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.
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.
JERRY BROWN, SURVIVOR
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.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 19, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Where Democrats Reign.