CMA Capitol Insight: Feb. 17, 2016

February 17, 2016
Area(s) of Interest: Advocacy 

CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Anthony York, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.

Whirlwinds of Change

The California Coastal Commission ousted executive director Charles Lester last week, setting off a political firestorm that reached all the way to the governor’s office. Lester’s critics on the commission characterized the issue as one of management, claiming they had tried for years to get him to be more responsive to commissioners and others with business before the commission. Lester’s backers took the effort to oust him as a developer-backed coup and attempt to get more pro-growth voices on the commission staff.

Facts to substantiate the allegations were in short supply on both sides. The seven commissioners who voted to oust Lester, including all four appointees who serve at the pleasure of Gov. Jerry Brown, said they were limited in what they could say publicly because of the confidential nature of Lester’s internal performance reviews.

Meanwhile, environmental activists led a crusade to save Lester, but offered little evidence of the alleged coup. The showdown came to a head at the commission meeting in Morrow Bay, where hundreds packed the room to voice their support for Lester.

But the vote was a good example of how politics sometimes functions with a shortage of facts and evidence, and how rhetorical overreach can sometimes backfire. What was clear from listening to the commissioners speak, even those who ultimately voted to save Lester’s job, is that they were offended at the characterization of members of the commission serving as tools of developers. Many of them have impeccable environmental credentials, and felt they were being unfairly maligned by activists who have long enjoyed a cozy relationship with commission staff.

The incident was another reminder of the intra-Democratic party split on environmental issues, which often takes on racial overtones. As we wrestle with larger issues of economic inequality and a shortage of affordable housing, there are pressures about how we grow, where we should grow and how to chart a course for the state’s future that offers opportunity to all. Balancing those needs with a desire to protect our natural resources is a complex political riddle that California leaders will have to wrestle with for decades to come.

Meanwhile, the fight to extend the managed care organization (MCO) tax gained some momentum last week, as a group of major insurers joined the call to extend the tax. The measure needs Republican support in the legislature. Failure to pass a new MCO tax could lead to $1 billion in cuts to health care programs, including services for the developmentally disabled.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia sent shockwaves through our political system, turning the November election into a fight over all three branches of the federal government. With the fate of the White House, the Senate and now the Supreme Court in the balance, the importance of the 2016 election has just been amplified.

For now, the jockeying and posturing is focused on whether President Obama  should or will name  a replacement for Scalia. Among those floated by the New York Times is California Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris. There are lots of reasons why that won’t happen, but it certainly would be intriguing.

Harris’ Senate race continues to take shape as the filing deadline for candidates approaches. It is now, in political parlance, put up or shut up time for candidates. Republican Rocky Chavez dropped out of the race last week, wrestling with poor fundraising numbers and the prospect of a political suicide mission, opting instead to run for reelection to his Assembly seat.

Now, all eyes are on Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who will have to decide in the coming weeks whether she is willing to give up her seat in the House for a shot against Harris and a seat in the U.S. Senate. Sanchez is lagging behind Harris in fundraising, and has not demonstrated an ability to keep pace with the attorney general when it comes to institutional support. Not to say there isn’t a path for Sanchez, but it is a gamble. By next month, we should have more clarity on the U.S. Senate race, and whether there will be a contested Democratic fight in June – or perhaps even November.


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