California's 2011 Political Watch List

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In just a matter of hours, the calendars will flip and the champagne will bubble, and we'll all wonder what lies ahead in the year to come.

But for those of us who watch California politics for a living, it's more fun to bring out the crystal ball for a sneak peek.

Actually, it's not hard to guess some of 2011's top political stories, so here's five to watch (last year it was nine, but hey, times are tough):

What Can Brown Do For You? The most obvious and dominant political narrative of 2011 is the odyssey of Jerry Brown, thrust into the present from the past to save the future (slightly askew from, um, you know who). The new-but-veteran governor has only one real item on his To Do list for the year, one that's going to require every ounce of energy and political savvy he can muster: clean up the state budget mess.

The 72-year-old Democrat has carried out the most stealth, least specific, and least newsmaking gubernatorial transition that anyone seems to remember. And it seems to have been by design. Brown's challenge these weeks since being elected, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, has been to avoid his famous musings on all kinds of subjects and keep his eye on the budget ball.

So the answer to the question, "What can Brown do for you?" may be just one thing: the budget. Everything else will have to wait. The scant budget news that's trickled out so far -- cuts and a special election -- is not surprising. But what else Brown will proposes, and whether he can cajole partisan warriors and powerful interest groups alike to support it, will be the real story. And some will tell you that it may not be hyperbole to say that Jerry Brown's political legacy rides on what happens in these first few months of his third term in the corner office.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: Closely linked to the Brown saga, but perhaps even more pressing, is how Californians will process the choices that they're presented in the new year, and whether they -- we -- can make well-informed decisions. Regardless of the reason, the state's citizens have remained blissfully unaware of how their state government spends tax dollars. They've also allowed or encouraged elected officials to promise more services than there are existing dollars. It will be fascinating to watch whether folks start to get it -- and whether a new special election, unlike the last one, can make clear what happens if the answer is to limit spending.

Reform Redux: California's governance woes have been the focus of a lot of talk (and news coverage) for more than a year, and every effort to date has fizzled. Might 2011 be different? If, in fact, the new governor pushes some systemic changes (reworking the state/local government relationship comes to mind), will that help?

Getty/Johannes Eisele

As for leadership outside of government, the place to watch is the new group of experts and graybeards that has coalesced around billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, who's reportedly pledged $20 million to leading a state government overhaul. The money could, in theory, erase the biggest obstacle that felled 2010 efforts at everything from incremental governance changes to a constitutional convention: cash to get governance reform measures on the statewide ballot. Of course, $20 million may only be seed money for an effort that challenges the powerful, and deep-pocketed, interest groups which thrive on the status quo.

The Democratic Bench, The GOP Facelift? The aftermath of the 2010 election cycle will provide some interesting dramas for both Democrats and Republicans on the statewide level. For Democrats, it's an embarrassment of riches after winning every statewide elected office. But the real fun may be watching how the party's most prominent up-and-comers -- San Franciscans Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris -- handle the inevitable buzz about where their political futures are headed. Newsom steps into a job with few official duties, but perhaps the chance to be in the middle of any big issue he chooses. Harris, on the other hand, assumes the role of California's top cop and will no doubt expand the job's reach into several topical issues that will attract media attention. With so many people openly speculating about whether Jerry Brown will serve only one term, the Newsom/Harris comparisons and contrasts are going to be an especially interesting political story to watch.

For Republicans, it's a "now what?" year. Expect more party infighting about whether 2010's shellacking was due to picking the wrong candidates, the wrong message, or both. Moderates in the state GOP may see this as their chance to push a different agenda, but the party's conservative base is also angling for a fight about what it really means to be a Republican, after seven years with a governor who many considered to be a disappointment. And pretty soon, we'll see what path the GOP takes in presenting a challenger to California's senior stateswoman, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who's up for re-election in 2012.

Map Maker, Map Maker, Make Me A Map: Expect to learn more in 2011 than you ever knew (or wanted to know?) about redistricting. For the first time ever, the process of drawing California's political districts is coming out of closed-door sessions at the Capitol or the courts and into public hearings. The state's new independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will start slowly, at first; full census data won't be available until April. But look for things to be intense, and no doubt controversial, as the 14 member panel starts really sketching out legislative and congressional seats between April and mid-August. The timeline will also result in a lot of politician hand wringing; not only will they not know until the fall where district lines will land, but 2012 will bring even more changes with the state's new open primary law. Lots of reform advocates are going to be watching all of this with great interest.

There will no doubt be many more great stories and issues to watch, so have that glass of bubbly tonight and then get settled in for an interesting 2011. Happy New Year!

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Jessica Rothhaar

    John, you know I love your writing and agree with almost all your analyses, but you fall into the trap of conservative framing when you say Californians have “…allowed or encouraged elected officials to promise more services than there are existing dollars.” It hasn’t been services that electeds have been handing out like christmas candy the last few years – name me any significant state service expansions that happened on Schwarzenegger’s watch. It’s been tax cuts that legislators keep approving without paying for, starting with Schwarzenegger’s first act as Governor, reduction of the petty little Vehicle License Fee, which put another $100 in the pocket of the average motorist but has systematically forced the defunding of libraries, schools and county hospitals.

    Let me know if I’ve got this wrong…..

  • John Myers

    I think you raise a fair point about tax credits and expenditures, and one that admittedly should have been mentioned. But I think an impartial analysis — and as I often do, I rely on the Legislative Analyst’s Office for most of this — will show that a broad array of expenditure decisions have been made without regard to reliable revenues.

    I would agree that few program expansions have been on Schwarzenegger’s watch (but not zero: Prop 49 implementation comes to mind). But it’s also true that the outgoing governor inherited a structural deficit exacerbated under a Democratic administration. Few objective analysts will step back and look at the 1999-2001 budget decisions and not say that programmatic spending was increased at a noticeable rate.

    It’s also worth mentioning that tax credits are only not the domain of Republicans. Democrats, too, have pushed for tax breaks through the years, including the business tax breaks agreed to in 2009.

    The larger point still seems valid — and again, I rely on those with real budget expertise and not just my own inflated sense of smarts: the public has never truly been challenged on the mismatch between long-term, sustainable, tax revenues and expenditures (be they on programs, tax incentives, borrowing, etc).

    That being said, I’m really glad you raised the question. The wording in the posting should have been more inclusive.


  • Chris Jensen

    The influence from outside the government by Mr. Bruggruen is a bit disconcerting for me. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and likens his group NBI 21st Century Council as a replacement for the Bilderburg Council, and the Trilateral Commission. These groups have long been a part of the Global Conspiracy Narrative. This is one of his more interesting articles relating California with Greece. It would be great if you could do some investigative journalism on the Nicholas Bruggruen Institute.
    “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you” – Kurt Cobain

    Happy New Year!

  • Dave Kadlecek

    The last item in the column says that “2012 will bring even more changes with the state’s new open primary law”, but California won’t have open primaries in 2012 (except under the unlikely circumstances that major changes to our election system are enacted in 2011). It may seem picky, but it’s important to know the difference because advocates of California’s newly adopted primary system have deliberately called it an “open primary” when it’s not, because they want to capture the positive associations of the word “open”.

    By the definitions used by political scientists and the courts, an open primary is one in which each party has its own primary to choose its nominee, and voters choose on election day which party’s primary to vote in without any restriction. A closed primary is one in which each party chooses its nominee in a primary election where only members of the party can participate.

    There will be two statewide primary elections in 2012 in California, but neither will be an open primary.

    In the presidential primary in February, parties do have their own primaries, but the primaries don’t choose the parties’ nominees and there are significant restritions on which voters can vote in which primary. A voter registered in a ballot-qualified party can vote only in his or her own party’s primary, and each party can decide whether to allow decline to state voters to participate in their primary (the Democrats have allowed it, the Republicans and third parties generally have not). There is no standard name for such a system, which is less restrictive than a closed primary and more restrictive than an open primary, but it is sometimes called a “slightly ajar” primary.

    In the statewide direct primary in June, as a result of Proposition 14, there will be no party primaries for voters to choose among, and the parties will have no nominees on the ballot in November (except for Presidential candidates, who are nominated by the parties’ conventions, not by a direct primary). Every voter will see the same set of candidates in June for U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, State Assemblymember and State Senator. Then in November, they’ll see just two candidates for each office, but even if those two are one Democrat and one Republican, they won’t be the Democratic and Republican nominees, just a Democrat and a Republican who happened to have received the most and second-most votes in June. The usual name for this is a “top two” primary, though it’s sometimes called a “jungle” primary or “Louisiana-style” primary, after the only state in the U.S. that has used it until very recently.

  • John Myers

    Yes, it’s accurate to call the new system a “top two” primary, but that’s a specific kind of “open” primary. My research suggests “open primary” is a pretty generic term; hence, there are several kinds of “open” primaries.

    Your criticisms are entirely understandable, but I think it’s also fair to say that they are common arguments of opponents to what was Prop 14. Supporters of Prop 14 would likely counter that any primary is “open” if it diminishes the power of political parties. Again, that’s not my assertion… just one that I’ve heard as I cover this story.