Monday, November 12, 2018




          Ever since the 2010 passage of Proposition 14, Libertarians and members of other small but sometimes significant California political parties have griped about the lack of choices presented to voters in the state’s biennial November general elections.

          Advocates of the “Top Two” primary election system set up by that eight-year-old initiative respond that it actually does provide runoff election choices, even if they’re often between different wings of the same political party.

          Voters had just such a choice this fall in the contest between longtime incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former state Senate President Kevin de Leon. Feinstein represented moderate Democrats, de Leon the party’s more extreme leftist Young Turks.

          This race ended up tossing a monkey wrench into Top Two, the first time the system has not worked as planned.

          Top Two, known to some as the “jungle primary,” puts the two leading vote-getters in California primaries into the finals, regardless of political party. The major parties despise this system because it cuts their organizational influence, as it did last spring when the state’s Democratic Party apparatus leaned to de Leon, but 70 percent of Democratic primary voters went instead for Feinstein.

          Top Two supporters enjoyed the fact that their rules reduced party influence. They don’t mind that dozens of district elections for Congress and the Legislature have been one-party affairs since 2010, some involving two Democrats and others matching two Republicans, depending on which major party was dominant in any particular district.

          They have rejoiced in the fact that voters of the minority party, whose smaller numbers previously gave them little or no voice in district elections and a few statewide races, could moderate the way their representatives behaved once in office in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

          But then came the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, where Feinstein played a key role in getting #MeToo movement-style complaints about Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misbehavior as a young man before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she is the ranking Democrat.

          Feinstein’s role infuriated many Republicans, who saw the claims about Kavanaugh as trumped-up falsehoods.

          Rather than going for the more moderate Feinstein, who beat de Leon by a margin of more than 3-1 in the primary, Republicans by a margin of about 2-1 voted for de Leon. This was a real head-scratcher, as de Leon during the campaign often blasted Feinstein for her friendliness with some Republicans. De Leon is also the prime author of California’s “sanctuary state” law and his stances on everything from health care to climate change run diametrically counter to standard GOP positions.

          Still, many Republicans came to detest Feinstein last fall, and decided to vote for anyone over her. De Leon became their only possible fallback, allowing him to improve greatly on his primary performance, only losing by an eventual margin of about 9 percent.

          Their sentiments were expressed by the editor of one small Central Valley newspaper, who wrote in his pre-election endorsements column, where he also blasted Democrats for their “often stupid ideas”: “Vote for Kevin de Leon. Incumbent Dianne Feinstein embarrassed herself and California by carrying the water on the phony and vicious campaign against…Kavanaugh. Her days in the Senate should be brought to a close.”

          That did not happen, but GOP voters became strange bedfellows for the Democratic left and gave Feinstein some anxious moments.

          Had de Leon won, he would have voted consistently for six years against almost everything favored by the Republican voters who so avidly helped him out.

          That’s not how former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his fellow Republican sidekick, ex-Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, planned it when they helped create Top Two. Under their predicted scenario, the ultra-conservative voters who backed de Leon this fall were supposed to vote for the more moderate Feinstein.

          If they were being rational, they would have done that. But they were governed by emotion, as many voters often are. So GOP-dominated counties like Shasta, Butte, Madera and Merced went big for de Leon.

          If more monkey wrenches like this ever get tossed into Top Two, there’s a chance the same voters who opted into it will someday opt out.

     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




          Californians already know about the wildfire crisis that’s been afflicting this state for the last few years, highlighted by a rash of huge blazes and the evacuations of at least 250,000 persons. It’s caused by a combination of climate change, forestry practices and the seemingly endless human drive to build more and more houses in increasingly remote and fire-prone areas.

          But many may not realize that a fire insurance crisis is also almost upon us.

          Sure, state legislators led by incoming state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara worked much of the year to protect victims of the huge 2017 fires that hit the Wine Country, Ventura County and parts of San Diego County.

Homeowners burned out in this year’s firestorms in Shasta, Butte, Ventura, Los Angeles and rural parts of Mendocino, Lake, Orange and Riverside counties, could also benefit from what they’ve done – essentially expanding from one year to two the time when insurance companies cannot cancel fire coverage in burned-out areas or their nearby peripheries. The clock starts running on that time when the governor declares a state of emergency in a fire area.

          But…there’s nothing to prevent insurance companies from lowering their risks by canceling policies on homes and other buildings in fire-prone areas that have not yet burned.

          There’s little doubt insurance companies want to minimize their risks. They were the leading lobbyists against a legislative bill letting big utility companies off the hook for damages caused by fires their equipment starts. That could have upped liabilities by hundreds of millions of dollars for insurers, who would then raise premiums everywhere, not just in wildfire-prone areas. A fall-back bill that eventually passed could end up causing those very things.

          Insurance lobbyists also fought a bill requiring living expense insurance to include all reasonable costs of fire victims seeking to maintain their pre-conflagration living standards.

          These were among the biggest battles of the last legislative year, and they are not yet settled, with a special commission now attempting to hash out solutions designed to keep the utilities out of bankruptcy without dunning the average homeowner large new sums.

          With utilities already facing liabilities in the multiple billions of dollars, it may be hard to find such a formula, especially in a state increasingly fed up with large corporations fobbing the costs of their mistakes and negligence onto their customers.

          Which means that what outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown said last year about wildfires and climate change – “All hell is breaking loose” – applies now to more than the actual fires. Things always get more contentious as monetary stakes rise.

          But the threat to fire insurance isn’t completely new. Outgoing state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones saw it coming a year ago. “The companies must renew policies for a time on homes in fire disaster areas,” he said then. “But they don’t have to renew policies in non-disaster areas when they expire and they don’t have to renew homes in disaster areas beyond the time limits.”

          So crisis is here. But it won’t be like what happened after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, when property insurance companies refused to renew most policies and stopped writing new home and business property coverage anywhere in California. That impasse – it amounted to blackmail – ended in 1996 with creation of the California Earthquake Authority and elimination of an old rule forcing companies that write property insurance also to offer quake insurance. The state-run CEA now writes the vast majority of earthquake policies.

          That’s because there is a safety net of sorts for homeowners whose coverage is not renewed. It’s called the Fair Plan, roughly equivalent to the CEA in that it must insure anyone who applies. But Fair Plan rates are much higher than other fire policies, although by law prices cannot be excessive, whatever that means.

          Before last year’s blazes, the number of Fair Plan policies was rising by about 1,000 per year. The figure was up in 2017 and likely will climb substantially over the next two years. So the fire insurance crisis will be less about scarce insurance than it is about money.

          That won’t make it any less painful for those who are forced to foot much higher bills than ever before.

     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

Tuesday, November 6, 2018




          Things were slightly bittersweet at Dianne Feinstein’s Election Night celebration in San Francisco, which marked her easy reelection to a fifth full term in the U.S. Senate, where she has been arguably the most influential Democratic member for the last few years.

          Her power was most publicly obvious this fall during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when she led off questioning as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Shortly after, she threw the proceedings into chaos when she revealed accusations of highly questionable sexual behavior by President Trump’s nominee.

          So there are few doubts about Feinstein’s effectiveness at age 85, the oldest current senator. But all fall, as her aggressive reelection opponent Kevin de Leon hammered at her cautious and always civil approach, one question loomed over her campaign: Would Feinstein serve out her full new term?

          For sure, if Republican John Cox had pulled off a massive upset and won the governor’s office, that question would have been answered in the negative. With the conservative Cox in charge at California’s Capitol and ready to appoint a GOP replacement if Feinstein’s seat ever became vacant, there’s no way she ever would leave her office so long as she has breath.

          But the creatively liberal Democrat Gavin Newsom will now hold that office, so Feinstein’s retirement option remains open. For Newsom, like Feinstein a former San Francisco mayor, could be counted on to name a replacement who would vote pretty much as Feinstein does: backing abortion rights, gun controls and free trade policies.

          Potential appointees might include outgoing state Treasurer John Chiang and Pasadena-area Congressman Adam Schiff, to name just two. The Democratic bench is deep, but de Leon’s often aggressive attacks on Feinstein may have eliminated him from future consideration.

          Of course, Feinstein never commented during the campaign on the possibility of retiring before her term is up. In fact, she did little in-person campaigning around California, in part because the Kavanaugh hearings kept her anchored to hearing rooms and her office through most of the election season.

          But her top campaign aide, longtime consultant Bill Carrick made it clear she was not contemplating that. “The thought of retirement never crosses her mind,” Carrick said.

          And yet… There are all those red-eye flights to Washington, D.C. which every West Coast senator must make, arriving exhausted in the early morning and still having to do a full day’s business. There’s the somewhat dicey health situation of her husband, financier Richard Blum, whose lung cancer treatments in 2016 caused her to miss the Democratic National Convention.

          So there may be reasons for her to want to retire. But there is also incentive for Feinstein to serve out her term. For one thing, she was obviously frustrated the last few years as Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa chaired the Judiciary Committee, presiding over Supreme Court confirmation hearings that Feinstein would have guided if there had been just two more Democratic senators.

          With Democrats looking like a strong possibility to take control of the Senate in two years, Feinstein could look forward to most likely being in charge soon.

          There’s also the Intelligence Committee, which deals with America’s most sensitive national security issues. Feinstein would be its senior member with Democrats in charge.

          But the question of age remains. For many persons who reach advanced years, 90 can be a benchmark time when they grow more fragile and less energetic. Feinstein has never shown signs of fading strength or endurance, but all it takes is one or two transient ischemic attacks (small strokes) to change anyone’s health self-evaluation.

          Feinstein has shown no signs of ever experiencing anything like that, and plainly feels she still has important work to do. Her major cause of protecting the California deserts from development is threatened by Trump administration policies. So are abortion rights and gun controls, which have been vital to her since she witnessed the 1978 assassinations of former San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

          The upshot is that Feinstein won’t leave of her own accord unless she feels she’s losing some of her abilities. That plainly is nowhere near reality today, but how might she feel in two or four years?

    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




          Looking for a big difference between incoming California Gov. Gavin Newsom and current incumbent Jerry Brown, who will be termed out with the advent of the new year after 24 years in statewide offices?

          Look no farther than preschool. The need for better, more universal preschool was a constant theme for the two years Newsom spent campaigning for the office he has long coveted. “This is when brains develop the most,” he said in an interview early in his drive for office. “If we want to develop people optimally, we need to start paying attention to children long before they reach kindergarten.”

          Newsom sounded a lot like the father of young children as he spoke, and he is – his four kids with actress and second wife Jennifer Siebel are aged 2 to 9. His feelings on brain development may also be influenced by his own dyslexia, which he discusses openly and has made a pet cause.

          So devoted is he to the cause of universal preschool that the governor-elect made it the theme of his first TV commercial this fall, the vehicle he knew would form his introduction to many voters who had not paid much attention to state politics until Election Day grew near.

          It’s not just preschool that Newsom says he’ll stress. His vision begins before birth and reaches through high school and college. Some have called his approach “cradle to career,” a phrase he relishes.

          It’s hard to argue with the notion of making prenatal care and preschool high priorities, especially after this fall’s compilation of dozens of studies, an analysis done by researchers at Stanford University and the Palo Alto-based Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).

          “California’s lag in academic achievement arises before children enter the schoolhouse door,” wrote the research group. It referred in large part to the fact this state trails others in closing the achievement gap between white and Asian children and those who are black or Latino – the two fastest growing ethnic groups.

          Newsom appeared to intuit this long before that report emerged. Newsom told the Oakland-based EdSource lobbying group California and the nation need “a new way of thinking about education as a lifetime pursuit. Our role begins when babies are still in the womb and doesn’t end until we’ve done all we can to prepare them for a quality job and successful career.”

          So far, Newsom has not proposed any specific programs to make his vision real, but it’s clear government spending on education can change outcomes. The Stanford-PACE report found that spending $1,000 more per student at the high school level produced “significant increases in high school graduation rates and academic achievement, particularly among poor and minority students.”

          As a candidate, Newsom proposed a data system tracking Californians from early childhood through college, aiming to get school districts and college systems to work together. Newsom also embraces community schools involving health care and social services in addition to the usual academics.

          To meet his aims, Newsom might seek a major reorganization of California’s educational establishment, with school districts and even preschools somehow combining into one system along with university and community college systems. It’s possible this could result in an “education czar,” but Newsom has not proposed that and likely would have a tough time getting that notion through the Legislature.

          Newsom will surely have to become more specific as his transition staff works on the next budget, due in preliminary form just over two months from now.

          But his first commercial laid out a central mission he sees as the key to this state’s future. “To renew the California dream, we need to renew our promise to our children, the promise that every single baby will have prenatal care, every toddler can attend preschool, every student has access to high quality after school programs, every graduate has meaningful job training and work opportunities,” he intoned.

          That will not only take reorganization of the education establishment, but also a lot of money. Look to that first budget for clues about how the Newsom ideas might look in the real world.

    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