Tom Fulks

Democrats are falling out of favor in California. That doesn’t bode well for 2018

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

Right when Republicans start panicking that a rising anti-Trump tide might drown their efforts to hold onto Congress and state offices across the nation in 2018, California Democrats are swimming against the current.

Democrats in our state Legislature dramatically hiked motor fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees in April with almost no public debate. Now, 58 percent of California voters are opposed to what they did, according to a recent poll conducted by UC Berkeley.

Consequently, the poll shows, job approval of Democrats in the Legislature has dropped 14 points since March, bringing their approval-disapproval to 50-50 percent. It could be worse: It was 14 percent approval to 76 percent disapproval seven years ago during the Great Recession.

Regardless, California Democrats would do well to heed the Berkeley poll’s findings and start developing compelling reasons for voters to return them to supermajority status next year. Otherwise, they’ll face one of the most confounding paradoxes in American political lore: Deep-blue California becoming redder while the rest of the more conservative nation turns bluer.

California Republicans, years wandering the political wilderness, sense this and have targeted legislative Democrats in the Central Valley and other swing districts for serious challenge in 2018 while waging a recall against one Democratic state senator. They’ve got reason to hope.

This dynamic partly explains why Gov. Jerry Brown is having difficulty rallying another two-thirds vote to reauthorize the state’s carbon cap-and-trade program, the centerpiece of California’s suite of laws and regulations deployed to fight climate change.

Meanwhile, at the national level, Politico reports Republicans are growing increasingly anxious amid a worsening “toxic political environment,” including the absence of meaningful legislative wins plus “serious” concerns more scandal will erupt around Trump, causing Republicans to fear losing big in 2018.

It seems nature’s way for Democrats to squander such golden opportunities (à la Hillary Clinton). While Republicans fret about dragging the Trump boat anchor around, California Democrats squabble over who runs the party.

The Bernie Sanders and Clinton factions haven’t united. In fact, they’re engaged in a nasty internecine battle for party chair between supporters of Kimberly Ellis, a Berner from the Bay Area, and Hillary-ite Eric Bauman of Los Angeles. At their recent state convention, Bauman claimed a razor-thin election victory, which Ellis disputes.

The ugliness trickles down to the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee, whose Bernie and Hillary factions snipe rather than focus on the approximately 110 elective local seats on the ballot in 2018. They include sheriff, county assessor, county clerk, district attorney, seats on the Board of Supervisors, all seven city councils, special districts, school boards and a host of obscure positions, many traditionally uncontested.

If Democrats intend to regain political power nationally, they must compete for elective office at the granular, local level and build upward – basic political science. As yet, there’s talk but no visible movement toward challenging for those seats, except for scattered rumbles about the Fourth District Supervisor seat of Republican Lynn Compton.

Apparently preferring internal scrumming over strategic planning, local Democrats have yet to seriously map out tactics, messages and candidate recruitment for 2018. The Sanders-inspired SLO County Progressives have done some solid spadework, but it remains to be integrated into the party framework, if any framework exists.

Lack of message is probably the party’s most pronounced shortcoming – from here to the nation’s Capitol.

Pollster Stanley Greenberg, in a New York Times opinion piece, lays out why message matters:

"... Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate… . This decline contributed mightily to the Democrats’ losses in the states and Congress and to … Trump." Greenberg notes in American Prospect: "… Better performance requires Democrats to embrace dramatically bolder economic policies and to attack a political economy that works for the rich, big corporations and the cultural elites, but not for average Americans."

One such bold policy idea was advanced locally by supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill, both Democrats. They advocated putting up $5 million – maneuvered from various pots of money within the county budget – to help qualified non-profits expedite building (not “studying”) deed-restricted apartment complexes, small houses and co-housing projects targeted at wage earners struggling to afford shelter.

Their idea was summarily dismissed Monday by the Republican board majority, but the proposal underscores Greenberg’s admonition that Democrats must have better people-oriented solutions and bolder economic ideas than Republicans to win elections.

Longtime Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley once observed: “Good government is good politics.”

Democrats best abide if they want to win in 2018.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.