California Forum

Bill Whalen: What do three big elections on the East Coast last week have in common with California politics?

Three East Coast elections transpired Tuesday, each a roundabout statement about the state of California politics.

Let’s review them, beginning with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 500,000-vote win in a state that’s home to 730,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

The California nexus: Christie’s win on Tuesday was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seven years past – the Governator winning by nearly 1.5 million votes in a nation-state with 1.3 million fewer Republicans than Democrats. The two plus-sized gents are held up as exemplars of a more pragmatic course for their party – which is great for getting on Sunday morning talk shows, but problematic if you’re Christie and looking to seal the deal with grass-roots conservative activists in early primary states. Look for Christie to spend quality time here in the Golden State, lifting leadership-starved Republicans’ wallets as he lays the groundwork for a presidential run in 2016.

In Tuesday’s other big gubernatorial contest, Virginia broke a four-decade tradition of voting for the party that lost the previous year’s presidential election. Democrat Terry McAuliffe replaces a termed-out Republican governor who was preceded by a Democrat (Virginia limits its governors to one four-year term).

The California nexus: McAuliffe has California Republicans to thank for writing the blueprint for how to turn a purple state blue. For two decades, recalcitrant conservatives here have systematically alienated Latinos (immigration), women (reproductive rights, no-fault divorce) and the post-college millennial generation (same-sex marriage, relaxing marijuana laws).

This troika worked wonders for President Barack Obama in 2012. On Tuesday, it got McAuliffe across the finish line. According to exit polls, McAuliffe carried the women’s vote by 9 percentage points overall, but held a 40-point advantage among unmarried women voters, thanks in part to Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s opposition to abortion for survivors of rape and incest, his refusal to back the Violence Against Women Act, endorsing “personhood” laws and opposing no-fault divorce (common sense dictates that candidates who come across as bad first dates won’t get far by wanting to trap women in bad marriages).

No wonder Hillary Clinton was smiling when she came to Virginia to stump for McAuliffe. If Republicans don’t get their act together, she’ll ride this same formula to victory in 2016.

The third election that’s California-relatable: New York’s mayoral contest, where the winner was Democrat Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate.

About de Blasio: He ran a campaign that, in previous years, would have been more in line with Berkeley than the five boroughs: wealth-sharing, workers’ rights, expanding social services, putting neighborhood cops on a shorter leash. In all, it was a remarkable departure from two decades of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg’s pro-development, tough-on-crime approach to running America’s largest city.

The California nexus: de Blasio’s signature promise was upping the city’s marginal tax rate on New York’s wealthiest – from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent for incomes over $500,000 – with the proceeds paying for universal pre-K and after-school programs for middle-school students. That should sound familiar: Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 also socked it to the wealthy. But whereas Brown used Proposition 30’s revenue to balance the state’s books, de Blasio wants an outright expansion of government.

It’s a roll of the dice, coming at a moment when Obamacare is under assault and the future of big government may hang in the balance. And it runs countercurrent to recent city elections in California’s biggest cities, where politics aren’t so much radically de Blasio as they are just pain old blasé.

Take the upcoming mayoral vote in San Diego, a buzz-kill of a contest featuring attack ads and independent money committees that are anything but impartial (Restoring Trust in San Diego seemingly trusts only Democrat Nathan Fletcher; San Diegans to Protect Jobs & the Economy is in the business of protecting Republican hopeful Kevin Faulconer). San Diego’s citywide turnout in 2012 was 80 percent. It will be closer to 50 percent on Nov. 19 – a testament to the odd timing of the city’s special election and a lack of compelling candidates.

Further north, there’s Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the youngest mayor in that city’s history with the dubious honor of the fewest votes for a newly elected mayor since the 1930s. You’d expect Garcetti to atone for that with some world-class self-promoting. Instead, so far on the job, he’s a low-key technocrat more focused on learning the ropes than working Hollywood rope lines. Then again, that was Jerry Brown’s style when he served as Oakland’s mayor.

Speaking of Oakland, it’s that city’s mayoral election in 2014 that might spare us from California’s political ennui. The incumbent, Jean Quan, has a 24 percent approval rating per a recent Oakland Chamber of Commerce survey. The city’s quirky ranked-choice system of voting allows for accidents of history – which is how Quan got the job in the first place. An outsider who thinks outside the box might fare better than expected.

In an Oakland that’s crying out for an economic rebirth and an end to its homicidal death spiral, maybe the time has come for radical thought to come to the forefront.

It’s not enough to be blasé, in a city struggling by the Bay.