Monday, September 12, 2016




          Fran Pavley, about to be termed out of her seat in the state Senate, was worried before the June primary election: Would her trusted longtime aide Henry Stern be aced out of the November runoff election to succeed her by a more business-oriented Democrat?

The answer turned out to be no, but it was no sure thing, as Stern managed only a 7 percent margin over Janice Kamenir-Reznik, attorney and longtime activist, president of the California Women’s Law Center and co-founder of anti-genocide organization Jewish World Watch.

This was a classic fight between Democrats whose priorities are only slightly different. Stern has a strong environmentalist record. Kamenir-Reznik was perceived as more business-friendly. So a large share of the $900,000 in primary election spending – mostly money from businesses – in the San Fernando Valley-based 27th state Senate district went to Kamenir-Reznik, while Stern got some support from labor unions.

Pavley, who wrote landmark state environmental laws like the 2006 limits on greenhouse gases and carried legislation making the reopening of the leaky Southern California Gas Co. Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field more difficult, could breathe easier.

Stern did not lead the field in the primary, but he was the leading Democrat and is favored to best Republican Steve Fazio in the fall.

This race played out differently from others in the new political reality that’s emerged here since the 2010 adoption of the Top Two primary election system. The new system, which sees a one-party U.S. Senate race and more than two-dozen one-party legislative and congressional matchups this fall, has spawned a de facto third significant political party, loosely called the “business Democrats.”

          This grouping, often elected over opposition from labor-backed fellow Democrats, represents fulfillment of the stated purpose of Proposition 14, which created Top Two. Its generally moderate members usually vote with Democrats on social issues like abortion and gun control, but are far less environmentally oriented than the party mainstream. The Republican minority in Democrat-dominated districts often helps elect them.

          They are the big reason business-funded political action committees will spend well over $20 million this year on California legislative and congressional races, even though the 17 state propositions on the November ballot are diverting some business-donated PAC money. Education interests also are splitting money between candidates who favor charter schools (generally business Democrats) and those loyal to teachers’ unions.

          A typical race of this type comes in San Bernardino County, where moderate, business-oriented Democrats have never been rare. That’s where incumbent Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, backed by realtors and oil companies, benefitted from more than $600,000 in business PAC money during the primary.

          Those interests won’t have to spent as much this fall because Brown’s more environmentally-oriented opponent is Eloise Reyes, who finished 9 percent behind Brown in the primary. Reyes doesn’t figure to pick up many of the 21 percent of voters who went for the sole Republican running in the primary.

          But business PACs might have to spend heavily in the 3rd Senate district, where longtime incumbent Lois Wolk of Davis is termed out. This race also features two Democrats, the business-oriented Bill Dodd, now an assemblyman, facing Mariko Yamada, a former assembly member. Dodd got more than three times as much financial support in the primary as all other candidates combined, but is still not assured of election unless he gets substantial support from the district’s minority Republicans.

          EdVoice, a so-called “reform” group advocating more rigorous school evaluations, scored a major primary victory in the nearby 4th Assembly District, covering parts of Napa, Yolo and Sonoma Counties, when Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry drew 28 percent of the vote, thus eliminating Wolk’s son Dan, who scored 25 percent. Republican Charlie Schaupp stunned Democrats in the district by taking 29 percent in the primary, but is viewed as a sure November loser in this heavily Democratic district.

          The bottom line is that there are fewer sure-thing races for Congress and the Legislature in the offing this fall than before Top Two began, and that the minority party in districts heavily dominated by either Democrats or Republicans will decide some close races.

          Smaller parties don’t like this, because they have no runoff election slots, but they can fix that if they draw more votes down the line and, perhaps, raise more money to help them draw those votes.

    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

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