California Forum

Another View: ‘Mod Dems’ becoming a powerful force

Henry Perea, right, of Fresno, led a bloc of Democratic Assembly members who sided with business community against liberal interests.
Henry Perea, right, of Fresno, led a bloc of Democratic Assembly members who sided with business community against liberal interests.

Every election feels like it could be the most important. In 2012, we had an election dominated by new and untested reforms of the primary system and redistricting. In 2014, we saw the two-thirds majority for Democrats in the Senate dangling by a thread, and eventually lost. But for many interest groups in Sacramento, 2016 is really the most important yet.

As recent Sacramento Bee coverage has highlighted, the just-finished legislative session saw a bloc of moderate Democratic Assembly members side with the business community against liberal interests, particularly when it comes to issues regarding the environment, taxes and tobacco. This group of “Mod Dems” could become a more powerful and permanent force after 2016. (“How long will this blue state let oil remain king?”; Editorials, Sept. 13)

The group’s chair, Assemblyman Henry Perea of Fresno, is being forced out of office because of the old term limits law, which limited members to three two-year stints in the Assembly. Under this system we would regularly see a churn of legislators, particularly in the Assembly, with an average of 20 lower-house incumbents being forced out each election cycle. But the new term-limits system, which allows members to serve up to 12 years in one house, is changing that.

While 16 of the 80 Assembly members are terming out in 2016, there will be no termed-out members in 2018, none in 2020 and none in 2022.

For the business community, organized labor, environmentalists, education groups and any major interest with business before the Legislature, 2016 is the last election cycle in which they could create any significant change in the composition of the lower house. If the Mod Dems can hold or grow their bloc of votes, then the dynamic we saw this year would solidify into a permanent structure for several years to come.

This isn’t just an important last stand for conservative and liberal policy interests. For the past several election cycles, groups like California Women Lead and Close the Gap have been focusing on increasing the number of women serving in the Legislature. Similarly, there are groups focused on increasing the number of Asian, Latino, African American, LGBT or other representatives in the Assembly. If they are not successful in this coming election cycle, there won’t be much opportunity for growing their ranks until 2024.

A stabilizing of the Legislature could have significant benefit to our state’s governance, but for interest groups it means that 2016 is the “Last Stand” election.

Paul Mitchell is vice president of Political Data Inc., a bipartisan voter data firm in California.