In a sign of growing tension among California Democrats, at least two Assembly incumbents face unusual intraparty election challenges this year as liberal and moderate interests compete for leverage over environmental policy in a Legislature the party firmly controls.
Assembly members Cheryl Brown of San Bernardino and Mike Gipson of Los Angeles represent safely Democratic districts where re-election should be a mere formality. But Brown faces a challenge from Eloise Gomez Reyes, an attorney who ran for Congress in 2014. And a Los Angeles planning commissioner, Marta Segura, has filed a statement of intent to run against Gipson.
Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, said he suspects environmental groups helped recruit the challengers, seeking revenge for last year’s weakening of high-profile climate-change legislation.
It’s especially galling, he added, because both Brown and Gipson are black.
“I think it’s a tone-deaf approach,” Ridley-Thomas said, accusing the groups of using “wedge politics.”
“The environmental community, and the broader environmental coalition, needs to figure out whether or not it’s going to be a collaborator and … work with black California on policy, and shared political goals, or if it will be an adversary to selected representatives,” he said.
The emerging challenges of Brown and Gipson show that last year’s legislative battles between business-friendly Democrats and environmentalists could have election-year consequences. Some left-leaning interest groups say they are in only the initial stages of assessing their options. But at least one labor union has endorsed Brown’s opponent, suggesting other traditional Democratic allies already frustrated by the ascendance of the moderates could oppose incumbents.
There are some particular races of (moderates) we’re going to be focused on. We think there are some folks who are vulnerable.
Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips
The local Sierra Club chapter in Brown’s district has also backed Reyes. That nod will marshal volunteers, and money could follow, said Sierra Club California director Kathryn Phillips, who said volunteers “are fired up” and called early polling favorable to Reyes.
“There’s no doubt Ms. Brown, who’s a very nice person, has not been representing her constituents when it comes to environmental issues, particularly clean-air issues,” Phillips said. “She’s collected too much money from the oil industry and let that guide too many of her votes.”
It could be a harbinger of things to come.
“There are some particular races of (moderates) we’re going to be focused on,” Phillips added. “We think there are some folks who are vulnerable.”
Phillips rejected the notion that the challenge has a racial dimension, noting that the Sierra Club “has good relationships with members of the black caucus who have been strong, important environmental voices.” If anything, she said, the environmentalist agenda aids African Americans living in communities afflicted by dense air pollution.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people in disadvantaged communities and people of color have borne an overwhelming burden of bad decisions on the environment,” she said. “If we had a commitment that would in any way be linked to race, it’s a commitment to make sure no one in the state bears an unfair burden of pollution because of income, ethnicity or race.”
The environmental community, and the broader environmental coalition, needs to figure out whether or not it’s going to be a collaborator and … work with black California in policy, and shared political goals, or if it will be an adversary to selected representatives.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles
Brown, in an interview, said she thinks it’s no coincidence that she is being challenged. Of the 10 Assembly districts represented by African Americans, she said, her district has among the smallest black voting-age populations, making her more vulnerable to an upset.
“I am a target because of outside influences,” she said. “Any person that runs against me, I take seriously.”
Brown and Gipson are part of a loosely formed caucus of moderate Democrats in the Assembly. Elected with the help of business interests, caucus members played a role in thwarting several bills during last year’s session. Among them was the initial version of Senate Bill 350, a package of climate change measures championed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.
The bill ultimately passed the Legislature, but not before being stripped of a key requirement to cut in half petroleum use in motor vehicles by 2030.
Cheryl Brown, who spoke in favor of the amended bill, said the fuel reduction would have imposed a financial burden on many of her low-income constituents. “Now they’re trying to distort my record,” she said.
Reyes, who raised more than $1 million running for Congress in 2014 and received support from the abortion-rights group EMILY’s List, said Brown’s voting record shows “the interests of her district are not being represented.”
Brown and Gipson’s campaigns have rolled out a string of endorsements in recent weeks, many from their elected colleagues.
But at least one sitting lawmaker has made the unusual move of siding with a challenger. Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, has publicly backed Reyes against Brown. “Eloise is not only a skilled attorney who will understand how to get things done in the state Capitol but she’s also a principled human being,” Leyva said in Reyes’ candidacy announcement.
Leyva was not immediately available for comment. “What she told me is she doesn’t share my values,” Brown said of Leyva.
A coalition of left-leaning groups, meanwhile, has banded together and started sharing information about districts in which they might intervene.
Eddie Kurtz, executive director of one of those groups, the Courage Campaign, said the focus is on an information campaign “to educate the constituents of these (moderates) about what they are doing in Sacramento.”
That could change as the campaign map coalesces and qualified liberal challengers emerge, Kurtz said. Liberal groups and environmentalists incensed at the rise of business-friendly Democrats and the role they played in diluting SB 350 could spend money on those races, he said.
“As there are other alternatives that are gaining momentum, running campaigns and proving they have a legitimate chance to win, we would absolutely think hard about playing in a race or two,” Kurtz said. “I anticipate that we will do that.”
Jena Price of the California League of Conservation Voters said the organization is still in the process of interviewing candidates and making endorsements. But she signaled they are open to backing challengers.
“CLCV’s mission is to elect the best environmental candidates regardless of party affiliation, and that includes taking on candidates who continually fail to represent the values of their constituents,” said Price, who lobbied for the organization in favor of SB 350. ”
Taking on an incumbent is a challenge to leadership and a challenge to that caucus.
David Townsend, consultant to moderate Democrats
David Townsend, a political consultant to the moderate caucus, said he thinks the challenges to Brown, Gipson or others will ultimately fizzle.
“There are candidates out there being encouraged to run, they’re being promised money by the Tom Steyers of the world, but in the end leadership will prevail and discourage that behavior,” Townsend said. “Taking on an incumbent is a challenge to leadership and a challenge to that caucus.”
Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist, was deeply involved in the fight over SB 350, with his NextGen reporting millions of dollars spent on advocacy efforts. In a statement Tuesday, Steyer said, “We have not yet made any decisions on specific legislative races.
“In a system where big corporate interests like oil and tobacco wield too much power, we fight for leaders and policies that promote economic justice, educational justice and environmental justice for all Californians,” Steyer added. “We believe that democracy is stronger when more people participate, and we will soon announce support for voter registration efforts to increase turnout across the Golden State.”