The Coalition to Arm California’s Democratic Moderates

The Wall Street Journal, 7/1/15.

By any standard, California is a one-party state. Democrats hold near supermajorities in both legislative chambers and have controlled every statewide office since 2010. Thus political battles are waged primarily within the Democratic Party, namely between government reformers and public-union satraps. Unions have most of the money and power, but now a new outfit wants to change the balance.

Consider last year’s race for state superintendent of public instruction between incumbent Tom Torlakson and former charter-school executive Marshall Tuck. It’s a nonpartisan office, but both candidates were Democrats and the race turned into a proxy war between teachers unions and school reformers. The incumbent hung on, though Mr. Tuck claimed a moral victory by sweeping most low-income communities.

Such intraparty squabbles have become more common thanks to the state’s “jungle” primary, inaugurated in 2012, in which the top two finishers—regardless of party—move on to the general election. A loose network of Bay Area investors wants to capitalize on this political innovation by funding moderate legislative candidates whom they believe can bust the government-union monopoly in Sacramento. Their calculation is simple: A modest investment in legislative races can produce outsize returns for taxpayers. Low risk, high reward.

Govern for California, as the group is known, operates like a venture-capital firm in directing donors to promising candidates. It also makes independent expenditures, though these are often less valuable than direct contributions.

Co-founder David Crane, a lecturer at Stanford who earned his political chops as an economic expert for Arnold Schwarzenegger, says his outfit selects candidates based on intelligence, financial literacy, temperament, courage and campaign skill. There is no political litmus test.

By his lights, legislative races are perhaps the most worthwhile political investment in California because they’re dirt cheap. An Assembly seat takes about $600,000 to win while a Senate seat costs $1 million. Running for statewide office or Congress typically requires several million, and gubernatorial bids and ballot initiatives can run to eight figures. Under California’s campaign-finance rules, a couple can contribute up to $16,800 directly to a legislative candidate. So 35 to 60 couples can finance a campaign.

A state legislator—there are 40 seats in the Senate and 80 in the Assembly—also exerts proportionally more power than a member of Congress, who is one of 535. The state constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes and put constitutional amendments on the ballot. Thus Republicans can band together and block tax hikes. But to pass legislative reforms, which require a simple majority, they also need a couple dozen Democrats.

The downside—other than finding Democrats willing to take on the union leviathan—is that this is a long game. Their political contributions won’t pay off for several years, until (and if) reformers can build a critical mass in the legislature.

So far Govern for California has helped finance four successful legislative candidates, and all but one—Republican attorney Catharine Baker in the East Bay—were reform-minded Democrats opposed by labor-backed Democrats.

Ben Allen, former board president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, last year defeated the infamous Sandra Fluke, who was supported by unions for nurses, teachers and firefighters. Marin County Assemblyman Marc Levine won in 2012 by ousting Michael Allen, former nine-term president of the North Bay Labor Council.

Then there’s Steve Glazer—a veteran political operative and Gov. Jerry Brown’s former campaign manager—who drew unions’ wrath for assisting a business campaign to elect moderate Democrats and for supporting a ban on strikes by Bay Area Rapid Transit workers. Unions sought revenge in a special Senate election last month by bankrolling his opponent, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla. They even sent duplicitous mailers targeting Republican voters that claimed Mr. Glazer was the “mastermind” of Gov. Brown’s 2012 tax referendum. Yet with help from the California Chamber of Commerce, education reformers and Govern for California, Mr. Glazer prevailed.

All that said, Govern for California has yet to record a legislative success. Nor have the so-called moderate Democrats been much of a force for moderation. Messrs. Allen and Glazer both voted for legislation tightening environmental mandates and requiring California to get 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. Mr. Allen also supported bills increasing the minimum wage to $13 an hour and expanding paid family leave. (Mr. Glazer abstained or voted no.)

Yet Govern for California is more focused on education and fiscal reform—pensions, taxes, Medicaid—than environmental and social-justice issues. And Mr. Crane says moderate Democrats will become more courageous as their numbers grow. The outfit plans to target 11 open seats next year. But first, Govern for California needs to expand its network of 100 some donors.

The California legislature controls nearly $120 billion in state tax revenues, the education of nine million students, and health care for 12 million low-income citizens. It’s hard to find an investment or charity with as much of a social impact.

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