Capitol Alert

AM Alert: A Year in Review

The California State Capitol on Dec. 12, 2013
The California State Capitol on Dec. 12, 2013 jvillegas@sacbee.com

‘Twas the day before Christmas

And all ‘round the Capitol

Barely a creature was stirring

It was rather dull

So AM Alert weighed its options

It considered them with care

A vacation would be best

Yes, until the new year

But first, one more post

To send us all on our ways

See you in 2015

And happy holidays!

JANUARY: Coolio welcomed the Legislature back to session, and Democrats were sitting pretty with two-thirds supermajorities in both houses. But any excitement about what issues they might tackle with their unprecedented power was soon dashed when Sen. Rod Wright, D-Baldwin Hills, was found guilty of eight felonies related to living outside the district he ran for in 2008. (After a protracted legal process, Wright eventually resigned in September and served 71 minutes in jail.) Gov. Jerry Brown also caused a stir at his annual State of the State address, debuting Sutter Brown playing cards to make the case for another year of fiscal prudence.

FEBRUARY: The scandals kept rolling with the indictment of Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, on 24 counts including bribery, and a record political ethics fine for lobbyist Kevin Sloat. We briefly paid attention to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom when he turned on high-speed rail, a pet project of Brown’s, while venture capitalist Tim Draper made headlines with his ultimately unsuccessful effort to split California into six new states.

MARCH: The Capitol was really shaken when the FBI raided the offices of Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who was arrested and later charged with corruption and conspiracy to traffic weapons. Days later, Yee, Calderon and Wright were all suspended with pay. (Yee and Calderon termed out at the end of the session.) Early on, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, appeared to be the Republican to beat in the race to lose the governorship to Brown, who had already amassed a $20 million war chest.

APRIL: Failed attempts to restore affirmative action and ban orca shows drew attention to the Legislature, though senators paused their work for a day of ethics training. Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, could have used the help earlier; he was fined $40,000 for money laundering. Republican gubernatorial challenger Neel Kashkari brought in big endorsements in an attempt to kickstart his floundering campaign. Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, mounted a comeback of her own to win the annual Capitol Frog Jump.

MAY: Another month, another scandal in the Senate: President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg fired a Capitol peace officer for drug use, a revelation that unraveled issues of nepotism in the upper house and led to the retirement of its longtime heads of law enforcement and human resources. Over in the Assembly, Toni Atkins became the first openly gay woman to ascend to the speakership. Lawmakers came together to place a rainy-day reserve measure, touted by Brown, on the November ballot. Kashkari dumped $2 million of his own money into the governor’s race in an attempt to make up ground on Donnelly, then the two scrapped in a feisty radio debate.

JUNE: Kashkari edged out Donnelly to advance from the gubernatorial primary and face Brown, but the biggest drama of the June election was the state controller’s race. An unknown Republican named David Evans had Democrats biting their nails on election night, and the final result came down to 481 votes. (Leland Yee finished third in an aborted bid for secretary of state.) A court ruling striking down California’s teacher employment rules as unconstitutional injected new life into the superintendent of public instruction contest. Brown and lawmakers reached a budget deal creating preschool for poor children and setting aside cap-and-trade money for high-speed rail. Then his old nemesis, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, showed up to needle Brown on job creation. The fight over regulating Uber also arrived at the Capitol.

JULY: A high-profile recount didn’t change the results in the controller’s race. (Maybe medical marijuana advocates pushed Betty Yee over rival John A. Pérez?) Activists finally got their advisory question about money in politics onto the November ballot, only to have it booted by the California Supreme Court. Brown named Stanford Law School Professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar to one of the vacancies on the court, then jetted off to Mexico for talks on trade and the environment amid a border surge of undocumented minors, leaving us with four governors in four days. In search of some much-needed attention, Kashkari pretended to be homeless in Fresno.

AUGUST: With a deadline looming, the Legislature came together in rare bipartisan goodwill to place a water bond before voters in November. (Birdzilla became a star while we all waited. And waited.) In the waning days of the session, Democrats also passed a number of controversial proposals, including a sweeping plastic bag ban, a “yes means yes” sexual assault bill, and, at the very last minute, paid sick leave for all workers. It had been awhile without a fresh scandal in the Senate, but Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, got himself arrested for driving under the influence after a party at the Capitol made its way to social media. He later pleaded no contest to a “wet reckless.”

SEPTEMBER: Ignoring his own precedent, Brown participated in only one debate with Kashkari, where they clashed over California’s economic recovery and teacher dismissal laws. Then he signed a much-lobbied-for film tax credit, much-lobbied-against historic groundwater regulation, and more gun control measures. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly returned to the Capitol to unveil his official portrait, which included a poorly removed image of estranged wife Maria Shriver.

OCTOBER: With Brown basically ignoring his own reelection campaign, attention (and loads of money) unexpectedly turned to the superintendent of public instruction contest, where incumbent Tom Torlakson and Marshall Tuck debated the future of California public schools. Kashkari tried to get in on the action with a much-derided ad depicting a drowning child. The local battle between Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, and Republican Doug Ose was the most expensive, and perhaps the nastiest, congressional race in the country. Kevin de León took over as Senate president pro tem with a $50,000 inauguration paid for by special interests. Plastic bag makers launched an expensive effort to overturn the state’s new ban.

NOVEMBER: A tame election cycle sent voter turnout tumbling to a record low. Brown was easily elected to a record fourth term as governor with 60 percent of the vote and Democrats swept statewide office, but they lost their supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature. Weeks later, we finally found out that Bera had eked out a nailbiting victory, and an unknown named Patty Lopez had just unseated a supposed frontrunner for the next Assembly Speaker. No sooner was the election over than the University of California announced plans to raise tuition, sparking a budget battle with Brown and massive student protests. Brown filled another vacancy on the California Supreme Court with Obama administration lawyer Leondra Kruger, a surprisingly controversial pick. All was quiet on the Senate front, and de León laid off dozens of staff members.

DECEMBER: The Legislature swore in a new class of fresh faces and immediately set about trying to avoid the UC tuition hike. A shoeshine man and the oversight office were revealed as further victims of Senate budget troubles. After federal officials finally approved a design, California prepared for the launch of its new drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. With his typical diplomacy, Michael Peevey stepped down as head of the California Public Utilities Commission amid scandal. Oh, California, we do things different.

Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.

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