Election 2014 hot topics

A lively political roundtable looks at the issues and people on this November’s ballot
Left to right: Dr. Larry Gerston, Josh Richman, and Carla Marinucci discuss the November election with moderator John Zipperer. photo: Valerie Castro

As California voters prepare to fill out their ballots in person at the polling booth or by mail, one of the biggest challenges is making sense of all of the different candidates, offices and propositions on the ballot. The Commonwealth Club’s Week to Week political roundtable brought together three of the Bay Area’s top political analysts to give their input.

The panelists include San Jose State University political science professor Dr. Larry Gerston, who is also a political analyst with NBC Bay Area; Bay Area News Group state and national politics reporter Josh Richman; and San Francisco Chronicle senior political writer Carla Marinucci.

JOHN ZIPPERER: A new poll has come out showing what Californians think about Congress. What do they think and does it matter?

LARRY GERSTON: Thirteen percent approve of Congress; 75 percent don’t, and the other 12 percent probably want to wring their necks anyway. It is unbelievable. It is not an all-time low; the all-time low is 9 percent. But the last several years, it’s hovered between 9 and 13 percent. It’s very, very unfortunate. That was from a Field Poll.

Then you ask Californians, “What do you think of your member of Congress?” It’s slightly better; 36 percent say they are doing a great job, which is down by 8 just from April.

So here we are rushing toward elec-tion time and more than ever people are perplexed, they’re upset. This economy seems to be improving in name only and for everybody but me — that type of thing. We’ve got all kinds of data out there that shows our standard of living is going down, while corporate profits are soaring. A lot of people are not too happy. They think something ought to be done, and of course we have nothing being done.

JOSH RICHMAN: Everybody says “Throw the bums out, but maybe not my bum.” Historically that’s been what the polls find. But now we start to find this reversal, where actually more people are disapproving of their own members than approving. Is that a problem for the contested incumbents here in California?

GERSTON: I think it’s going to be a problem for four or five races, where they were extremely close to begin with. You know, a couple of races like the Palm Springs seat — Paul Ruiz. There are a couple Republicans just hanging on in the Orange County area.

But I think it could be one of those times where there are some seats that change hands. Though in an off-year, the turnout is lower; the predictability goes wacko. So things we might normally expect during a presidential year don’t occur. I think we can expect

to be surprised.

CARLA MARINUCCI: This is where I think Democrats are nervous this year. Because, being that it’s an off-year, Democrats don’t turn out as much. Republicans are much more motivated. They’re still upset about Obamacare, they are still more motivated to vote against Obama, particularly in Senate races, not here, but obviously across the country. This is where Democrats are nervous.

ZIPPERER: What do you think about Tim Draper’s failed Six Cali-fornias proposal?

MARINUCCI: [Draper raised his] name recognition for whatever [he wants] to do in the future. We’re seeing this more and more, with these wealthy candidates or people who want to play in the political arena.

GERSTON: That’s the real upside of the [GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel] Kashkari campaign; not that he wins this time, but go four years out and there’s no incumbent, people are tired of the one party that’s been ruling. Kashkari says, “Look, I’ve been telling you this for four years. Now listen to me. Let’s do something.” To me, this is the time that he’s just sowing seeds. Whether they sprout the way he wants is another story. But I think it’s a really inexpensive way for him to get an awful lot of press.

MARINUCCI: Yeah. No one knew who Neel Kashkari was on the West Coast. He was a darling of Wall Street for a while; he was under the lights there as the administrator of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP. I think he kinda got hooked on that spotlight and came out here and didn’t realize what a big lift it was going to be to become known. After spending $2 million of his own money, which is really nothing in California, he’s still unknown by 75 percent of the voters, and Jerry Brown is still 21 points ahead and $22 million richer in the campaign.

RICHMAN: True, but I think I agree a little bit more with what Larry said, in that [Kashkari] did manage to beat out the Tea Party darling in the primary. Ultimately Neel Kashkari is too smart of an individual to think that he was gonna beat a governor who has this breadth and depth of experience in office, who has these kind of popularity numbers, who’s had this kind of success by some standards during his third term in office. I think he’s laying a foundation for a future career. If he manages to get through this final month and a half of campaigning without seeming overly rude or aggressive or burning any sort of bridges, if he comes out looking like he fought the good fight, he’s in a great position to run again somewhere down the line.

MARINUCCI: It seems like it’s just going to be a total rout. I kind of wonder what his future would be in elective office in California.

What we’re looking at right now on the governor’s race is one of the most unusual campaigns we’ve ever seen in California. There is no campaign; Jerry Brown hasn’t appeared in a single ad. He’s not even on the web — and that doesn’t even cost anything. He is so cheap; he’s spending nothing. And he is 21 points ahead. The guy is a master. It’s insane to watch him out there. He was just in San Francisco this last week swearing in a thousand members of AmeriCorps, the volunteer group. They had “This is the man who basically [is] the modern founder of public service, he founded the California Conservation Corps, before most of you were born.” Then they went back to his resume, back to ’71 when he was first elected. He doesn’t need to spend money; as somebody I talked to today said, he’s been governing here since the

earth cooled.

RICHMAN: He doesn’t need to spend money. It hurts his soul to spend money he doesn’t have to spend.

MARINUCCI: This is the place that we’ve seen these orgies of spending and mudslinging and craziness. More than a decade ago, Gray Davis was killing Bill Simon, a $100 million campaign. You saw the last one, with Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown. This is just nothing, and to watch Jerry Brown really kind of sail toward it without lifting a finger …

RICHMAN: Because half of the Republicans I saw at the [GOP party] convention in March were saying, “Well, we don’t trust this guy, we are not sure of his Republican bona fides. We are more comfortable with the other Republican in the race, Tim Donnelly.” The other half are saying “Four more years of Jerry Brown? Eh, could be worse.”

ZIPPERER: Let’s talk about some propositions. What are some of the big ones voters will be facing?

MARINUCCI: I think voters are going to probably be most interested in the water bond. It’s really historic. Jerry Brown got both sides together on it — that’s another thing he’s touting. Look, we haven’t constructed dams or water storage in this state for decades. Finally some of this can get done in the drought. A lot of newspapers are already arguing for this. I think you’re going to see the governor come out on it as well, as well as the rainy day fund, which is another thing where the idea is to protect California in times of economic downturn, get more money into these funds, to protect California with its pension liability. These are the kind of big-picture items that Jerry Brown loves.

RICHMAN: But what you’re going to see the most TV ads for are props 45 and 46. Prop 45 is a measure to give the state insurance commissioner authority to essentially reject health insurance rate hikes that he finds are excessive. He already has this authority for property and auto insurance, and this authority exists in certain other states. They want to extend it to health insurance rate hikes. The insurance industry is going bananas over this. They are putting tens of millions of dollars into the campaign against it. It is supported by the current insurance commissioner, unsurprisingly, as well as by consumer advocates and consumer attorneys.

Prop 46 is a measure that would raise the cap on non-economic medical malpractice damages. It’s been set at $250,000 for the past 39 years. This would index it to inflation, which would immediately boost it up over $1 million. The measure also would require random drug testing for doctors, and it would require doctors to start consulting an already existing database used to weed out drug abusers who go doctor-shopping, trying to get narcotics. Again you’ve got the lawyers and the consumer advocates on one side, and you’ve got the doctors and the health insurers on the other side. Put together, with those two initiatives you’re probably looking at at least $80, $90 million getting spent.

GERSTON: Over $100 million; $58 million on one and $30 on the other.

RICHMAN: The radio ads have begun, the TV ads have begun. You’ve probably seen some already. The mail will start hitting your mailbox around the same time as your vote by mail ballots.

MARINUCCI: A lot of people are going to be watching this malpractice one because of the idea of drug testing doctors that was kind of tacked on at the end. Focus groups showed consumers love that idea. Doctors don’t love that idea.

RICHMAN: Both insurers and the health-care industry don’t want to see the malpractice cap go up.

ZIPPERER: Has there been polling?

GERSTON: There have been two polls, one in July, one in August. The results are very predictable. In July, before the money starting flowing, Prop 45 [had] about 58 percent [versus] low 30s to high 20s; and Prop 46 by a smaller margin, but doing well. Then we saw by the end of last August, it had already flipped. You’ll see them flip even more.

This is not surprising. Go back and think of some of the propositions in recent years. To add a dollar a pack to cigarette taxes. To tax oil. Any time you’ve got someone with a stake, and it has to do with dollars and cents, those groups amass their resources and do quite well. It’s an irony, because when the initiative process was begun as part of what we call direct democracy a little more than 100 years ago, the idea was that the people would have the opportunity to make laws because the legislature was controlled by special interests. So now the people have bypassed the legislature, but the special interests control the process at the initiative level. Somewhere Hiram Johnson, the father you could say of direct democracy, that guy’s gotta be rolling in his grave.

ZIPPERER: In San Francisco, and over in Berkeley, they’re going to be voting on something that’s generally known as the soda tax, which is taxing non- alcoholic, sugary drinks. Is this just kind of the old nanny state?

MARINUCCI: This is another one that is very, very controversial, of course. You know health professionals say this is a good thing that would lower health-care costs in the long run and would sort of break the addiction that kids have to sugary sodas. Of course small business hates this idea and huge billboards are up in San Francisco. A lot of money is going into this one as well. Even though it’s only a couple of cents, the tax.

GERSTON: It’s a repeat of Richmond. Richmond had this issue very recently. An interesting coalition comes out against it. Of course it’s the American Beverage Association. We expect that. And yes, small businesses. Then you get the NAACP. Why is the NAACP opposed to it? Because it will be unfair to poor people. Suddenly, [it] becomes a David and Goliath story; it gets all muddled. “If the NAACP is against it, maybe I want to think about being against it, too; I’m a good liberal,” whatever. That really makes it an interesting thing to watch. But I would be surprised if either one of them does very well.

ZIPPERER: Statewide it looks like the rest of the propositions are — I’m not sure if they’re of significance. Something about reducing the classification of certain nonviolent crimes, to make them misdemeanors. What, what is the point of that?

GERSTON: About 10,000 people will likely qualify for getting their sentences changed. It’s retroactive. It’s for nonviolent crimes that had been considered felonies in the past.

When you’re talking about incarceration [costs] of $50,000 a year, per person, per inmate, that adds up to a lot of money pretty quickly. We have not been able to control prison spending; we don’t control it to this day. Unfortunately, not only does state prison spending continue to go up, but now it’s spilled over to the counties with the realignment program, in which the counties have been asked to take prisoners, and the county costs are going up. And they’re letting them out early. So now the parole problems are there.

Jerry Brown can get credit for a lot of things these last four years. But if anybody sits down and does a serious study — the prison issues, realignment and all that, have been a pretty big problem for him.

ZIPPERER: There was a story about Nancy Pelosi being either the number one or number two money-raiser for Democrats. She has raised in total $400 million or something like that.

MARINUCCI: She is unbelievable. She’s the Energizer bunny. She is just out there nonstop for the Democrats. There’s no one like her. When you watch her, whether it’s at a campaign event or just a local event, I mean, the energy is just there with her.

RICHMAN: You think this next cycle will be

her last?

MARINUCCI: It certainly doesn’t appear so when you’re watching her.

ZIPPERER: Do you think she would want to be involved in all the hoopla of 2016, if the nominee is

Hillary Clinton?


made the comment recently that if the Republicans take the Senate, it’s the end of civilization as we know it. So maybe she won’t want to be part of that. It’s looking more and more like they may.

ZIPPERER: One of the juicy questions is what happens to the U.S. Senate. There’s been some interesting stuff going on in the Kansas Senate race where you may have seen the Democratic candidate dropped out of the race. The independent candidate is now leading in the polls over the incumbent Republican. Does this change the game plan or expectations that the Democrats might still hold on to the Senate?

MARINUCCI: It’s not looking good for the Democrats to hold on to the Senate. In many of the races you are talking about districts where the Republicans have an advantage, where Obama didn’t win these districts; and in the mid-term elections as we know, Republicans turn out more than Democrats. They are more motivated. So every sort of odds-maker out there, including the 538 blog — which tracks 10,000 different polls — is now giving it a 65 percent chance that the Republicans will take the Senate. I think that’s a dire sign for the Democrats.

GERSTON: That’s about right. It’s a very fluid issue right now; you can turn it in one or two states. Tomorrow could be different. The bigger issue is, this is more a psychological victory than anything else, because to get anything of significance done in the Senate, it takes 60 votes. The Republicans will have a leg up on things like judicial confirmations, because they’ve changed the rule on all that. Democrats may regret changing the filibuster rule.

Some Democrats may actually feel a little happy about it, only because it’s their reason to get rid of Harry Reid. He’s been around a long time and some people are not happy with his leadership, as happens with anyone in leadership for a long time.

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