Capitol Alert

What happened in California politics in 2015?

Shannon Muir and Debra Cooper celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage on the steps of the California State Capitol on June 26, 2015.
Shannon Muir and Debra Cooper celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage on the steps of the California State Capitol on June 26, 2015. The Sacramento Bee file

No legislators were arrested for corruption, but 2015 was another turbulent year in California politics, full of globetrotting politicians, hours upon hours of emotional testimony at the Capitol, and the state’s first open U.S. Senate race in more than two decades. If you can’t remember it all, we’ve got you covered – from the landmark legislation to the television sitcom appearances.


The new year kicked off with a new driver’s license for undocumented immigrants. The Capitol hosted a very full day of inaugurations for the state’s constitutional officers, many of which were sponsored by special interests. Days later, Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced the don’t-call-it-a-retirement end of her 33-year congressional career. Attorney General Kamala Harris quickly jumped into the race to succeed her, stoking fears that Democrats were trying to clear the field. Gov. Jerry Brown faced criticism from his liberal allies for not addressing inequality more in his budget proposal. He formed a “committee of two” with University of California President Janet Napolitano to work through their strong disagreements over how much money to give UC. Lawmakers introduced an assisted death bill that would allow terminally ill patients to obtain life-ending medication. California’s crowded prisons hit court-mandated capacity levels a year ahead of schedule. The community college system announced its 15 pilot bachelor’s degree programs. State investigators raided the home of former Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey, who still had Brown’s support. We met the state’s drought czar, Felicia Marcus.


Lawmakers announced a bill to mandate vaccines for schoolchildren, kicking off one of the year’s biggest legislative battles. Backlash was swift from across the political spectrum – and actor Rob Schneider. Meanwhile, Latino politicians were seeking one of their own to challenge Harris for U.S. Senate, but it wouldn’t be former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom launched his gubernatorial bid nearly four years before the next election. Opponents were already trying to unseat surprise Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando. Though presidential candidates rarely stump in California, an early money primary was playing out from Palo Alto to La Jolla. Brown administration officials threw a controversial farewell dinner for Peevey. Bag manufacturers spent more than $3 million to get a referendum for the statewide plastic bag ban on the ballot. Boxer’s farewell tour of duty included a cameo on “Parks and Recreation.”


As California politicians were all at a loss over how to stop a proposed initiative to legalize killing gays and lesbians, the state Republican Party chartered a gay group within its ranks. Assemblyman Rocky Chávez of Oceanside became the first Republican to jump into the U.S. Senate race. Amid its ongoing budget battle with the state, UC threatened to limit resident enrollment. Then Napolitano was caught dismissing student protesters as “crap.” Brown and lawmakers pursued a $1.1 billion drought relief bill, while organized labor was hoping to secure two weeks’ notice for worker scheduling. Gender inequities persisted on the Legislature’s payroll. Millions of dollars set aside to address a large backlog of prohibited gun owners had little effect. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer wanted answers for California’s gas price spike. Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott tried to create a rivalry with Brown.


It was no joke when Brown began the month by mandating reductions in urban water use. He later had to fend off criticisms that farmers weren’t doing their part. Vaccine drama dominated the Capitol, including threats to lawmakers’ safety and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s warnings of a “holocaust”. The mandatory vaccinations bill briefly stalled in committee because of concerns about keeping kids in school. Staffers and lobbyists were able to jump the long security lines created by opponents arriving to testify. As demand for the new driver’s licenses doubled projections, lawmakers proposed more protections for undocumented immigrants, including health care. They also tackled exorbitant traffic fines and continued to battle over teacher tenure. State Senate leader Kevin de León was called as a witness in former Sen. Ron Calderon’s corruption trial. Former California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro entered the U.S. Senate race. Targeted by Harris and starved for financial aid, Corinthian Colleges closed. Brown set new greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals and conquered a rattlesnake.


Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, wasn’t running for U.S. Senate. Just kidding, she totally was! She promptly got into hot water by appearing to disparage Native Americans. The California Medical Association dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted death, though doctors remained divided. The Senate was providing overnight rides for members too drunk to drive, but it said it disbanded the program after public criticism. Moderate Democrat Steve Glazer of Orinda won a $12 million special Senate election that pitted business groups against unions and he was sworn in by former boss Brown. With tax revenues surging, Brown reached a truce with UC and created a new tax credit for the poor in his budget revision. The drought inflamed regional tensions, and Brown told critics of his water tunnels plan to “shut up.” Lawmakers kissed frogs and got a pay raise. Advocates for immigrant health care took to the streets. De León smashed a car. Newsom partied like it was 1997.


The emotional legislative battle over vaccines came to an abrupt end when Brown signed the bill the morning after it arrived on his desk. Passionate opponents kept their fight going with a vigil outside the Capitol and an unsuccessful referendum drive. Lawmakers largely gave in to Brown on the final budget deal, which left out hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed safety net spending, though it did expand subsidized preschool and provide health care coverage to undocumented children. Members took on the tobacco industry, with bills to raise the smoking age to 21 and regulate e-cigarettes. The Senate formed a bow tie caucus. Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, shared his philosophy on farming from atop a tractor. Former President and California Gov. Ronald Reagan returned to the Capitol in bronze form. The dome was illuminated in rainbow lights to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, a cultural shift long felt in the state.


More than a year after his arrest, former state Sen. Leland Yee pleaded guilty to one felony count of racketeering – but we’re still waiting to find out what his punishment will be. After running into ethical and religious opposition in the Assembly Health Committee, the assisted death bill appeared finished for the year. A proposal to strip Confederate names from public entities enmeshed the tiny town of Ft. Bragg in controversy, sparking debate over how to deal with the most objectionable parts of our history. Brown took his climate change proselytism to the Vatican. Mandatory vaccine opponents mounted a longshot bid to recall Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, the bill’s author. With unions pushing for a $15 minimum wage, UC led the way. National controversies about Planned Parenthood and sanctuary cities sprang out of California. Proponents backed off a plan to replace Father Junipero Serra’s statute at the U.S. Capitol, not that Brown would have allowed it. Decorum seemed to evaporate in the summer heat as legislators called a Mexican envoy “hot” and scrapped over a microphone.


In the session’s home stretch, lawmakers resurrected the assisted death bill, while priority climate change legislation to increase renewable energy and decrease gasoline use hit a snag. Senate Republicans ousted their caucus leader months ahead of a scheduled transition. Brown signed a bill banning the use of grand juries in police killings, but others requiring body cameras on law enforcement couldn’t get out of committee. The kill-the-gays measure inspired a successful effort to raise the initiative filing fee tenfold. Thousands who never passed the high school exit exam got a reprieve. So did many felons, who will be able to vote again. Brown stuck his nose back into presidential politics, prodding Republican contenders on climate change. Communities were concerned about the impact of Proposition 47 sentencing changes on public safety. Some politicians found a second act on talk radio. Actor Rob Lowe quibbled with the state over his tax bill. We all learned how to speak like a Capitol insider.


It was the year of the Assembly’s moderate Democrat caucus, which united against the climate change bill and forced Brown to remove the gasoline reduction provision. Given his ties to the Catholic Church, which quietly guided lobbying efforts, everyone wondered how Brown would act on the assisted death measure. Democrat Anthony Rendon of Lakewood was tapped as the next Assembly Speaker. Special sessions to deal with a pending health care funding shortfall and California’s crumbling infrastructure bore no fruit. Nineteen years years after it was legalized by votes, lawmakers finally came up with a regulatory scheme for medical marijuana. Black Lives Matter protestors flooded the Capitol to push a police profiling bill over the finish line. The Senate ended the session with a call to “Dump Trump”. Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, had a perfect record. Various groups began floating plans to extend the temporary Proposition 30 income taxes on the wealthy. Yet another former California Republican Party chairman, Duf Sundheim, jumped into the U.S. Senate race.


With a raw reflection on his own mortality, Brown signed the assisted death bill. He also approved automatic voter registration, tougher equal pay protections, and bans on plastic microbeads and concealed handguns on college campuses, but he rejected changes to the embattled Public Utilities Commission. Then he took a spin on a brew bike. Over in the U.S. Senate race, frontrunner Harris was spending money almost as fast as she raised it. The historic governor’s mansion in downtown Sacramento got a facelift, including a new $16,609 refrigerator. Newsom raised the ire of gun groups by introducing a ballot measure for background checks on ammunition purchases. As California burned, millions in fire prevention money went unspent – and Brown spoke for the dying trees. He also spoke of a “tar baby.” The California Hall of Fame welcomed cartoonist Charles Schulz and actor Robert Downey Jr., who didn’t have much to say. Lawmakers couldn’t resist a little self-promotion on Halloween.


Lawmakers mixed policy talk with Mai Tais and snorkeling on a paid trip to Maui. A widespread cheating scandal erupted at the state’s fire training academy. An appeals court upheld California’s death penalty, but opponents are trying another ballot measure. So are supporters of legalizing marijuana. Initiatives mandating condoms in porn, raising the cigarette tax and boosting the minimum wage are also in the works. Lobbying for the legislative session topped a quarter-billion dollars. In the midst of a contract dispute, California State University faculty authorized a strike. UC will add 10,000 more slots for resident students over the next three years. Sex offenders sued the state, claiming lax management of an online database was endangering them. Would you like to be California’s medical marijuana chief?


Brown led a California delegation to international climate talks in Paris, an important building block for his gubernatorial legacy. A terrorist shooting in San Bernardino brought scrutiny of California’s tough gun laws and a surge in firearms sales. Sanchez got herself into trouble again by speculating on how many Muslims want a caliphate. Assemblyman Henry Perea, a Fresno Democrat who led the “mod caucus,” abruptly quit to join the pharmaceutical industry. Lawmakers laid the groundwork for a battle next year over daily fantasy sports. The state Senate gave employees their first across-the-board raise in eight years. Faith-based pregnancy clinics went to court over a new law that they argued would force them to promote abortion. Rapper Snoop Dogg declined to blow smoke on the marijuana legalization effort. Downey Jr. got a Christmas Eve pardon for a 1996 drug arrest. It’s twins for 74-year-old former Treasurer Bill Lockyer! After nearly 50 years without an occupant in the historic governor’s mansion, Brown moved back in just in time for the holidays.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff