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California has a reputation for progressive politics. Don't tell that to the state's progressives.

Even though the country's most populous state has a reputation for left-of-center politics, activists complain that California isn't progressive — it's just Democratic.
Image: A California bear pulls on the Democratic Donkey to move left
While Democrats hold supermajorities in the Legislature, the growth in the caucus has expanded ideological divisions among lawmakers in the party. Brian Stauffer / for NBC News

Every couple of months, a conservative writer warns America about California.

“California Has Become the Far Left Coast,” a Wall Street Journal op-ed proclaimed last year. Columnists say the state is a “liberal fiasco,” a “liberal American nightmare,” a “dystopian nightmare” thanks to Democrats. “Blame ultraliberal policies for California's free fall,” a conservative pundit who lives in Manhattan declared last year. On Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted, “California is going to hell! Vote Trump!”

If their point is that California has become a one-party state where progressives can implement their wish-list agenda — universal health care, protecting civil rights, combating global warming and enhancing the social safety net — then theoretically, these conservatives should be right.

Democrats hold all the statewide offices and a supermajority in the Legislature. Only 24 percent of registered California voters are part of the GOP. An NBC News exit poll during the Democratic presidential primary in March, which Bernie Sanders won, found California voters have become more liberal and less moderate over the past decade.

So progressives in the state have a question: If California is so left of center, why has the state failed to pass plans for single-payer health care, a bailout for renters harmed by the Covid-19 pandemic and a system to strip badges from police officers who commit serious offenses?

There are a number of reasons: Democratic leaders have decided not to hold votes on high-profile bills, saying they didn’t have the votes. Powerful lobbies have utilized long-standing relationships with lawmakers to keep legislation they oppose at bay, or to negotiate compromise deals behind closed doors that some on the left say fall short. And while Democrats hold supermajorities in the Legislature, the growth in the caucus has also expanded ideological divisions among lawmakers in the party.

“There’s a division between establishment Democrats, who are Democrat partisans first and foremost, and progressives, who are activists first and foremost,” said Eric Schickler, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “On a lot of issues, they’re on the same page, but in terms of how far to push reforms, what your vision of political change is, I think we have both positions represented pretty well in the state and we see some of that reflected in the Legislature.”

“That’s going to limit the extent to which liberals get all of what they want,” Schickler added.

Image: Health care workers protest in Santa Monica
Registered nurses and other health care workers protest the lack of personal protective equipment outside UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif., on April 13.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Progressives warn that this is a lesson liberals should heed on a national level; even if Democrats take the Senate and the White House, that won’t necessarily be enough to enact a left-wing agenda.

“There are parts of California that reflect every part of the United States — California is not this monolith of progressivism,” said Irene Kao, president of the progressive activist group Courage California. “We are seeing similar dynamics playing out across the nation. People are starting to see the divide more between moderate Democrats and Justice Democrats or democratic socialists.”

Now with propositions on November’s ballot to chisel away at conservative policies from earlier decades on affirmative action and taxes, and two closely watched local races in Los Angeles in which progressives are challenging incumbent Democrats for county district attorney and a City Council seat, activists are hoping progressive wins will be the momentum to push the state’s Legislature further left.

California's shift from red to blue

In a previous era, California gave the world Ronald Reagan and spearheaded major conservative agenda items before they spread nationally.

The anti-tax revolution is widely seen as being sparked in California through a 1978 ballot initiative that cut property taxes and restricted their growth. The state’s voters blocked school desegregation in measures in the ’70s and bilingual education in the ’90s. In 1996, following several years of anti-immigrant activism from conservatives, California voters became the first to ban affirmative action at state universities.

“California is America before America is itself — the good, the bad, the ugly, it’s the whole shebang,” said Kevin de León, former president pro tempore of the state Senate and an incoming Los Angeles City Council member.

Image: Tenants and housing rights activists protest for a halting of rent payments and mortgage debt, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Los Angeles
Tenants and housing rights activists call for a hold on rent and mortgage payments during the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles on Oct. 1.Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

“The state has not always been a bastion of progressivism, but it has evolved over the course of time,” de León said. He got involved in politics after voters approved Proposition 187 — a 1994 Republican-backed measure requiring local agencies to report residents without legal status to federal immigration and state officials.

A federal court ruled Proposition 187 unconstitutional, but it became a catalyst for the state's seismic political shift. A surge in Latino registered voters transformed California into a reliably one-party state, according to Mark DiCamillo, director of the Berkeley IGS Poll.

California is America before America is itself — the good, the bad, the ugly, it’s the whole shebang.

Kevin de León, incoming Los Angeles City Council member

“The Republican wing is becoming less and less relevant,” DiCamillo said. “The future party tensions are between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the moderate wing of the Democratic Party.”

In November, California voters could demonstrate how much they’ve shifted. Ballot propositions will present voters with a choice to repeal the affirmative action ban, and to lift the cap on property taxes for large commercial buildings. A Berkeley IGS Poll last month showed Californians leaning toward allowing property taxes to be re-evaluated, but the affirmative action ban is likely to stay.

'Very able and effective lobbyists'

Democrats captured two-thirds of the seats in the California Legislature in 2018, creating supermajorities that have the power to raise taxes and override a governor’s veto. Since then, they passed progressive laws mandating access to abortion pills at state colleges, capping rent increases and challenging the Trump administration’s overhaul of how schools deal with sexual misconduct.

But other progressive measures have failed, and this year’s legislative session disappointed many housing and police reform advocates.

“You would think at this stage — especially in 2020 — we would move past business as usual,” said Stephanie Roberson, who leads lobbying efforts for the California Nurses Association. “And unfortunately we couldn't do that.”

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On housing, progressive activists urged a series of relief measures under the banner of the #CancelRent hashtag, to address a housing crisis worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. In nearly 1 million renter households in California this year, a lost job put people at risk of losing their homes, according to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. There were already more than 151,000 homeless people across the state before the pandemic led to a recession.

Progressive proposals included a bill to put a moratorium on evictions for pandemic-related economic hardship until a year after the state of emergency ends. Another plan would have given tax credits to landlords for unpaid rent, encouraging them to cut deals with their tenants in a bailout worth up to $8.5 billion a year.

The California Apartment Association, which represents landlords, asked its members to oppose long-term rent deferral as the equivalent of a “government-sanctioned rent strike.”

In the end, a housing bill was hammered out behind closed doors in late August by Gov. Gavin Newsom, state legislators and lobbyists — with the landlord association claiming credit for defeating more progressive ideas. The deal paused most evictions, but only until Feb. 1 under a complex set of rules, and still holds tenants responsible for their unpaid rent.

Image: A person lays in a doorway in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 2, 2020.
A person lies in a doorway in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 2.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images file

“The other side has lots of very able and effective lobbyists,” said state Assembly member David Chiu, a San Francisco Democrat who sponsored the eviction moratorium.

Chiu, who was involved in the negotiations, said business groups including landlords and developers have vast amounts of money to spend, not only on campaign contributions but also on researchers and lawyers to present arguments.

“Sacramento is a place where if you have the financial resources to hire the best lobbyists and advocates, you can go far, and that is typically more true for well-heeled industries than for constituencies that don’t have resources and are not as well organized,” he said.

Shanti Singh, communications and legislative coordinator for Tenants Together, said progressive advocates just didn’t have the same access in the state capital to last-minute negotiations that industry groups like the landlords enjoyed.

"Sacramento is a place where if you have the financial resources to hire the best lobbyists and advocates, you can go far."

State Assembly member David Chiu, D-San Francisco

“Tenant organizations are generally operating on very small budgets, and we don’t throw money at a lot of political organizations,” Singh said.

State Sen. Toni Atkins, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, said in a statement that progressives, including her, needed to compromise on an evictions moratorium to get enough votes for it to pass, and that it’s at least a bridge to the end of the year.

“The final product, while not perfect, does provide real relief,” she said.

Newsom, in a news conference, acknowledged complaints that the state could have done more, but added, “that’s the nature of negotiations.” His office did not respond to a request for further comment.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, said in a statement that “as a progressive, I share the frustration that we're not moving fast enough,” but he ticked off several legislative accomplishments — including increasing the minimum wage and boosting renewable energy goals — that, he said, were a result of electing Democrats. “Change is happening,” he said.

No vote for Black Lives Matter-backed bill

Black Lives Matter activists hoped that 2020 would be the year left-of-center legislators stood up against the police lobby.

The state passed more than a dozen bills aimed at changing the criminal justice system in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, including one proposal to require the state attorney general to investigate every time police kill an unarmed person. But the Legislature didn’t pass other measures that would have strengthened police oversight.

Senate Bill 731, introduced by state Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat, sought to create an independent body with the power to strip badges from police officers shown to have used excessive force, committed sexual assault, falsified evidence or committed a serious crime. The bill could not overcome objections from police unions who said that stripping badges from officers went too far. The bill never came up for a vote.

Other proposals, including one that would give citizens access to police personnel records and another to curtail the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to control crowds, also perished without a vote.

“It’s hugely problematic that police associations are basically allowed to run the Legislature,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles. “The idea that police should be decertified when they kill someone or commit serious acts of misconduct would have brought us in line with 45 other states. It is the bare minimum we could do. It is tragic.”

Law enforcement associations have shrugged off their legislative influence, instead saying that the bill failed to come to a vote because it was hastily written and the Legislature didn’t allow enough time for debate. A proposal that permanently bans police officers from serving requires more scrutiny from the law enforcement community, several unions said.

Image: Protesters hold signs during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd in Newport Beach, Calif., on June 3, 2020.
Protesters in Newport Beach, Calif., hold signs during a demonstration June 3 over the death of George Floyd.Apu Gomes / AFP - Getty Images file

“SB 731 reached far beyond the police licensing process and included policies that would potentially penalize even the most respectful officers for placing themselves in harm’s way to keep our families safe,” Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, said in a statement.

Rendon said while he personally supported SB 731, it did not have enough votes in the Assembly to pass this year. “But I do not take that as a defeat of this effort at justice,” he said.

Without the established lobbying arm of groups such as police unions and landlords, activists say they’re at a disadvantage in Sacramento — no matter how many people they draw to mass protests on the other end of the state.

“Having that presence, having that contact with legislators year-round, they can have their presence more than grassroots groups,” Kao, of Courage California, said. “We need to get to the point where our presence is just as pervasive as the lobbyists.”

State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat who represents San Francisco, said it’s natural for progressives to be impatient, and that they should use their impatience to continue fighting through multiple rounds on issues, as they did before same-sex marriage became a nationwide right.

“What is considered an outlier progressive position today is probably going to be mainstream Democratic thinking in five years, and could be the law of the land in eight or 10 years,” Wiener said.

“We’re going to win eventually,” he added. “We just need to acknowledge that it might not be the first time out.”