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A State of Change: California's Tilt Toward the Left

November 03, 2002|Harold Meyerson | Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and political editor of LA Weekly.

On Tuesday, California voters will go to the polls and most likely entrust their state entirely to Democrats. Despite the fact that the Democratic ticket is headed by an incumbent governor about as popular as a strain of bacteria, every Democratic candidate for statewide office is leading in the polls. The party's huge majorities in the state's legislative and congressional delegations will remain intact not just in this election but for the foreseeable future.

For a state that was the spawning ground of modern American conservatism -- home to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Howard Jarvis -- this total make-over into the nation's foremost Democratic bastion has been stunning. But this partisan realignment is just one aspect of the transformation of America's mega-state. In fact, California has become by many measures the most liberal state in the land. Here are just some of the laws enacted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis in the course of the year:

* The nation's first paid family leave program, guaranteeing workers up to six weeks off for medical and other emergencies. Such programs have long been a staple in social democratic Europe but entirely absent from the United States.

* Long-overdue legislation granting binding mediation to farm workers, who over the last quarter-century had been able to win first contracts at just one-third of the farms where workers had voted to establish a union.

* Much stricter auto emissions standards than those mandated by the federal government.

* A statute requiring utilities to produce one-fifth of their energy from renewable sources by 2017.

* The promotion and funding of stem-cell research in California's universities and laboratories.

* Legislation making gun manufacturers liable in civil court for gun violence.

With statutes such as these, 35 million Californians, representing one-eighth of the nation's population, now live in a state that is diverging dramatically from the policies of the national government. Labor and environmental interests that are stymied in Washington are heeded in Sacramento. The religious right and the gun lobby, which loom so large in national politics, cast a very small shadow here. Davis may veto many of the bills that an increasingly liberal Legislature plunks onto his desk, but this year, standing for reelection, he found himself compelled to move not to the center but to his left.

Partly, that's a function of the Legislature itself. Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, a tough and crafty San Francisco liberal, is the driving force behind many of the bills that vex Davis' sleep.

But Burton's not acting by himself. Bay Area legislators have been famously liberal for decades. In Los Angeles over the last five years, with the considerable assistance of a revitalized labor movement, liberals have consistently defeated more centrist candidates in one Democratic primary after another. And with the new reapportionment creating safe Democratic districts across the state, this year's March primaries featured contests far from the state's two major metropolises in which Democrats backed by labor and environmental groups defeated Democrats backed by energy companies and other corporate donors in half a dozen open Assembly seats.

Ultimately, however, California's leftward march isn't the result of liberals' legislative legerdemain. It's Californians as a whole who have changed.

To begin with, over the last decade a lot of Californians up and left -- taking the old California of Nixon, Jarvis and Reagan with them. With the collapse of aerospace that followed the end of the Cold War, and the elimination of hundreds of thousands of middle-income jobs, 2 million Californians left for other states. California continued to grow, of course, filling up with millions of immigrants chiefly from Mexico, Central America and East Asia.

In 1994, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's support for Proposition 187, which sought to deny public services to illegal immigrants -- adults and children alike -- shocked the Latino community, which in turn prompted a massive effort (with the assistance of the Latino-led Los Angeles labor movement) to naturalize and register Latinos, who then voted Democratic. Since 187, the Latino share of the electorate has been steadily growing -- from 9% in 1992 to 15% two years ago to a projected 17% next Tuesday. What's important to realize is that it's not just a preponderantly Democratic electorate. It's a liberal electorate, too.

In their support for a series of ballot measures since the mid-'90s -- raising the minimum wage, approving school bonds, protecting unions' right to participate in elections -- Latinos have shown themselves to be the most liberal group in the state on questions of economic equity and opportunity, even more than African Americans. Now, a new nationwide poll from the Pew Hispanic Center underscores the depth of Latino exceptionalism.

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