Opinion: A Democratic Supermajority in California Hinges on One Seat

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The California State Capitol in Sacramento. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Dan Walters | CALmatters Commentary

Democrats captured two-thirds “supermajorities” in both houses of the California Legislature in 2012, lost them in 2014, regained them in 2016 and lost them again this year when several Democrats resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment.

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None of those political machinations has had more than a theoretical impact on the bottom line of legislative action.

Even when they had supermajorities, Democratic leaders were unable to use their ostensible powers to enact new taxes or place constitutional amendments before voters.

In fact, when Gov. Jerry Brown needed two-thirds of the Legislature to pass a hefty increase in gas taxes and reauthorize the state’s cap-and-trade system of limiting carbon emissions, he couldn’t get Democratic unanimity. He needed a few Republican votes to prevail.

The supermajorities, therefore, have been more about partisan bragging rights and media speculation than real tools for legislative action. However, they still mean something to those inside the Capitol, and this year’s elections will determine whether they return anew.

It’s evident from the June primary elections that once the sexual harassment vacancies are filled, Democrats will regain their supermajority in the 80-member Assembly in November and might even enhance it by a seat or two.

However, the Senate situation is cloudy.

Democrats dodged a high-caliber bullet when Tony Mendoza, a Democrat from Artesia who had resigned in the sexual harassment scandal, simultaneously failed in bids to recapture his seat in a special election for the few remaining months of his current term and seek a new full term.

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Democratic leaders had feared he might place second in the latter election and, under the state’s top-two system, win a place on the November ballot against a Republican. That could have resulted in a GOP win in the 32nd Senate District, which includes some of southern Los Angeles County and a small piece of northern Orange County, despite an overwhelming Democratic voter registration edge.

Dan Walters

Democrat Vanessa Delgado is likely to win the Aug. 7 runoff against Republican Rita Topalian for the remainder of Mendoza’s term this year, but she failed to make the top-two cut for November’s balloting for a full term.

Delgado will be in office for the final three weeks of the legislative session, which ends Aug. 31. But even so, Democrats won’t have a supermajority because in June, another Democratic senator, Josh Newman of Fullerton, was recalled by his voters.

As Newman was being ousted after being hammered for voting for the gas-tax increase, his voters elected Republican Ling Ling Chang, a former assemblywoman whom Newman had defeated in 2016 to give Democrats their 27-seat supermajority.

However, it’s possible that Democrats could regain their Senate supermajority in November if Democratic Assemblywoman Anna Caballero prevails in the 12th Senate District, which covers all or parts of six counties stretching from the San Joaquin Valley to the Monterey Peninsula.

Republican Anthony Cannella, who provided the deciding Senate vote for the gas tax last year, has held the district for eight years despite its 3-2 Democratic registration edge. Caballero, who hails from Salinas, will face Republican Rob Poythress, a farmer, businessman and Madera County supervisor who’s Canella’s choice as his successor.

The total vote for Democratic and Republican 12th district candidates in June was a virtual tie, indicating a tight race in November to determine whether the Democratic supermajority in the Senate returns.

This time around, it might really mean something. The man likely to be the next governor, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has hinted that he wants to do big and expensive things, such as universal health care, that would require major new taxes.


CALmatters is a public-interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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