What happens when the Democrats win total control of a state?
California provides a fine example: With big majorities in both houses of the state legislature, plus the governorship and every other statewide office, the Democrats raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour and introduced paid sick days and paid family leave; they increased abortion access; they passed automatic voter registration; they expanded Obamacare and health insurance for poor people; and just before Labor Day they required overtime pay for farmworkers, and established the nation’s most far-reaching targets for renewable energy and limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.
But there’s a shadow over California politics. When the corporations’ favorite political party became hopelessly weak, they set out to gain power in the other one. Their tool, of course, was money. So now we have some Democrats taking corporate money and doing the bidding of the oil and gas industry, agribusiness, the real estate developers, Big Pharma, and some of the billionaires. It’s “the new reality of California politics,” says Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect, an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times. In Sacramento a new caucus was formed in 2014: Democrats who call themselves “moderates,” and are known as “the mods.” But “we shouldn’t call them ‘moderates,’” one progressive labor leader told me. “We should call them ‘opponents of working families and the poor.’” It’s simpler to call them “corporate Democrats.”
The corporate Dems have piles of cash—they spent at least $24 million in the June primary—and several goals. Number one was probably blocking Governor Jerry Brown’s effort to cut motorists’ use of fossil fuels in half by 2030. The oil lobby succeeded at this last year, but failed this term. And three years ago eight mods joined the remaining Republicans to block a bill that would have required big companies to provide medical care for low-income workers and their families who were not on Medi-Cal. “The bill’s opposition comprised a Who’s Who of California’s most influential corporate interests,” according to Capital and Main, a news Web site reporting on progressive issues in California. Then there’s a group of billionaires led by Eli Broad, fighting the teachers’ unions and seeking to expand charter schools. And there are the real-estate interests who want to end restrictions on development, especially along the coast. And the agribusiness-funded resistance in the Assembly to overtime pay for farmworkers was especially intense and prolonged.
Fighting California’s corporate Democrats seems like the perfect issue for Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution, the successor organization to his presidential campaign. Bernie got 1.5 million votes in the state’s Democratic primary, trained tens of thousands of organizers, and raised millions in those famous $27 contributions.
Now those voters and organizers, along with Bernie campaign contributors across the state, need to go to work to defeat the corporate Democrats up for re-election to the state legislature in November. It’s a key task for “Our Revolution,” which Bernie launched on August 24 to turn the presidential campaign into a long-term progressive movement. At the launch event, streamed live to thousands of locations, Bernie encouraged his supporters to fight “at the grassroots level for changes in their local school boards, city councils, [and] state legislatures,” D.D. Guttenplan wrote in The Nation—to “create an America based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice.”
After the launch of Our Revolution, the group’s website unveiled the list of candidates it endorses, and urged Bernie people to work and vote for them. But of the 77 candidates currently endorsed, only one is challenging a corporate Dem in the California Assembly: Eloise Reyes in San Bernardino and the neighboring working class cities of the “Inland Empire” east of Los Angeles–Rialto, Colton, and Fontana. (San Bernardino of course is also site of last December’s terrorist attack.)
If Our Revolution was going to pick only one, this one is probably the most important challenge underway right now. The incumbent, Cheryl Brown, is a leader in the mod caucus who is running for her third term in the Assembly. She’s an African American who comes from a business background. In 1980 she and her husband founded a local African-American newspaper, Black Voice News, and then in 2001 expanded to run a network of 22 African-American newspapers and media enterprises across the state called California Black Media. Cheryl Brown is good on some issues: She voted for the minimum-wage hike—her district desperately needs it—and for the bill giving farmworkers overtime pay. But she voted with Big Oil against Jerry Brown’s historic climate/environmental targets that passed just before Labor Day. That vote came after she received $1 million in “independent expenditures” from Chevron to help her fight off what The Sacramento Bee called “a rare challenge from the left over her environmental record.”
Her challenger is an attorney and community activist from Colton, recruited by EMILY’s List three years ago to run for an open seat in Congress; she lost that race to an establishment Democrat. “I worked in the onion and grape fields” as a kid, Eloise Reyes says. Eventually she got a law degree and became the first Latina in the Inland Empire to open her own law firm. She’s worked with Legal Aid, for local affordable health care and against a toxic waste dump in the area. She’s been endorsed by a lot of the local unions, including several that endorsed Brown in 2014—“including the Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO of Riverside-San Bernardino,” the Los Angeles Times reports, “which represents more than 289,000 workers in the Inland Empire.” She’s also got the endorsement of environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters, and Planned Parenthood.
When I asked Reyes about the most significant differences between her and Cheryl Brown, she said simply, “I’m pro-worker, she’s pro-business.” She explained that “when the legislature tried to close the loophole that allows big corporations like Walmart to reduce workers’ hours so they would no longer have to provide medical coverage, [Brown] voted against. On the proposal for double pay on holidays, she abstained. On the bill to stop wage theft, she voted against. On rights of temporary warehouse workers, she voted against.”
Nevertheless, Cheryl Brown has big-time endorsements, the kind you get as an incumbent in the state legislature. They include the heavyweights of the Democratic Party in California, and most of the African-American political elite: five members of Congress, including the two African-American women from the LA area, Maxine Waters and Karen Bass; Kamala Harris, the African-American state attorney general who is running to replace Barbara Boxer in the Senate; several of the statewide elected Democrats, plus the speaker of the State Assembly; and 43 current members of the State Assembly. In contrast, Reyes has endorsements from farmworker legend Dolores Huerta, three state senators–all Latinos—and one member of Congress: Xavier Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
In the June primary Cheryl Brown got 44 percent and Reyes 36 percent, while a Republican, another Latina, got the other 20 percent (the district is 21 percent Republican, and 68 percent Latino; 52 percent of registered voters are Latino). Both Brown and Reyes are Democrats, but because of California’s “Top Two” system—in which the candidates who come in first and second in the primary run against each other in the election regardless of party affiliation—they will face each other in November and no Republican will appear on the ballot for that seat. “Top Two” is the main reason why the corporate interests have given up on the Republicans in the state and instead started funding their own Democrats—like Cheryl Brown.
There is a lively Bernie Sanders group in the district: “Inland Empire for Our Revolution.” Bernie held a rally in San Bernardino in May and more than 5,000 people showed up; on primary election day in June he got 77,000 votes in San Bernardino County, 44 percent of the Democratic total. “A lot of the Bernie people voted for Eloise” in the primary, a local labor activist working with Reyes told me. And Reyes was a speaker at the kickoff event for Our Revolution in Fontana—at Bud’s Pizza.
But why is Eloise Reyes the only challenger to a corporate Dem in the State Assembly to be endorsed by Our Revolution? (The group has endorsed four other candidates in California: one running for an open seat in the state Senate in San Francisco—Jane Kim; two for Richmond City Council, where progressives have been battling Chevron; and a candidate for mayor of Berkeley.) Norman Solomon, a longtime progressive activist and strategist, was a California Bernie delegate to the DNC and national coordinator of the Bernie Delegates Network. He told me, “We’ve gotta assume that the relationships between Our Revolution and the progressive base in California and around the country are works in progress.” He said there were “reasons for optimism as well as real concern. If it turns out that Our Revolution gets run the way a presidential campaign is run, the prospects are bleak.”
When Our Revolution first unveiled its Web site, it had a place to nominate candidates for endorsement. That space was removed pretty quickly. Why was that? And why has Our Revolution endorsed so few candidates in California? I asked Larry Cohen, board chair of Our Revolution and former president of the Communications Workers of America. “Thousands were nominated” in the first few days, he said. “After that we didn’t ask for more. Our board is all volunteers. We have 12 staff people. In a state the size of California, it’s especially hard to figure out who is who. What we did with endorsements this year was based on people who had been active in the primary campaign. We are collaborating with lots of groups and networks, without speaking for them. This effort is meant to be quite modest this election year; then we will build it up.”
He emphasized that Our Revolution is supporting not only candidates but also ballot measures, which are all-important in California and a key part of the fight against big money in state politics. The organization has endorsed three California ballot initiatives—ending the death penalty, overturning Citizens United, and one more, which Cohen said was the most important for Our Revolution: Proposition 61. Prop 61 addresses drug price-gouging by the pharmaceutical industry, and would require the “state of California to negotiate with drug companies for drug prices that are no more than is paid for the same drugs by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.” The DVA pays up to 40 percent less than Medicare Part D. If Prop. 61 passed, it would save the state billions. In August, Big Pharma blocked the legislature from passing a bill that would have discouraged sharp increases in drug prices, so now Prop 61 is on the ballot for voters to decide. The same pharmaceutical interests that stopped the legislature’s bill have already poured $70 million into the campaign to stop Prop 61. “This is the one we’ll do the most work on,” Larry Cohen told me, “because we’re following the lead of National Nurses United.”
Meanwhile, Our Revolution Los Angeles, with a Facebook group of 1,600, has been organizing protests outside Hillary fundraisers at the private homes of wealthy people. A September 13 protest outside Seth McFarlane’s house in Beverly Hills was to have the theme “Ask Hillary to Oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline,” and would have included “Indian drumming, prayers and Aztec dancing,” according to Lauren Steiner, Lead Organizer at Our Revolution LA. That fundraiser was cancelled after Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis. The previous Our Revolution protest was outside the Beverly Hills home of billionaire Haim Saban, the Israeli-American media mogul who is one of Clinton’s biggest contributors, and the theme was “Tell Hillary Palestinian Rights Are Not For Sale.” These events typically charge guests $33,000 for a photo with Hillary, and $100,000 for “co-host” status. I asked Larry Cohen whether protests at Hillary events like these were part of the agenda of Our Revolution. “Getting big money out of politics is part of our mission,” he said. “We may not always agree on tactics, but we aren’t going to censor anybody.”
The political battle for the future of the state continues. If Eloise Reyes defeats Cheryl Brown in San Bernardino, that will put the remaining corporate Dems in the Assembly on notice: They will be challenged in two years, and could face the same fate. Our Revolution is now part of that fight.