Voters in the hot seat

Our election roundtable dissects the people, policies, and politics of the 2016 fall election
Left to right: Dr. Larry Gerston, Applied Materials Foundation executive Joe Pon, Dr. Lanhee Chen, and Barbara Marshman. photo: john zipperer

This nov. 8, san francisco voters will cast their final ballots in one of the most momentous elections of our lifetimes. On the national level, Americans will choose between two major-party candidates who represent very distinct approaches to politics. But there are other votes to be made this fall, ranging from congressional offices to propositions.
Recently, The Commonwealth Club’s Week to Week political roundtable, moderated by the Marina Times’s John Zipperer, gathered to discuss the race. Participants included San Jose State University political science professor Dr. Larry Gerston; Stanford law school professor and Hoover Institution research fellow Dr.
Lanhee Chen; and San Jose Mercury News editorial page editor Barbara Marshman.

JOHN ZIPPERER: Let’s hear your views on the California U.S. Senate battle between two Democratic women. Who is going to win this?

LANHEE CHEN: I wish it were more of a contest; I don’t think it is one. I think that [Kamala] Harris has done a pretty effective job at boxing [out Loretta Sanchez]. I think that Sanchez’s play was to try and figure out if she could assemble a coalition that included maybe some center-right folks. I think a lot of center-right folks are thinking, “Why don’t I just vote for neither of them?”

So I think she’s just running into a little bit of a constituency problem. I don’t see it as much of a contest; I haven’t seen polling on it recently, but I don’t imagine it’s close.

BARBARA MARSHMAN: It wasn’t the last time I looked; I haven’t seen anything recently. Loretta’s just a wild card. She’s from Orange County, and she does have some conservative support from the Central Valley — the water folks and everything.

I’m disappointed in Kamala Harris. I don’t think she’s set the world on fire as attorney general. I think she’s winning by being cautious. In our [Mercury News editorial board] last conversation with her, I didn’t have a sense that she understood water policy. So you’re not going to have a balance to Dianne Feinstein there to talk about water anymore; it’s very disappointing.

CHEN: It’s a shame, because it’s kind of an important job, as it turns out. [Laughter.]

MARSHMAN: It’s a super-important job. But maybe Kamala will blossom. What do you think?

LARRY GERSTON: Loretta Sanchez had three assets at her disposal. She has Southern California as her base. She had Latinos as her base. And she had everybody to the right of Kamala Harris. A very good number. If she wants to write a book, the next one should be “How to Blow Your Campaign,” because she had these assets, they’re wonderful assets, and she has not used them at all, which is rather a shame.

But I have a bigger beef here, and that is that we have this top-two system. I think it’s shameful.  I think it’s shameful that we don’t have a Republican running against a Democrat. I think it’s shameful that we have all these growing numbers of districts where we have Republicans against Republicans, Democrats against Democrats; minor parties are left out. I think we took the easy way out in trying to cultivate moderation, and frankly it hasn’t worked.

MARSHMAN: I think it’s too early to know if it worked. I mean you have Ro Kanna and Mike Honda. Ro Khanna is a Democrat through and through, on most things a progressive Democrat, but he is more moderate than Mike. I think give it another decade or so and see if there’s a difference. Because I don’t see the old way working. I mean, in California a Republican winning as senator? It hasn’t happened for a while.

GERSTON: I say they take the easy way out because the minor party has to build its base, and to [California Republican Party Chairman] Jim Brulte’s credit, he has been doing just that. But you don’t let the state get to be as blue as California over 40 years and expect to turn around on a dime. But Brulte’s doing it. Ten years from now you’re going to have these guys who are elected to school boards and city councils and county board supervisors and much higher positions in California because they will have earned their stripes and made a name for themselves.

MARSHMAN: I would say that when they do they’ll be able to compete. Duf Sundheim, who is one of the people in favor of the top two, we talked about it this spring — I love Duf. He said, “You know, I’m not backing off on the top two. If the Republicans can’t field a candidate who can make the runoff, then —”

CHEN: Shame on them.

ZIPPERER: So let’s dig into the many propositions on the ballot. In California we vote on everything.  There are at least 17 voter measures on the ballot. There’s a proposition of course — what’s called the Gavin Newsom-Gary Johnson proposition — to legalize marijuana. Is that going to pass this time, Barbara?

MARSHMAN: I think it may. It’s always been teetering. You have Colorado out there and other states that are having problems, but the momentum — just as with medical marijuana, I think — the momentum goes that way. And let’s face it, what we’re doing now isn’t working. Our editorial board has never supported one of these before, but we’ve said you know, let’s go in and see if we can make this work. Not that that means voters are going to do it, but there is a sense that it’s becoming more the norm.

CHEN: There is a progressive — and I don’t mean that in a political context — there’s a progressive process through which initiatives eventually pass, right? Usually it may take a few times. The electorate has to be in a place where they’re willing to accept it.

And I think in California with medical marijuana, with the Obama administration’s decision to not actively pursue prosecution on a lot of marijuana possession-related crimes, I just think the writing’s on the wall on this one, which personally I find distasteful, but the electorate is where they are.

GERSTON: A number of cities and counties of course have already passed   legislation regarding medical marijuana. But what I found on the ballot this time is a number of cities and counties have measures that would tax marijuana — between 10 and 15 percent.  The assumption being that it passes.

There’s been two studies out; one independent study suggests a gain for the state of $1.3 billion dollars in taxes at least; the other being $1.6 billion. If people don’t feel too harmed by what they’ve already seen, you know with the medical marijuana that’s so present everywhere. Yeah, this kind of thing could pass. It wouldn’t surprise me.

MARSHMAN: There are folks in Colorado who are saying that the windfall that was expected in the dollars are there, but the costs are also a lot higher.

CHEN: It’s just hard to collect, too. The problem is there are still federal laws that govern the transmission of the money. So to collect the money and then be able to remit a tax requires the cooperation of banking authorities, but banking authorities are hamstrung by federal law. So there’s all this federal junk in the way of this really working out to be the windfall that people think, and I think maybe in a few years it’ll be [worked out], but for now it’s not. If I were a proponent of the measure I would not be going to that well.

ZIPPERER: Larry, I think you said this on one of our previous Week to Week programs, and that is that when there are ballot measures — especially a lot of them — and people don’t necessarily know about them, they’re more likely to vote just no on it.

GERSTON: Absolutely, absolutely. Mostly because they’re overwhelmed. The statewide voter analysis booklet — booklet? The book, 245 pages of the smallest print you’ll ever want to see.  You better have a magnifying glass when you read it. So people get down [to] these silly arguments, whether they’re the summary by the attorney general or the 30-second commercials, and if they’re confused — and there’s a number of them this time — they will vote no. Only one third pass; only one third ever get through. So the odds already are against, and this time of course you’ve got to cancel each other.

ZIPPERER: Talk a bit about that.

GERSTON: [Propositions] 62 and 66. Sixty-two says forget capital punishment because it’s so costly to keep these people on death row — a million dollars a year per person. Let’s just throw away the key and make it life in prison without parole.

The other one says, “Oh no, you got it wrong. Let’s speed up the process. You go to San Quentin, get in line, and let’s get it done.”

So if they both pass — and that’s happened before in California — if they both pass, the one with the most amount of [votes] would win. But instead it could be that both will be defeated for that very reason.

ZIPPERER: Then we’re back to status quo. So given that, which propositions do you think will pass voter muster among that group?

CHEN: I have to remember what they all are. [Laughter.] I do think that the legalization of marijuana [could pass]. I think that the school bond will get pretty close, if not all the way there.

ZIPPERER: Now is this the one that’s basically extending Prop 30?


ZIPPERER: This is where everyone from other states are laughing their heads off.

GERSTON: Yeah, it’s crazy. [Prop] 51 is the one that allows construction bonds to move forward with less oversight than before. Jerry Brown is dead set against this one, because he believes that it will be loosey-goosey and benefit mostly the builders and nobody else. So 55 is the one that extends Prop 30. That one has virtually no opposition and has already collected I think $43 million dollars. You’re talking about the fat cats in California. You’re talking about the one percent, who by the way pay 70 percent of the state income taxes. So we’ll stick it to them.  They’ve already been stuck for the last four years, they’ll be stuck with it a little longer.

They won’t even know. [Laughter.]

But there are some other juicy ones, like the one with pharmaceuticals that has the potential of lowering pharmaceutical costs. That’s Prop 61. The pharmaceutical industry has already spent $90 million dollars. They haven’t started yet. O.K.? They’re just warming up. Ninety million dollars to oppose that.

So there are a few of those, and of course the tobacco tax — [Prop] 56. That’s another one where the tobacco industry has already spent $44 million dollars, will probably spend somewhere around $80–$100 million. That one just missed winning four years ago just missed. I think it passes.

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