State Issues

Dan Walters: California Democrats seek to recover supermajorities

Democrats won supermajorities – more than two-thirds of the seats – in both houses of the Legislature in 2012.

Democrats lost those supermajorities two years later as Republicans gained a few seats.

Democrats will try to restore their legislative supermajorities in 2016, buoyed by the prospect of a higher voter turnout in a presidential election.

However, even if they succeed, which is no better than a 50-50 bet, it won’t make much practical difference.

Although we pundits consumed much ink and airtime speculating about what Democrats would do if they achieved supermajority status in 2012, in fact it meant very little.

In theory, they could have raised taxes and placed constitutional amendments on the ballot, but their leaders were reluctant to do either.

Meanwhile, business interests were busily electing pro-business moderate Democrats, which turned out to be a much more important factor in what happened, or didn’t happen, on legislation, particularly in 2015.

The moderate bloc stymied the legislative agendas of liberal groups that business opposed.

The announcement that Henry Perea, a moderate Democratic assemblyman from Fresno, would resign rather than finish his last term will be an early test of his party’s chances of making gains in 2016.

It appears that Gov. Jerry Brown will call a special primary election in April, followed by a runoff in June, coincident with the regular primary election.

Joaquin Arambula, the son of Perea’s predecessor, Juan Arambula, has been gearing up to reclaim the seat, but the resignation means he’ll have to run simultaneously in the special elections and general elections and that could be a big problem.

Democratic leaders are worried that despite the 31st Assembly District’s lopsidedly Democratic voter registration, Republicans, in the person of Fresno Councilman Clint Olivier, might take the seat outright in a very-low-turnout special primary in April.

They remember what happened in 2013 when another young Latino politician, Michael Rubio, resigned from the state Senate in Kern County. Republican farmer Andy Vidak grabbed the seat in a special election, then won a four-year term a year later.

Were Olivier to win the seat and then hold it in November, Democratic hopes of staging a supermajority comeback would suffer a big blow.

The Perea seat won’t be the only battleground next year. Democrats hope to recapture at least two of the three Assembly seats they lost to Republicans last year, and, if they’re very lucky, take a Senate seat from Republicans in Los Angeles County.

But those efforts also will be compromised by a number of interparty squabbles, such as former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra’s drive to unseat Assemblywoman Patty Lopez – who beat him in 2014 – in the San Fernando Valley, and outgoing Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins’ challenge to Sen. Marty Block in San Diego.

All in all, Democrats’ chances of restoring supermajorities seem slim – but again, it wouldn’t mean much if they did.

Dan Walters writes for The Sacramento Bee on issues of statewide significance; reach him at 916-321-1195 or dwalters@sacbee.com

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