campaign, not against his Democratic opponent Andrew Jans, but with his local newspaper, the Fresno Bee. That included radio and TV ads and a 40-page glossy magazine.

  • Universal basic income — the idea of paying citizens a no-strings-attached monthly stipend to help address the rising cost of living and declining wages — gained a prominent test case in Stockton. Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs partnered with Silicon Valley investors to provide city residents with a $500 monthly payment as part of an 18-month experiment. Tubbs told CNN his support for UBI stemmed from a desire to revitalize his city and also from the “looming threat of automation and displacement.

  • Several California Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate John Cox rooted their campaigns in the effort to repeal the California gas tax increase — an effort that fizzled at the ballot box. More than half of Californians voted to keep the gas tax increase in place, something proponents argued would fund necessary road infrastructure projects across the state.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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