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Why the Democrats Are Golden in California Why the Democrats Are Golden in California

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Magazine / POLITICS

Why the Democrats Are Golden in California

Demographic shifts and coastal liberalism have given huge power to Democrats. They control the state – but there's restlessness on the left.

Jerry Brown: “There’s no limit to desire.” (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—It seemed entirely fitting when Sharon Quirk-Silva, a Hispanic woman, won the final state Assembly seat last November that gave Democrats a historic supermajority in both chambers of the California Legislature.

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Quirk-Silva, the mayor of Fullerton, was seeking to represent a district believed to lean Republican in Orange County, long the seedbed of GOP strength in the state. But she ran a dogged grassroots campaign and benefited from strong support in the district’s growing Latino and Asian communities, and unexpectedly ousted the Republican incumbent. “Many on both sides didn’t take the race seriously,” Quirk-Silva said as aides unpacked boxes in her new office here late last month. “But I was very tenacious.”


With Quirk-Silva’s victory, Democrats achieved a level of dominance in California government unmatched by either party in modern times. Posting solid gains last November, Democrats now hold a two-thirds majority in both the Assembly and the Senate, the first time either party has enjoyed such a preponderant advantage since the Depression. That relegates Republican legislators to an afterthought: Democrats can now pass tax increases or place ballot initiatives before the voters, each of which require a two-thirds majority under state law, without any GOP support.

Also in November, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who captured his seat in 2010 by a resounding 1.3 million votes, won approval of a critical ballot initiative to raise state taxes. For good measure, Democrats now hold every other statewide elected office, both U.S. Senate seats, and, after gaining four more congressional seats last November, 38 of the state’s 53. And, oh yes, President Obama carried the state over Mitt Romney by more than 3 million votes.

The Democrats’ hold over California is built on their advantage among the same groups that increasingly underpin the party’s coalition nationally: minorities, the millennial generation, and socially liberal college-educated whites, particularly along the coast. The difference is that those voters represent a greater proportion of the electorate here than nationally.

Driven by that dynamic, California crystallizes both the opportunities and challenges Democrats will face as the key groups in their emerging “coalition of the ascendant” continue to grow. It shows how demographic change in diverse states can marginalize Republicans, who in California have turned sharply right in response to the Democratic gains and narrowed their support to a distinct minority of culturally conservative whites. “California is the time machine for Republicans,” said Ed Howard, senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of California (San Diego). “They don’t need a time machine to see what their future is. Just fly to Orange County.”

The flip side is that California shows the tensions Democrats will face serving their diverse coalition, particularly after years of austerity. Under Brown and his Republican predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California has imposed grueling budget cuts that slashed inflation-adjusted per capita state spending nearly 20 percent between 2006 and 2012.

Now, energized by the party’s legislative supermajority, important Democratic-leaning interest groups, from educators to child-care advocates, are mobilizing to reverse direction. They are urging funding restorations and pushing other liberal priorities, such as legislation to retrench the state’s participation in federal immigration enforcement.

Even after their sweeping victory, Brown and the top Democratic legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker John Perez and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, find themselves in the position of waving a yellow flag at their supporters. As he prepares to deliver his State of the State address on Jan. 24, Brown has been particularly unwavering in insisting that the Democratic supermajorities are not a blank check, especially not to raise taxes further.

Brown explained his position with a characteristically ethereal aphorism during an interview last month in a hideaway office on a rutted street in Oakland. “There’s no limit to desire,” he said. “The Buddhists have a saying, ‘Desires are limitless; I vow to cut them down.’ Well, I vow to cut them down. I do that every day, and I’ll continue to do that. We have to have limits.” Maybe the most important question for California Democrats in the coming years will be whether they can adhere to those limits and still deliver growing opportunity for the disproportionately young and minority coalition that has carried them to their commanding position.



Brown’s position as a check on Democratic desires is a back-to-the-future moment in a political career of almost unprecedented duration and turbulence. When Brown was first elected California’s governor in 1974, he succeeded Ronald Reagan, who had defeated Brown’s father, Pat, eight years earlier.

A former seminarian with rock-star pals and a taste for Zen meditation, the younger Brown instantly emerged as a leader of post-Great Society Democrats shedding the traditional interest-group liberalism that had animated his party from Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson. Liberal on social issues and visionary on the environment and renewable energy, he espoused an “era of limits” and promised to “move left and right at the same time,” while squeezing state spending. (He symbolized his frugality by rejecting Reagan’s newly designed Governor’s Mansion for an apartment with a mattress on the floor.) Barely more than a year after he took office, Brown became a national sensation when he belatedly entered the 1976 Democratic presidential race and beat Jimmy Carter, the eventual nominee, in a series of late primaries.


“Our first charge with the supermajority is to ... grow jobs.” —Assembly Speaker John Perez

After Brown returned to California, his relations with the cornerstones of the traditional Democratic coalition deteriorated. Grumbling heightened after he offered only halfhearted opposition in 1978 to Proposition 13, the ballot initiative backed by conservative crusader Howard Jarvis that slashed state property taxes, and then embraced the measure after voters approved it. “As governor, Brown baffled and infuriated the traditional liberal-labor coalition, which has worked so closely with his father,” wrote journalist Robert Kuttner in Revolt of the Haves, his account of the Proposition 13 fight. Yet in his combination of social and environmental liberalism and fiscal restraint, Brown presciently articulated the priorities of the white-collar suburbanites who would loom larger in the Democratic coalition under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

After a difficult second term as governor, Brown was routed in a 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate. He receded from and then returned to the national stage with a long-shot campaign for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. This time, he ran as a born-again liberal populist, pounding Clinton from the left and inveighing against the corrupting influence of money in politics.

After Clinton cruised past him, Brown withdrew again before beginning a methodical comeback that progressed from election as mayor of Oakland in 1998, to victory as state attorney general in 2006, to his return to the governorship in 2010, at age 72. His victory that year was perhaps the most decisive of his winding career: He won by 13 percentage points, in what was one of the worst midterm elections nationally for Democrats since 1946, against Meg Whitman, a former eBay executive who spent more than $140 million of her own money on the campaign.

Brown’s 2010 victory showed how years of demographic change had reshaped California’s political balance. By then, minorities and college-educated whites comprised almost three-fourths of the state’s voters, and they provided Brown an impregnable core of support. The Edison Research exit poll found that Brown captured more than three-fourths of African-Americans, nearly two-thirds of Hispanics, and just over half of college-educated whites, as well as three-fifths of younger voters, themselves heavily minority. That allowed him to win easily despite resistance from the same groups that Democrats are struggling with elsewhere in the Obama era: Brown lost whites without a college degree by 20 percentage points, white seniors by 16 points, and all whites by 5 points.

Two years later, the same coalition powered the Democratic victory in the most important statewide election of 2012. That was the passage of Proposition 30, a ballot initiative backed by Brown and the Democratic legislative leaders that extends an increase in the state sales tax for four years, and a hike in the state income tax on the highest earners for seven years. The initiative was the cornerstone of Democrats’ plan to stabilize the state’s finances, and they warned that they would be forced to make major program cuts, particularly in K-12 and higher education, if it failed.

Even so, a clear majority of whites without college degrees and whites over 40 opposed the initiative, according to the Edison Research exit poll. The proposition nonetheless passed easily with support from a solid majority of younger and college-educated whites, just over half of Hispanics, about three-fifths of Asians, and roughly three-fourths of African Americans—all the pillars of the coalition of the ascendant. (Once again, minorities and college-educated whites cast about three-fourths of all votes.) The same wave, meanwhile, brought Democrats three more seats in the state Assembly and four more in the state Senate, creating their two-thirds supermajorities.

“For the Republican Party to become relevant again in California, I think … will take several election cycles before we can see it,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP operative who now publishes a respected nonpartisan almanac on California politics. “What’s happened to the California GOP—and the national party better worry about this—is we’re suffering from demographics. The Latino vote and the Asian vote keep increasing, and they’re not voting Republican, based on fear, not necessarily issues. They’re actually afraid of the Republican Party.”


For Democratic legislative leaders, the passage of Proposition 30 was a bittersweet vindication. Working first with Schwarzenegger and then with Brown, and facing almost united opposition from Republicans, they had slogged through a long march of cuts to state programs that slowly whittled the budget deficit that peaked at an almost incomprehensible $42 billion in 2009.

Now, with the $8 billion in additional revenue Proposition 30 is expected to generate, and the economy stirring toward recovery, the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst projects that California will face an eminently manageable deficit of $1.9 billion in the coming fiscal year—with the prospect of small but growing surpluses dawning behind that. Brown, in the budget he released on Jan. 10, actually projected a small surplus next year.

Steinberg, the state Senate Democratic leader, said that while “there are a lot of reasons” why voters have provided Democrats with such a preponderant advantage in California, one was the party’s willingness to accept those difficult reductions. “At least in a small way, I think the election results were a vindication of the fact that the majority party … stepped up and made cuts that are still to some degree unfathomable to me,” he said. “And yet as a result of this, this fiscal crisis is now over.”

That success came at an undeniable price to programs that Democrats like Steinberg revere. The state legislative analyst tallied some of the casualties in a report this month: In recent years, per pupil spending for K-12 education has dropped 8 percent, the number of teachers has declined 11 percent, funding for subsidized child care has fallen 25 percent, and tuition at state colleges and universities has nearly doubled. Health care services for the poor have also been retrenched. Overall, the analyst says, state spending per person, when adjusted for inflation, is 18 percent lower than it was in 2006.

“Many on both sides didn’t take the race seriously. But I was very tenacious.” —Assembly member Sharon Quirk-Silva

Not surprisingly, after the big Democratic victories in November, key party constituencies want Sacramento to reverse course. “The supermajority really offers California state government an opportunity to move past gridlock,” said Scott Moore, a senior policy adviser to Preschool California, a group that advocates for spending on early-childhood education. “Absolutely, we’d like to see the beginning of the restoration of those services.”

Howard of the children’s advocacy institute is one of many analysts who say that while Proposition 30 forestalled further cuts, it still leaves the state well short of the funding required to provide quality education for its heavily minority and lower-income student body. “Proposition 30 is a stay of execution,” he said. “It’s not going to bring California schools back to where they were when the governor’s father was governor.”

Yet from Brown through Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Perez, Democratic leaders have been united in tempering expectations. Though the two-thirds majorities allow the party to raise taxes without any Republican support, all three men, in separate interviews, ruled out tax increases beyond those already approved in Proposition 30. “I do not anticipate any further taxes,” Perez said flatly. Added Brown: “You don’t need more revenue.”


With pressure from Democratic interests for more spending—and potentially more taxes—certain to grow as the state economy continues the nascent recovery that has finally dipped unemployment back below double digits, Brown is quickly settling back into the sackcloth he wore in his first stint as governor, as the champion of “limits” to what government can, and should, do. “Need is a very plastic word: It expands under the pressure of whoever is pushing it,” he said. “In terms of providing more money, you can’t possibly restore all the cuts.” The sober budget that Brown released last week reflected his conviction. It offered modest increases in funding for primary and secondary education and smaller growth for higher education, but mostly kept the belt tight.

For now, that restraint is unlikely to face a serious challenge. Perez is emphatic in supporting Brown’s hard line. “You can’t restore what you can’t fund,” he said. “Our first charge with the supermajority is to build on the economic stability … and to grow jobs. The only way we will continue growing revenues is to continue growing jobs and business in the state.”

That approach is fine as well with Quirk-Silva, an elementary-school teacher who ran on improving education but believes her centrist district wants restraint. “As much as restoring programs is important to me,” she said, “that won’t be my first priority. My first priority will be to analyze how we are using resources.”

Business groups, most of which have closely allied with the faltering state GOP, are watching these debates in the uncharacteristic position of looking to Brown as the brake on the political debate. Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a centrist organization of technology executives, said that when he met recently with CEOs he was struck by “how much they are depending on Governor Brown to be a backstop to any excesses they may see come out of the Legislature.” That’s “not a comfortable position for him,” Guardino added, “but it’s one that we are depending on him to play as we do all we can to strengthen the California economy.”

Lacking the money to immediately meet the fiscal demands of their supporters, Brown and Democratic leaders may try to satisfy them in other ways. As in his first round as governor, Brown will push the envelope on environmental causes; in the interview, he stressed his support for the state’s pioneering cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and said he will “quite possibly” seek to further increase what already are the nation’s toughest requirements on state utilities to produce power from renewable sources.

During the last session in Sacramento, Brown frustrated Hispanic activists by vetoing as overly broad legislation that would have largely barred California law-enforcement officials from cooperating with federal authorities in detaining suspected illegal immigrants, except those accused of serious crimes. Now, Brown, Steinberg, and Perez all express confidence they will agree on a revised measure to limit California’s participation in that “secure communities” federal initiative, which could precipitate a confrontation with the Obama administration.

If the U.S. Supreme Court this year overturns lower federal court decisions upholding gay marriage in the state, the Democratic Legislature could also place an initiative to legalize same-sex weddings on the ballot for 2014 or 2016. Perez, the state’s first openly gay speaker, said that there “is a high likelihood” California would now pass such an initiative, “but I am hoping we never have to get there.”

Yet, ultimately, the Democrats now steering California cannot meet the needs of the minority and young voters at the core of their coalition without providing stronger pathways to the middle class. For all their reluctance today, that is likely to eventually pressure them to raise taxes further to expand funding for programs such as early-childhood intervention, child care, education, and health care. Politically, the choice facing California Democrats is how much they can increase taxes to fund programs for their low-income (heavily minority) supporters before alienating the upscale (mostly white) voters drawn to them largely around social and environmental issues.

Over the next two years, this tension may peak over whether the Legislature should put on the statewide ballot a plan that would loosen Proposition 13 to make it easier for local governments to pass their own tax-raising ballot initiatives. Legislative liberals are already discussing such proposals, and Steinberg, the most left-leaning of the Democratic leaders, is warm to the idea. (He also hinted, in his reaction to Brown’s budget, more interest than other Democratic leaders in restoring funding to more programs.) When people argue that Democrats should not “overreach, we get it, we acknowledge it, we agree with it,” he said. “But the equivalent danger is to be so cautious, so worried, that we fail to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities.”

Once bitten by Proposition 13, Brown is much more skittish about reopening it. He worries that the public’s tolerance for higher taxes or spending may not be as great as 2012 made it appear. “Right now, let’s digest what we have,” he said. “I want to live within our means and make stuff work under the existing regime.”

That caution fits the experience of the Democratic Party since the 1960s, a period that tracks Brown’s tumultuous political career. Over that arc, Democrats have struggled to balance their own belief in activist government with the deepening skepticism about its value among white swing voters.

But the expanding coalition of the ascendant centered on minorities and the millennial generation is allowing Democrats to win elections while capturing fewer of those skeptical whites than ever before. In that way, the evolution of the Democratic coalition may be providing the party more rope than many in it recognize to hold majority support while advancing a vision of activist government that includes some higher taxes. Nowhere is the coalition evolving faster than in California, and in the next few years the state’s dominant Democrats may help measure just how far that rope can stretch before it snaps. 

Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.

This article appears in the January 19, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Where Democrats Reign.

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