California’s Capitol wakes up to a new ambiance

The Capitol awakens from its autumnal hibernation this week with a much-changed ambiance.


The scandal-caused resignations of Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, plus the health-related departure of Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, mean the Assembly’s Democrats will return to Sacramento without a two-thirds supermajority.

Were Sens. Tony Mendoza and/or Bob Hertzberg, who also face harassment allegations, to be forced out, Democrats’ supermajority in the Senate also would vanish.

All vacant seats could be filled before the 2017-18 session ends eight months hence, and all are safely Democratic. However, the special elections to fill them will be new opportunities for dueling between the party’s uber-liberal and moderate wings, and the outcomes will affect the Capitol’s ideological tenor and thus whether renewed supermajorities can be wielded for anything significant.

We don’t know who else might be affected as women press legislative leaders for independent investigations of accusations and more transparency in their outcomes.

If nothing else, the scandal and initial lack of supermajorities will dampen what many Democrats had hoped to be a year of major legislation, including, perhaps, big changes in the state tax system to counter the new federal tax overhaul.

It is an election year, which colors everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, in the Capitol.

The harassment scandal is most likely to affect one big contest: a drive by outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León to unseat veteran U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

De León reacted slowly to the scandal after it erupted in October with a letter signed by dozens of women – lobbyists and legislative staffers, mostly – demanding an end to a pervasive culture of boorish, sexist behavior.

The fact that Mendoza had been de León’s weekday roommate added another element to the fallout, and Feinstein’s camp is ready to exploit it.

The other big race on the 2018 agenda is for the governorship, since Jerry Brown must give it up after a record four terms. And the most important factor in choosing his successor may be state Treasurer John Chiang, who is running a weak third in the polls to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

If Chiang continues to falter, the state’s top-two primary system will likely give us a two-Democrat contest in November between Newsom and Villaraigosa. Were he to climb into contention, the Democratic vote would fragment and one of the two Republican candidates, businessman John Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen, could back into the runoff.

The other major election-year question is whether Democrats can parlay the state’s antipathy toward President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress into capturing GOP-held congressional seats.

Voters in seven of California’s 14 Republican-held congressional districts rejected Trump in 2016 and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has targeted several, needing some wins in California to have a chance of recapturing control of the House.

Finally, this will be Brown’s last year as governor and therefore his last opportunity to exorcise the “Governor Moonbeam” label pinned on him during his first governorship four decades ago and secure a place in history at least semi-comparable to that of his father, Pat Brown.

Will Brown coast out, believing he’s done enough, or risk political capital on a high-concept goal, such as reforming the state’s volatile tax system or its unsustainable pension structure?

We may get a hint in a few weeks when he delivers his final State of the State address.

Dan Walters is a columnist at CALmatters. Reach him at