Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Dem duels echo an old conflict

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Each year, the California Chamber of Commerce publishes a list of several dozen bills it calls “job killers,” targeting them for defeat or severe amendment.

It largely embraces the major legislative priorities of four liberal blocs – unions, environmentalists, consumer advocates and personal injury lawyers. And it symbolizes the Capitol’s perpetual war between those groups and business and professional interests.

Over the years, the chamber and its allies have been remarkably successful in blocking targeted bills and so far, they seem to be repeating that record this year.

But what happens in the legislative arena is only half of the story. The other half occurs during even-numbered years when the contending factions battle over electing friendly legislators.

The advent of two business-backed changes in legislative elections, a “top-two” primary system and redistricting by an independent commission after the 2010 census, changed the perennial power struggle’s dynamics.

Business interests had previously engaged in Democratic primary duels for legislative seats. But the new system, in which all candidates would be listed on the same primary ballot and the top two finishers would compete in November, regardless of party, gave business new opportunities to elect friendlier Democrats vis-à-vis those allied with the four liberal blocs.

The 2012 elections were the first tests of the two changes. Democrats won supermajorities in both legislative houses but business backed a number of friendly Democratic winners, including two who knocked off Democratic incumbents.

While the potential of the supermajorities to pass liberal legislation, such as tax increases, got lots of media attention, it was never employed. Meanwhile, the chamber ran up its usual overwhelming victories on 2013 “job killer” bills, much to liberals’ chagrin.

Whether the supermajorities survive in this year’s elections is one issue, but another is whether the Democratic majorities, regardless of size, move leftward or rightward, and that means another round of primary battles. There are perhaps a half-dozen Democrat vs. Democrat duels with that dynamic, with one in Contra Costa and Alameda counties a centerpiece.

Steve Glazer ran Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2010 campaign and later advised the chamber on 2012 legislative races, making him a pariah to unions and the Democratic leadership. This year, Glazer’s running in the 16th Assembly District as a union critic, and while business backs him with big bucks, unions and other liberal groups are spending heavily against him and for teacher Tim Sbranti.

An ironic –and infinitely interesting – outcome would be for Democrats to retain a 54-seat supermajority in the Assembly with Glazer as the 54th vote.

But no matter what happens, the perennial war will continue.