Capitol Alert

California politicos to watch in 2016

California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, announces her candidacy for U.S. Senate during a news conference on May 14, 2015, in Santa Ana.
California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, announces her candidacy for U.S. Senate during a news conference on May 14, 2015, in Santa Ana. The Orange County Register

As 2016 dawns in California, politics looms large. Dozens of initiatives have been filed for what could become a November ballot of record size. State political parties are calculating their odds in nearly 175 legislative and congressional races. Some candidates for statewide office in 2018 are already campaigning.

Policy-making marches on. New leadership at the Capitol and in key agencies of the Brown administration could bring major changes in priorities.

In front of the cameras and behind the scenes, these seven figures will have big roles in state politics over the next 366 days.

Charles Munger Jr. keeps mum about his millions

It’s nice to have a multimillionaire on your side in an expensive election fight, especially if that multimillionaire is Charles Munger, Jr.

The Palo Alto physicist has made a habit of pouring his fortune into conservative causes and candidates, a vital boost for the California Republican Party’s declining coffers. Munger spent $15.3 million in the 2014 election cycle and $43.6 million in 2012, when he unsuccessfully led the charge against Proposition 30, a ballot measure that temporarily raised sales taxes and income taxes on upper-income earners.

“He’s courted heavily by everybody on everything,” said GOP consultant Kevin Spillane, who worked on Munger’s independent spending campaign to defeat Tim Donnelly in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. “He’s hugely important to the center-right forces in California.”

He’ll have at least one issue to get behind: his own proposed initiative with former Republican lawmaker Sam Blakeslee that would prohibit the Legislature from passing any bill until it’s available on the Internet in its final form for 72 hours.

Last-minute deals without public disclosure, he argues, are “the way special interests get their dirty work done.”

The measure would also put a video recording of every public legislative meeting online and allow anyone to make their own cell phone recordings. Munger said he wants to bring the public into the process more, so that lawmakers aren’t simply “slamming a rubber stamp on something.”

“It gives everybody a chance to weigh in,” he said.

With unions lining up to pass myriad liberal priorities in 2016 – including an extension of those Proposition 30 taxes – allies and foes alike are eager to see where else Munger might play. For now, he refuses to say.

“I can’t tell you about anything else I might or might not be getting involved with,” Munger said. “You can guess about that.”

Michael Picker promises to bring ‘public’ back to Public Utilities Commission

Michael Picker is feeling “a lot of pressure to fix a lot of things” at the California Public Utilities Commission.

A former renewable energy adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, Picker took over as head of the agency this year. Embattled former President Michael Peevey chose not to seek a third term amid a growing scandal regarding secret dealings with the utilities he oversaw.

Pressure came in particular from the Legislature, which unanimously passed six bills this session that would have appointed an inspector general to oversee the commission, limited private communications on commission matters, and made it easier to bring a public records lawsuit against the commission, among other changes.

Brown vetoed all of them, deeming the proposals “unworkable.” But consumer advocates continue to agitate for Picker to prohibit private communications in rate-setting procedures, which they argue hurts ratepayers by allowing utility companies to present their data to the commission without being challenged on it.

“You need to give all the parties an opportunity to compete on a level playing field,” Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network, said. “He has an opportunity to do that on his own, without legislation.”

Picker said he didn’t completely agree with the bills, which he felt conflicted with one another, but is working to “create a much more accountable system.” Rather than banning private communications, commissioners are now crafting new codes of conduct and training. How they keep track of contact with outside parties is among the topics.

Chief of staff to former Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna from 1992 to 1999, Picker still lives in town and travels to San Francisco weekly for work. With his proximity to the Capitol, he plans to get more involved with the Legislature to “help them understand the challenges we face.” Picker said the commission, created in 1911 to regulate the railroads, can feel stuck in the world of a century ago, struggling to keep up with the pace of technological change.

“It’s one of the most frustrating places I’ve ever worked,” he said.

Picker particularly wants to open the commission’s technical and expensive decision-making processes to more people: “How do we actually make the PUC a more accessible place?”

Loretta Sanchez doesn’t stick to the script

When U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement in January, most fellow Democrats cleared a path for presumptive frontrunner Attorney General Kamala Harris to replace her.

Not Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Orange, who jumped into the race four months later boldly touting two decades of federal experience and Spanish fluency that she noted Harris does not have. She draws a striking contrast to the more reserved Harris, with off-the-cuff remarks that have already gotten her into trouble on the campaign trail, most recently for citing disputed estimates about the number of Muslims who want a caliphate.

Venturing far outside her Orange County district in April 2015, Rep. Loretta Sanchez gave a passionate, campaign-style talk in San Francisco and took aim at fellow Democrat and state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Early polls show both Harris and Sanchez leading a field of relatively unknown Republican contenders: Assemblyman Rocky Chávez of Oceanside and former state party chairmen Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro. Under California’s “top two” primary system, the Democrats could face each other in a November runoff.

Could Sanchez force an unprecedented all-Democrat showdown for statewide office?

“She’s doing what she has to do, which is do this slowly and incrementally,” said Democratic political consultant Andrew Acosta. He said Sanchez has adopted the right strategy so far by securing endorsements, working to gain a little momentum and then hoarding all of her resources until the election draws nearer.

If a broad field of candidates with little money significantly splinters the vote, Sanchez might pull through on the strength of her core constituency of Southern California Latinos.

“This is a race where she might find her ability to communicate to a small number of Democrats is enough,” Acosta said.

Mark Murray aims to stop industry from trashing plastic bag ban

When the Legislature passed a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in 2014, after three failed attempts in the previous four years, Californians Against Waste President Mark Murray felt a sense of relief. It was short-lived.

Plastic bag manufacturers – including heavyweights like South Carolina-based Hilex Poly and Texas-based Superbag – immediately mounted an offensive to overturn the law, spending $3.2 million to qualify a referendum for the November 2016 ballot. They could spend tens of millions more to save a California wholesale market worth $195 million to them annually.

It’s easy to see the environmental activists who will be defending the ban as major underdogs.

“I’m not sure if we’re even going to raise $3.2 million on this thing,” said Murray, who is chair of the campaign committee.

But he’s still feeling confident: Grocers, who stand to benefit financially from the law by charging shoppers at least 10 cents for paper or reusable plastic bags, might offer support by reaching out to voters through their stores. And local ordinances have already been passed in areas covering about one-third of California’s population, including Sacramento.

“We don’t have to do a what-if, because we already know what’s going to happen” if plastic bags are banned, said Murray, who argues that consumers have adapted and pollution has declined.

Bag manufacturers are hedging their bets. Slamming the law as a “backroom deal between the grocers and union bosses to scam California consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees without providing any public benefit,” industry group the American Progressive Bag Alliance introduced a second initiative that would earmark that money instead for environmental causes.

Murray says it may be an attempt to confuse voters, or simple revenge against the grocers, whose blessing was crucial to finally getting the ban passed. He just finds it “incredibly frustrating” that out-of-state companies could “buy themselves an exemption from California law.”

“It doesn’t matter if you have good arguments. It doesn’t even matter if you have in-state political supporters,” he said. “If you have a lot of money, there’s a lot you can do.”

Cynthia Bryant leads California GOP back into battle

The 2014 election was a proud moment for California Republicans, who made strong legislative gains and broke Democrats’ supermajorities in both houses. It was also a disappointment, as they came up short in one close congressional race after another and suffered a net loss of one seat in the House of Representatives.

“That does sometimes keep me awake at night,” said Cynthia Bryant, executive director for the California Republican Party.

So in addition to protecting those gains in the Legislature – especially moderates, like Catharine Baker of Dublin and David Hadley of Manhattan Beach, that won in Democratic-leaning Assembly districts – her goal this November is to win a congressional seat or two. Rep. Ami Bera, the Elk Grove Democrat re-elected by fewer than 1,500 votes, is a notable and perennial target.

Bryant builds the support system for candidates. She’s working to expand their base of donors while also keeping limited resources strategically targeted on a narrower band of voters. She said 2014 gave Republicans “a story to tell.”

Data has become a huge part of the equation. Since Bryant arrived in 2013, the party has built up a bank with tens of millions of piece of information about “who the voters are and who they plan to vote for and what’s going to motivate them,” which is then deployed to turn out Republicans who don’t normally vote or Democrats that might be willing to cross partisan lines.

“That is the main gift that the party can carry out to the congressional races,” Bryant said.

In a presidential year that tends to boost turnout among Democratic voters, the political headwinds are against California Republicans. Surrounded by the same team she worked with in the 2014 election cycle, however, Bryant feels confident.

“It’s a lot easier to go into battle a second time with comrades that you know and that know how to do the job,” she said. “We got a taste of how to win elections last time.

An overview of November 2016 state Senate races that could erode Democrats' majority. Video by Jim Miller.

Jon Youngdahl guides union through crucial year

Are California voters willing to pass two sets of taxes and raise the minimum wage, all in the same year? The Service Employees International Union is boldly preparing to put that query to the test.

The state’s largest labor union is behind proposed initiatives to extend the temporary income tax increase in Proposition 30, raise the fee on cigarette purchases by $2 per pack, and increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour while adding more guaranteed sick days for workers.

Sacramento protesters rallied from City Hall to the Capitol building to demand a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Each of these fights will likely take tens of millions of dollars to succeed – but labor is hoping to generate billions more for California’s wildly volatile budget.

“We want to stabilize revenue,” said SEIU California executive director Jon Youngdahl. The union hopes that money can then be used to raise reimbursement rates for in-home health workers, regional centers that serve the developmentally disabled, and child care providers, all of which it represents among its 700,000 employees.

Youngdahl, who previously served as the union’s national political director, said it’s a combination of “timing, strategy and necessity” that led them to take on so much in one year. SEIU also plans to oppose any pension overhaul measure that makes the ballot.

The income tax hike expires soon, California faces a health care funding shortfall, and, with more Democrats expected to vote in a presidential year, “the electorate is best suited to get these initiatives passed,” he said.

Many others have had the same notion, though, leading to a glut of banner initiatives rushing for the ballot – including competing tax extension and minimum wage proposals.

The sheer number of measures could discourage voters, said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. “The typical voter sees two initiatives on the same issues, scratches their head...and votes them both down.”

Youngdahl doesn’t seem to be in any mood for compromise: “We’re going to proceed with our initiatives. We’re taking ours to the ballot.”

Eying bigger dreams, Gavin Newsom tackles gun control

Few California politicians will be as busy in 2016 as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is already campaigning for three major ballot measures promoting liberal priorities.

Newsom has endorsed a proposed initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and he’s working to unify groups of advocates around a marijuana legalization measure. He’s also leading the effort to institute a number of gun control actions that previously failed in the Legislature, including background checks for ammunition purchases and a ban on possessing large-capacity magazines

It’s a heavy election slate, full of some of the year’s most high-profile measures. Political experts say that could also be a good strategy for a candidate who is also raising money to run for governor in 2018.

“The more pots you’ve got your hands in, the more likely you can point to the one afterward that succeeded,” said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. “He’ll be able to go back to those people and say, ‘I helped you, now you need to help me.’”

Newsom dismisses criticisms that he’s motivated by political gain. If he was that cynical, he said, he would get behind less controversial issues.

Firearms groups have already promised to “bring the fight to him,” deriding his gun control initiative as a publicity stunt for his gubernatorial campaign. Newsom is out raising money now so it can begin collecting signatures.

“That is certainly front and center in terms of my focus and my passion,” he said, citing concerns about the safety of his own children. “I’m more convinced of what we’re doing, and more resolved.”

Lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom tours the San Joaquin Valley as he prepares to run for California governor.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff