Thursday, April 26, 2012




As the “top-two” primary election system embodied in the 2010 Proposition 14 was being debated exactly two years ago, backers tried to comfort skeptics by pointing out that Californians already had experience with the system. The two leading vote-getters, they noted, have long advanced to runoffs whenever there’s been a special election anywhere in California.

          And that’s essentially true. The top-two, or “jungle primary” system voters adopted for themselves and will use for the first time next month, will put the two leading finishers in every legislative and congressional race into November runoffs, regardless of their party affiliation.

          But U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein appears about to expose one wasteful difference between the new primary system and the way special elections have long operated: In special elections, if one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-round vote, there’s no runoff. That candidate simply wins. Not so with the new primary setup. No one running for Congress will win outright next month.

          The 78-year-old Feinstein has exposed that weakness – a result of the Constitutional requirement that members of Congress be regularly elected in November – because she’s essentially scared off all substantial opposition in her fourth run for reelection to the U.S. Senate.

          Feinstein’s position contrasts sharply with where her friend and colleague Barbara Boxer was as she ran for reelection two years ago. “I have to essentially reintroduce myself to the electorate every six years,” Boxer said then. “There are so many new voters, it makes each run different.”

          Boxer also has a reputation as one of the most vulnerable members of the Senate, perpetually drawing well-funded GOP opponents like her last one, former Hewlett-Packard Corp. CEO Carly Fiorina. Yes, Boxer has beaten them all off since getting elected in 1992, but it’s never been simple or easy.

          Feinstein, on the other hand, has not been seriously challenged
since she ousted appointed Republican incumbent John Seymour in the same year. (Feinstein was first elected to serve the last two years of then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s Senate term, after Seymour occupied the seat for the middle two years.)

          She won’t get much of a challenge this year, either. While she has 23 primary election opponents, none drew better than 2 percent of likely voters polled in early April by the Survey USA service, compared with 51 percent for Feinstein and 30 percent undecided.

          That survey produced one of the more remarkable political press releases of modern times, when Republican Dan Hughes sent out an email soliciting donations and proclaimed the poll “shows me ahead.”

          Actually, the north San Diego County businessman was virtually tied for first among the Feinstein challengers with anti-autism activist and former IBM executive Elizabeth Emken. But 12 other hopefuls trailed by just 1 percentage point, leaving Feinstein with a massive edge. At least one private poll had Orange County dentist and lawyer Orly Taitz, best known as the “queen of birthers” – those who question whether President Obama was born in America – as the top potential Feinstein opponent.

          There is no way Feinstein will end up with as massive an edge as the polls now show in either the primary or the runoff she cannot avoid, if only because their ballot identification as Republicans assures plenty of votes from party members for Hughes, Emken or Taitz, even if most GOP voters have little idea who they are.

          For sure, the poll numbers mean those candidates will not draw big campaign bucks, as big money will flow to candidates in other states deemed far more likely to succeed.

          How did Feinstein become so secure? Essentially, she followed the pattern set by the late Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, who served four terms from the 1960s into the ‘90s. Like Cranston, Feinstein has maintained liberal support by steadily backing gun control, women’s rights and other causes popular among liberals. Also like Cranston, she maintains strong ties to the state’s business community and her staff performs ably in constituent service.

          Add those things together with leadership on state water issues, a solid record as mayor of San Francisco for more than 10 years and the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and you get a candidate who’s almost untouchable. The main reason she doesn’t poll favorable ratings well above the current 51 percent level is because of party labels. But hers is the top rating among major California politicians.

          All of which makes for a strong possibility that Feinstein will draw more than 50 percent of the June 5 vote. It would then be a complete waste of millions of campaign advertising dollars and huge amounts of candidate time for her to be stuck into a runoff, but there she will be regardless.

      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




          The ripple effects of high gasoline prices have been clear for decades, ever since the Arab oil boycott of the mid-1970s temporarily forced a form of gas rationing on California.

          These effects include more riders on public transit, less car vacations, fewer people visiting state and national parks and other outlying attractions, more sales of hybrid and electric cars and much more.

          But now comes a UC Berkeley study supplying reasons why this spring’s dramatic spike in gasoline prices could slow or even reverse the very tenuous California economic recovery that has been ongoing for the last seven months or so.

          Not that the economists who wrote the study, financed in part by the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Economics, are making any predictions. Rather, their study covers the housing collapse of 2007 and the subsequent, ongoing wave of foreclosures, laying a large part of the blame on the doubling of gas prices between 2005 and 2008, when they peaked at $4.15 per gallon, with then-President George W. Bush unable or unwilling to do much about it.

          The study’s authors, Berkeley’s Steven Sexton and David Zilberman and JunJie Wu of Oregon State University, contend that “low energy prices during the housing boom…made suburban houses affordable to a new class of homeowners characterized by low incomes, high leverage, low credit worthiness and long work commutes.”

          That description is a close fit for many thousands of homeowners who bought during the housing boom in the Inland Empire portions of Southern California and in Central Valley counties like Merced, Madera, Stanislaus and San Joaquin, where many new homeowners of that period commuted regularly to jobs in the East Bay and Silicon Valley suburbs of San Francisco.

          The study does not dismiss financial chicanery, loan fraud and easy money as other causes of the Great Recession. “Lax lending practices and new mortgage products” are two major factors cited by the authors and many others.

          But no one else has fingered gasoline prices, which remained at a fairly constant $1.50 per gallon in 1976 dollars from the late 1970s into the mid-2000s.

          When gasoline spiked, the study contends, “the calculus of suburban living changed. High commute costs made typical homes less valuable and mortgages less affordable for homeowners with …(low) average incomes. Some households could no longer meet mortgage obligations and others walked away from mortgage debt.” In short, high gas prices became the last straw for many.

          No one knows the precise number of “under water” homeowners – their houses worth less than what they owed on their home loans – who were finally moved to action by high gasoline prices. What is known is that there was an increase in apartment rentals in urban centers as the foreclosure trend rose. This suggests many who walked away from under-water homes deliberately sought shorter commutes.

          There’s good news and bad news in all this for today’s California. Ironically, the fact that the housing market has not recovered much from the depths of 2008-10 makes the state relatively immune to some effects of this spring’s gas price spike, which has gone even higher than the damaging increases of 2008. So while all the other ripple effects seen in previous gas price spikes are likely to be repeated, at least there’s not likely to be much of a housing effect.

          Except for one aspect: The higher the price of gasoline goes, the more real estate prices near urban job centers could rise. For the trend when gasoline rises is for more and more people to seek short commutes.

          This, the study authors contend, “explains the disproportionate decline in suburban housing markets” during times like these.

          And for sure, as the authors note, “Those who reside in communities characterized by relatively high gas consumption (read faraway suburbs and ex-urban developments) suffer most” when gas prices rise. They also found that “as gas prices double, (housing) density also doubles.”

          All of which means this spring’s fast upward movement in gas prices will hurt, but should still not produce times as disastrous as those that accompanied the last previous upward move.

       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




          Never again. That should be the determined motto of California legislators who will set dates for this state’s future primary elections, now that it’s perfectly clear the June 5 California Republican presidential primary election will mean little or nothing, just like all other June primaries contested here since 1972.

          This became clear after Illinois voted in mid-March for ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and it became more definite when his last major rival, former Sen. Rick Santorum, gave up weeks before the primary in his home state of Pennsylvania despite prior boasts that he would derail the Romney express there.

          Santorum first broached the subject of quitting more than a month ago, admitting that once Romney had enough national party convention delegates to clinch the nomination, he would drop out. Santorum might have been belaboring the obvious, but no one seriously running for either party’s nod ever raises the subject of when he or she might quit. That’s why he surprised no one when he actually dropped out.

          Santorum, then, knew for more than a month that he had no chance, but persisted in an ego-driven exercise aimed mostly at keeping himself in the public eye to set up the possibility of running again in 2016 or at least remain a major figure in party and national politics.

          Either way, he never made any pretense about seriously challenging Romney in California, where the GOP vote will amount to 53 mini-primaries, one in every congressional district. The winner in each district gets three delegates, with 10 more going to the overall statewide leader and three nominally uncommitted, for a state total of 172.

          There remains a possibility the slow-to-catch-fire Romney will not clinch the nomination to run against Democratic President Barack Obama until California votes. But as things now shape up, it would take an enormous debacle for him not to have matters cinched by the time he leaves here. For Romney has a huge lead over Santorum and the other delegate-holders, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

          Every GOP consultant knows the Romney, a former Mormon bishop, enjoys a huge advantage over other Republicans in California because of the state’s large Latter Day Saint population – more Mormons live here than even in Utah. They are spread through almost all congressional districts, mostly registered as Republicans and if they vote as their co-religionists did elsewhere, they will go very strongly for Romney, the first Mormon to bid seriously for president.

          One reason Santorum dropped out was that he knew this made it impossible for him or any other non-Romney Republican to stage a sweep of almost all districts, about the only way he could have prevented Romney from emerging from California with the 1,144 delegates needed for first-ballot nomination. Add to that the fact that New Jersey also votes on June 5 and Utah itself three weeks later and the math was almost impossible for Santorum to overcome. For Gingrich, it’s completely impossible.

          The lesson here is that just as with the 2008 Democratic race between Obama and his current secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, which also went deep into the spring before Obama clinched, by the time June 5 rolls around, things are almost invariably over.

          Sure, Romney might celebrate here, but the math meant everyone knew he would be the nominee at least a month ago.

          So there will be no whistle-stop campaigning across California, no tours of the Central Valley and North Coast, barely any activity in the urban centers of San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orange County.

          Even with aslow-developing race like this one, then, California must vote earlier if it’s to have any influence or to enjoy the economic benefits of a major primary campaign. That will be especially true in 2016 if Obama should be reelected this fall, for then there would be wide-open races in both major parties.

          If California wants a role, if the state wants a president familiar with its issues and problems, it must have a seat at the nominating table. That makes a January or February vote necessary. Candidates will only spend time and money here if they need California votes to remain viable.

          The thwarted dreams of the state’s Republican leaders this year have demonstrated how futile it is to hope a late primary can make California decisive in picking a nominee. That last happened in 1972, when only a few states even had primaries. Since they’ve become widespread, neither party’s decision has ever gone past early May.

          Because of uncertainty over the state’s new legislative and congressional district lines, lawmakers opted to set the primary in June this year for their own convenience. That factor will be gone four years from now and it would be purely suicidal folly not to set an early primary then and forever after.

     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




          Anyone looking for the most under-reported story of the spring in California need seek no further than the tall stalks of kelp swaying back and forth just beneath the ocean surface along much of the California coast.

          Fish eat kelp; so do small crustaceans near the bottom of the food chain which themselves are later consumed by larger fish that sometimes become food for humans. The largely-neglected news story is that it’s been somewhat radioactive off-and-on for months and it concentrates Iodine 131 isotopes at levels 10,000 times higher than what’s in the surrounding water.

          At the same time, steam generator problems have kept the San Onofre nuclear generating station near the Orange-San Diego county line closed for three months, with no reopening in sight as California heads into the summer season of peak electricity consumption. This combination of events ought to have California authorities deeply questioning the state’s heavy reliance on power from both San Onofre and the Diablo Canyon atomic plant on the Central Coast.

          The facilities aren’t due for relicensing until the early 2020s, but the utilities that own and operate them began preparing last year for license renewal proceedings.
Despite absorbing radioactive iodine isotopes, the California kelp is still not “hot” enough to endanger diners – at least so far as is now known. But lobsters and some species of fish like mullet concentrate and retain radioactivity, which would increase with any newly “hot” seawater.

          Just 15 months ago, none of this was a worry. San Onofre was running smoothly. The kelp was fine. Even at Diablo Canyon, where skeptical state legislators wondered whether an earthquake fault discovered after the plant was built might produce temblors larger than the 7.5 level it was made to withstand, things were copacetic.

       But then came a great Japanese earthquake and tsunami, followed by meltdown and significant leakage of radioactivity from that country’s Fukushima Daiichi generating station.

          Contaminated iodine and cesium rose into clouds that crossed the Pacific and dumped heavy rain along the California coast about one month later. Shortly thereafter, two scientists from Cal State Long Beach tested kelp from various parts of the Pacific Coast, finding no radioactivity off Alaska, but plenty of iodine and cesium isotopes off California.

          The fallout from the Japanese disaster was sufficient to force evacuation of large swaths of that nation’s east coast. And while Iodine 131 has a half life of about a month – meaning it wasn’t a threat for long unless fish or crustaceans concentrated it much more heavily than was found in the kelp they ate, the cesium (detected only in lower concentrations so far) lasts much longer, and will likely remain in sea life for more than 30 years.

          At the same time, the problems at San Onofre – operated by Southern California Edison Co. – remain unexplained and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it won’t allow a restart until the pattern of premature wear in steam generator tubes is explained and corrected. The agency is normally the nuclear industry’s best friend and enabler in government.

          Off Diablo Canyon, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is spending $64 million to make the first precise map of seismic faults offshore from that generating station. But even that survey probably will not produce full answers to questions about how much danger may exist, because PG&E will measure neither the pace of possible tectonic plate slippage nor the frequency of past quakes in the immediate area. Instead, the utility says it will depend on calculations of assumed slip rates.

          That kind of incomplete data might have been one enabling factor in the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, which demonstrated that even a partial meltdown many thousands of miles away can produce measurable radiation increases here.

          No one knows how much more contamination a Fukushima-like quake and tsunami near either San Onofre or Diablo Canyon could cause. Nor does anyone yet know how bad the problems may be at San Onofre.

          If these questions don’t reinforce the need for meticulous analysis in considering relicensing the two California nuclear stations, it’s hard to see what could.

          For sure, no one looks more prescient today than the 10 legislators who wrote the NRC weeks before Fukushima begging for public hearings in California before the renewal proceedings go very far. The point was not necessarily to deny renewals, but to take them slowly and with a maximum of public information.

          What happened afterward in Japan and at San Onofre makes hearings all the more imperative, while also highlighting the need for very careful analysis of all potential hazards and the reliability of all safety and mitigation measures.

     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