Thursday, March 29, 2012




Despite persistent delusions that it retains plenty of influence, the California Republican Party is in increasing danger of descending into third place among party registration choices of California voters.

That’s clear from the newest voter registration figures released by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, which show a drop in GOP registration juxtaposed with large increases for both Democrats and the “no party preference” category often known as “decline to state” or “independent.”

The obvious reason: California Republicans are out of touch with most voters. Not only do its members of Congress and the state Legislature display little or no independence from the party line, but that party line itself deviates considerably from what every poll shows the majority of the public wants.

The figures first: Democratic Party registration jumped from 6.6 million in January 2008 to 7.4 million this January. At the same time, decline-to-states went from 3.01 million to 3.6 million. Republicans? They dropped from 5.197 million in January 2008 to 5.17 million four years later.

Normally, a major party will experience increases in registration when the White House belongs to the other big party. That’s happened nationally for Republicans, as President Obama draws strong opposition among conservatives and has disappointed many others who voted for him four years ago. But in California, Republicans had a net loss of about 27,000 registrants. While Democrats picked up almost 800,000.

Many analysts see these figures as a sign of disillusion with political parties in general, as decline-to-state voters now make up almost 22 percent of the electorate, up about 10 percent (505,000) from 2008. But the numbers indicate registered voters’ dissatisfaction is concentrated on only one of the major parties – Republicans.

It’s commonplace to hang that phenomenon on the GOP’s strong anti-illegal immigrant stance, which flies in the face of the single biggest concern for the steadily increasing corps of Latino voters, who rank immigration reform that includes some type of possible amnesty as their top political priority. And that’s certainly a big part of it.

But there are also other areas where California Republicans are simply out of touch.

Nowhere was that more obvious than in a late-winter legislative vote on a bill known as the California Disclose Act, a project of the California Clean Money Campaign, whose central tenet is that voters should be informed about who is spending big money to influence government policy, and how much.

The idea took the form of a bill known as AB 1148, which sought to require that ads paid for by independent expenditure groups and ballot measure committees disclose the names of their three leading “identifiable contributors” right in the ads.

Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Santa Monica and Ventura County, who carried the bill, originally wanted legislators to put the question before voters, which would only have taken majority votes in both the Assembly and state Senate. But Democrats on the state Assembly Appropriations Committee altered the bill to let legislators themselves make this change in the Fair Political Practices Act, passed as a 1970s-era initiative. This would have required a two-thirds vote. The bill almost made it.

All but one of the 52 Democrats in the Assembly voted to pass it, while all but one of the 28 Republicans there voted against.

How out of touch could they be? While it’s true that Republicans pride themselves on sticking to principles even when those stances are unpopular, the party has never viewed keeping political donor names secret as a matter of principle. Practicality, maybe. But it would be hard to make hiding donors’ identities a basic principle. And yet, Republican Assembly members – with the lone exception of San Diego’s Nathan Fletcher – voted as a bloc to retain today’s secrecy.

Although Brownley has submitted a new, slightly stronger, Disclose Act with different number, this probably means that for at least the next two elections, coming up in June and November, voters will not know who’s really behind many ads they see for both candidates and ballot propositions.

Rather, they will once again see notations citing misleading names like “Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions” (a big tobacco-funded group that tried to end local anti-smoking ordinances) or the “California Alliance” (a trial lawyers’ group) or “Californians for Economic and Environmental Balance” (oil, chemical and utility companies) as the tag-lines for radio, television and newspaper ads.

Essentially, Republicans preserved electoral secrecy for awhile, just as they have kept a lid on all new taxes, for now. Yet, Republicans see the same public opinion polls as Democrats, so they had to know that openness is favored by 84 percent of Californians, according to the latest survey by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute.

So the campaign donor secrecy vote was a clear example of Republicans voting against a cause the public favors by large margins. The GOP also opposes popular causes like gun control and almost all environmental regulations. Is it any wonder this party steadily loses public support?

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to





From the moment it was created as part of the 1974 Proposition 9 political reform initiative, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission has operated on the presumption that politicians and their most active campaign aides and backers should never be fully trusted.

But that underlying approach has seemed to change gradually under the leadership of the agency’s current chair, former Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel, appointed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Sure, the FPPC still assesses significant fines when wrongdoing is proven – but they often come long after any harm from a campaign law violation can be undone. The latest big fine was a $30,000 levy against ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and one of his ballot measure committees, which spent $1.1 million on television ads during Schwarzenegger’s 2009 budget negotiations with legislators. That fine came this spring, years too late to mitigate the effects of that illegal spending.

There was also a $111,500 fine levied in December against a Pinole city councilman who participated at least 16 times in governmental decisions that benefitted a company which used his services in his private life.

But plenty has changed, with the commission looking far more politician-friendly. The latest example of this came in mid-March, when a 3-2 commission majority led by Ravel ruled in an Orange County case that it’s OK for local elected officials to vote on their own prospective appointments to government boards and commissions that pay per diem expenses or other stipends.

Previously, conflict of interest rules prevented city council members or county supervisors from voting to name themselves to panels like water districts or air quality boards that sometimes pay more than the elected positions they hold.

The commission also no longer posts cases it is considering on the Web until after they’ve been decided, a big change from its previous practice. That now leaves voters in the dark about claims of illegal donations and other shady campaign practices they’ve been told about for the past few years even before the cases were decided.

It’s important that voters know such accusations because politicians and their consultants often break the rules in order to win elections, even if they know they’ll endure some negative headlines later. That's because immediate public notice of accusations against politicians and their operatives can be a deterrent against dirty or corrupt politics, including false or misleading ads and accepting illegal or excessive campaign donations.

Not publicizing charges against politicians and their campaigns until they’re decided is a bit like not revealing indictments or charges against accused criminals until after their trials.

One who disapproves of the new FPPC chairperson’s approach is the immediate past chair, Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican political operative who now directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. Schnur, onetime press secretary for both former Gov. Pete Wilson and former presidential candidate John McCain, says it may be inconvenient for politicians when accusations against them are posted online, but “the inconvenience of the politicians is not as important as the interests of the public.

“We all know that most political consultants, regardless of party, are willing to go over the line to win an election, and then put up with whatever happens long after the results are in,” he said.

“I know Ann is a good person and a smart person, but she obviously thinks the political community can be trusted with less oversight than I do.”

Further evidence that the new FPPC majority trusts politicos more than the commission previously did comes in the form of rule changes that last fall loosened restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to legislators and statewide officials. Lobbyists who have “bona fide” dating relationships with lawmakers, for instance, now can give them jewelry, restaurant meals and other gifts without their being reported, leaving “the Legislature to police its own house.”

That change drew a loud complaint from Commissioner Ronald Rotunda, a Chapman University law professor appointed by state Controller John Chiang. “I find that mind-boggling,” he said. “Had they policed their own house, we wouldn’t be here.”

But some others are not as disturbed as Schnur and Rotunda. “I’m not really outraged by something like the Orange County ruling because these people don’t usually get much for serving on city councils,” said Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and co-author of the FPPC’s enabling initiative. “I don’t think the commission has lost its teeth; it’s just going in a slightly different direction. Every new chairperson comes in with their own agenda.”

But the new course appears substantially different and weaker than the practices that long made the FPPC a strong watchdog. Most changes in the past year have leaned toward making it the politicians’ lapdog instead.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to

Thursday, March 22, 2012




There’s always reason for suspicion when political parties with dramatically disparate ideologies band together for anything.

So it was when the state Republican and Democratic parties partnered in a lawsuit that eventually got California’s old “blanket primary” election system thrown out in the late 1990s, thus returning the state to highly partisan primary elections for more than a decade.

It’s that way again with a minor-party lawsuit now in progress (first court hearing scheduled April 10 in Oakland) aiming to throw out the “top two” or “jungle primary” system adopted by frustrated voters in 2010 as they tried to force some moderation on state legislators and members of Congress.

The new system gets its first full-force outing in the June primary, with no party able to nominate its own candidates for the November runoff election. Rather, the top two vote-getters in each primary regardless of party will face off next November in all districts.

Both major parties opposed the initiative that created this system, even though it was heartily supported by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a nominal Republican. Minor parties like the Peace and Freedom, Libertarians and Greens also objected.

The big parties, dominated in past primaries respectively by ideologues of the right and left and with the same kind of extreme hard-liners controlling party machinery and finances, wanted to continue nominating candidates reflecting their inflexible views.

But the old system left both independents and members of whichever big party was in the minority in any district essentially without representation. The eventual winners in almost all districts emerged in party primaries, making those votes the “real” elections in districts drawn to assure domination by one party or the other.

In those elections, candidates of the minor parties were always assured a place on the November runoff election ballot, even when they – as usually happened – won far fewer primary votes than the losers in the major-party contests.

This allowed minor-party adherents and candidates in every election to maintain the illusion of influence and even possible victory right up until election returns came in and showed them once again getting nowhere. So 75 of them filed for congressional or legislative campaigns in 2010, compared with just 13 this year, according to the San Francisco-based newsletter Ballot Access News.

In reality, all the minor parties have usually accomplished is to air their ideas, even when those notions have languished because the vast majority of voters judge them essentially hopeless or worthless. Once in a long while, some outsider has tried to use a minor party candidate to influence the outcome of an election by drawing votes away from a major party figure. The last time this mattered much was in 1988, when supporters of the late Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston poured money into the campaign of a far-right American Independent Party candidate who siphoned more than 200,000 votes away from Cranston’s GOP opponent.

The minor parties want to keep all that alive, even though the only real influence they’ve had on elections has been to occasionally distort them. They realize the “top two” system will keep them off November ballots unless they suddenly develop unprecedented mass appeal. That's why few of their adherents are bothering to run this year.

“By limiting access to the general election ballot,” says their lawsuit, “(top two) effectively bars small political parties, their candidates and their members from effective political association…”

Of course, if the small parties could develop ideas and/or candidates with mass appeal, they would have full access to the runoff ballot. All their candidates must do – like anyone else – is win enough votes to finish in the top two in the new non-partisan primaries. That could happen this spring in a new Ventura County congressional district where county Supervisor Linda Parks switched from Republican to independent before starting her run. She’s not a minor party candidate, but she’s not in either major one anymore, either.

The minor parties do have one seemingly legitimate complaint, however. The main way they their presidential primary election ballot slots is by having a candidate who wins 2 percent or more of the vote in a gubernatorial general election. This may not be possible under the “top two” arrangement, as their candidates will only rarely even be on the runoff ballot. So the open primary law, passed as Proposition 14, should be amended to keep the 2 percent threshold, but have it apply to a statewide primary, rather than a general election. A court might be able to order this.

But in most ways the minor party lawsuit essentially amounts to whining by small groups trying to maintain a runoff ballot position they have yet to earn by dint of the usual methods: developing good candidates with wide appeal and strong credibility.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit





Just 17 months ago, when voters passed Proposition 25 and restored simple majority votes of the Legislature in California budgeting, the presumption was that if Democrat Jerry Brown also became governor, a new era of sweetness and light would arise in Sacramento. For budgeting would now be a one-party thing, no Republicans involved.

Well, as the old George Gershwin song warns, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Yes, Brown was elected governor. Yes, legislative Democrats have large majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate. But that doesn’t mean those Democrats will accept every budget proposal Brown makes.

For one thing, getting Democrats to cooperate with each other and a governor of their own party has long been a little like trying to herd cats. For another, Brown has proposed a bunch of cuts that stick in Democratic craws.

Here’s Tom Torlakson, the state schools superintendent and a Democratic ex-legislator, on Brown’s plan to reduce school funding further than it’s already been slashed, if voters reject his tax increase proposal this fall:

"Blatantly unfair.” That was his term for the $4 billion schools stand to lose via "triggered cuts" in the upcoming fiscal year if Brown's newly-revised tax proposition fails.

True, Brown might back off that a bit if state revenues improve by the fall. There’s also the possibility, suspected by some, that his draconian triggered school cuts are really a political tactic aimed at pressuring voters – among whom schools are the single most popular government program – to vote yes on his tax proposition.

But in almost 10 years as governor, Brown has never gone in much for of that sort of jawboning. Usually, he simply means what he says.

Lowered school funding to be triggered in the fall if there are no new taxes is only one area of Democratic resistance to this Democratic governor. There are also Brown’s plans to de-emphasize standardized testing and change funding formulas for child care, which Torlakson labeled “misguided” for their neglect of early childhood development.

Then there was the talk the other day as the Assembly’s subcommittee on education finance debated a plan to slash Cal Grant funding. Brown would cut this ultra-popular (especially among students) scholarship program by $302 million, negatively affecting 72,000 students. Most are black or Chicano, two ethnic groups dear to Democratic hearts for the huge majorities they usually give the party’s candidates at all levels.

As part ofhis plan to cut $9.3 billion from next year’s budget, Brown intends to lower the amount poor kids attending private universities can get to help pay for school from $9,708 to $4,000. That would knock a lot of minority students right out of college. So would the Brown proposal to raise the minimum grade point average needed to get a grant from today’s range of 2.0 to 3.0 to a new minimum range of 2.75 to 3.24. Essentially, the governor is saying, C students no longer need apply. No less than a B- average will do.

“Why are we talking about (cutting) a program that is successful and helping students in tough economic times?” asked Democratic Assemblyman Sandre Swanson of Alameda. Legislators also scoffed at the Brown suggestion that students now attending private schools can easily switch to public colleges if their Cal Grants drop.

“There are no seats at the inn,” remarked Democratic Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, now running for a Ventura County seat in Congress.

Even before this, there was pressure on the governor to restore proposed new cuts to adult in-home health services and out-of-home day care centers for frail adults, both on humanitarian grounds and because of claims that cutting such care would force many more seniors into nursing homes and end up costing the state far more.

In short, Brown is tweaking the noses of well-established core Democratic constituencies and they don’t like it.

Through all this discussion of and griping about the Brown ideas, Republicans have said little. They never cared much for many programs Brown seeks to cut and those who benefit from them rarely vote for GOP candidates.

That’s why the lone Republican on the education finance subcommittee, Brian Nestande of Palm Desert, created no waves when he walked out of its hearing on some of this before the panel took any votes.

The lesson here: No matter how big the Democratic majorities and no matter how many personal visits Brown makes to lawmakers and key supporters of schools and other programs, he will not have an easy time making these cuts.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit