Dan Morain

In Bera-Jones race, globalization fight turns local and bitter

In 2012, Richard Trumka, center, President of the AFL-CIO, campaigned for Ami Bera and other Democratic congressional candidates.
In 2012, Richard Trumka, center, President of the AFL-CIO, campaigned for Ami Bera and other Democratic congressional candidates. rbyer@sacbee.com

In the final push late in the 2012 campaign, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spent a day with Ami Bera knocking on doors, and helping knock off the Republican incumbent, Dan Lungren.

By the time results were tabulated, Bera had prevailed by 9,200 votes out of the 273,000 ballots cast, ending Lungren’s two-decade-long political career.

“That race was a chance for us to get someone who would help working people, someone who would keep his word,” Trumpka said by phone last week. “I thought he would make a good representative, someone we could trust.”

Four years later, Bera, D-Elk Grove, faces a challenge from Republican Scott Jones, the Sacramento County sheriff, and is confronting basic questions: Where does he stand on President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, which labor fiercely opposes?

And if he supports the deal – he tipped his hand last year by breaking with House Democrats and labor and voting with Republicans to give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate it – Bera must figure out how to win re-election without the union-supplied campaign workers who knock on doors and make phone calls.

Bera told me he is “not looking to get into a fight with labor.” But he’s in that fight as long as he doesn’t side with labor on free trade. And that fight rages across the state and nation. Globalization has thrown into relief some of the basic issues of our time: income inequality, the growing gap between haves and have-nots, the shriveling middle class.

A Bloomberg Politics poll last week showed that protectionist attitudes run so deep that the respondents would rather see an American-owned factory that employs 1,000 people than a Chinese-owned factory that employs twice that number. Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders call the trade pact “horrible” and “disastrous.”

Trumka called the Trans-Pacific Partnership a “generational issue,” and cites a study by the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute showing that in 2015, the nation lost 2 million jobs, and California lost 227,000 jobs, and Bera’s district lost 2,600 jobs to 11 Trans-Pacific Partnership nations.

“He has undermined the trust working people had in him,” Trumka said, though he noted Bera, a physician, can heal the wound.

Toward that end, an AFL-CIO contingent met with him in Washington last week. So did a pro-trade delegation from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, as reported by Politico. Bera says he has not made up his mind, and it’s not clear Congress will vote on the deal before November, though Obama views it as part of his legacy.

“At the end of the day, it has to be a good deal for American workers,” Bera said. “It has to open up exports.”

Most of labor, though angry at Bera, is neutral on his race, for now. Not so the Teamsters, which endorsed Jones earlier this month. Jones opposes the trade deal. That could matter. Bera won re-election by 1,455 votes in 2014. Teamsters executive Doug Bloch counts 4,000 Teamsters in Bera’s district, which includes southern and eastern Sacramento County. The Teamsters issued a “no endorsement” in Rep. Jim Costa’s re-election, Bloch said. The Fresno Democrat, who also voted to grant the president fast-track authority, won by 1,334 votes in 2014.

Bera may calculate that he doesn’t need labor. Much of his campaign money comes from free trade supporters, among them the New Democrat PAC, which positions itself as representing moderate Democrats. Twenty of the 28 House Democrats, who, like Bera, supported fast-track negotiating authority, received New Democrat donations in this election. Bera is the largest recipient so far, at $17,000. The committee’s recent contributors include Silicon Valley billionaire Sean Parker, venture capitalist John Doerr, Google and Microsoft, as well as Citigroup executives.

“No state benefits more than California, and yet we have the hardest time producing Ami Beras who are willing to really take tough stands on trade,” said Carl Guardino, who led the Silicon Valley Leadership Group delegation to Washington last week.

Guardino estimates 7 million Californians have jobs that in some way depend on trade. But our economy is shifting. In January, the institute predicted that manufacturing will decline by 3.2 percent by 2022, while other major sectors – construction, services, health care, exports, retail – would increase. Food service jobs will rise, too, though some fast food joints shed humans as wages rise and the cost of robots fall.

Against all this, there is discussion of the let-them-eat-cake concept known as universal basic income, the notion that everyone gets a set amount of money. People on the left and tech-libertarians in the Silicon Valley seem enamored of the dystopian idea. Supposedly, it would differ from welfare; there wouldn’t be as many rules. It’s a distinction without a difference.

In January, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Y Combinator issued a request for applicants interested in researching basic income – “giving people enough money to live on with no strings attached.”

“I’m fairly confident that at some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of this at a national scale,” Y Combinator’s president, Sam Altman, wrote.

Ross Baird of the Silicon Valley firm Village Capital, and Lenny Mendonca, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a board member on various civic organizations, responded pointedly last week on the site, medium.com: “And you wonder why political candidates on both sides are tapping into anti-elitist anger with great success.”

“The U.S. is the biggest beneficiary of globalization. But it is bad for about 20 percent of the U.S. So let’s focus on that,” Mendonca told me.

The answer isn’t to pacify have-nots with basic income, or to close our borders. Nor can the U.S. hemorrhage factory jobs to countries that manipulate currency, exploit workers and wreck the environment, all so they can send us cheap electronics.

As he makes a decision that could determine his political future, Bera will not only have the weight of political expectations on his shoulders, but the weight of all those global questions. Hard to envy him that.