California: 2020 wasn’t a defeat for the progressive movement

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California candidates who ran on a progressive platform and won.

There has been a lot of writing on the mixed November 2020 election results in California — close to 2/3 of California voters voted for Biden/Harris, but then declined to support policies endorsed by the same Democratic leaders they voted for. The New York Times called it a “gut check for liberals”, Politico declared that California is not as liberal as many think, while others stated that the results show a divided California with urban centers leaning left and rural counties leaning right.

After all, California voters rejected affirmative action, said no to closing corporate tax loopholes in order to fund public schools, and voted down basic worker rights (ie. paid sick days and health care) for gig workers.

There’s no question: those downvotes on important statewide ballot measures were disappointing for the left.

But calling the November election a setback on the progressive agenda is shortsighted.

California is evolving, and it’s moving left.

Just 25 years ago, California was electing Republican Governors and routinely passing anti-immigration and excessive tough on crime measures.

Today, every statewide elected official is a Democrat and we hold a supermajority in both houses of our state legislature.

This November, on the same day that voters declined to expand rent control, Golden State voters also protected hard-won criminal justice advances and expanded the constitutional right to vote to 40,000 Californians who are on parole — most of whom are Black and Brown.

And just eight months ago, candidate Bernie Sanders swept 47 of 53 congressional districts in California. I’m not just talking about progressive enclaves of the Bay Area and Los Angeles — he also resoundingly won traditionally conservative areas in the Central Valley, Inland Empire and San Diego.

Furthermore, exit polls show that Senator Sanders decisively won the vote of Californians under 45. In fact, Sanders won more voters under 45 than Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar combined. It is noteworthy to add that while Obama won California voters under 30 by 5 points in 2008, Sanders won the same demographic by close to 50 points in 2020.

The Bernie 2020 campaign demonstrated that a progressive candidate and unabashedly redistributive economic agenda can win the hearts of California voters — with a well-resourced and executed ground game.

While he did not outspend Michael Bloomberg, Sanders combined a well financed campaign, powered by small contributions averaging under $20, with a committed grassroots base of volunteers that knocked on millions of doors and spoke with communities typically overlooked in electoral politics.

California is a big state. Historically, the outcome of state ballot measures has been less a reflection of California voters’ political proclivities, and more a representation of how much money each side invested.

The Bernie 2020 campaign proved that when the financial playing field is more level, a strong ground game can open the door for policy-forward candidates who are committed to tools of economic redistribution, like tuition-free public college, Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

And at the local level, California candidates who ran on these ideas won critical seats up and down the state, even when vastly outspent. On smaller terrain, strong people-powered organizing beats out expensive glossy mailers and television commercials.

Just take a look at the non-incumbent candidates who won on a progressive platform in 2020:

  • Katie Valenzuela (won in March 2020) — Sacramento City Council
  • Mai Vang — Sacramento City Council
  • Claudia Jiminez — Richmond City Council
  • Gayle McLaughlin — Richmond City Council
  • Melvin Willis (incumbent who ran on slate with Jiminez and McLaughlin) — Richmond City Council
  • Xavier Johnson — Berkeley Rent Board
  • Andy Kelley — Berkeley Rent Board
  • Mari Mendonca — Berkeley Rent Board
  • Dominique Walker- Berkeley Rent Board
  • Carroll Fife — Oakland City Council
  • Jovanka Beckles — AC Transit Board
  • Tamisha Walker — Antioch
  • Connie Chan — San Francisco Board of Supervisors
  • Myrna Melgar — San Francisco Board of Supervisors
  • James Coleman — South San Francisco City Council
  • Lissette Espinoza-Garnica — Redwood City Council
  • Alex Lee — CA State Assembly, representing Fremont, Santa Clara, San José, Milpitas, and Newark
  • Carmen Ramírez — Ventura Board of Supervisors
  • Veronica Vasquez — Delano City Council
  • Salvador Solorio-Ruiz — Delano City Council
  • Ben Reynoso — San Bernardino City Council
  • Holly Mitchell — Los Angeles Board of Supervisors
  • Nithya Raman — Los Angeles City Council
  • George Gascon — Los Angeles District Attorney
  • Scarlet Peralta — Montebello City Council
  • David Torres — Montebello City Council
  • Sasha Renee Perez — Alhambra City Council
  • Sepi Shyne — West Hollywood City Council
  • Suely Saro — Long Beach City Council
  • Jesse Lopez — Santa Ana City Council

Every single progressive challenger is a woman, person of color, and/or LGBTQ. 2/3 are women of color.

And in a state where 3 out of 4 voters under 25 are people of color and 50% come from immigrant and refugee backgrounds, these wins represent the power of a growing voting bloc that is committed to a progressive agenda.

Liberal and moderate Democrats also made gains in traditionally conservative arenas: Rhodesia Ransom became the first African American to win a seat on the conservative San Joaquin Board of Supervisors; Dave Min flipped an Orange County State Senate seat beating a Republican incumbent on an explicitly pro-climate platform; Todd Gloria is the first LGBTQ and person of color to win the San Diego Mayor seat and first Democrat in 15 years; and Democrats flipped the 4–1 Republican majority on the San Diego Board of Supervisors to 3–2 Democratic majority.

So what can progressives take away from the California 2020 elections?

First, that political leaders are ready to tackle the status quo and flip the script on policy that favors the wealthy, even if it takes a couple of campaign cycles to succeed.

For forty years, labor and other political leaders were afraid to waste precious resources to reform the disastrous Prop. 13, a commercial property tax loophole that has cost California between $8 billion and $12 billion every year since 1978. The measure was once called “a sacred doctrine that should never be questioned” by former two-time Governor Jerry Brown, and considered too entrenched to shake.

This year, that sacred doctrine was upended. Even though the proposition didn’t pass, it was close. It takes more than one election cycle to win fights like Schools and Communities First; we need time to educate and organize voters.

Voters take note: you should expect that kind of momentum to push more straightforward, redistributive efforts onto your ballots. Yes, I’m talking about a tax on billionaires.

Second, if we’re up against corporations willing to shill out $226 million to permanently exclude workers from labor protections, we have to counter with a ground game that reaches as many ears as their prime-time television ads.

But good organizing requires resources. And that means money.

Prop. 22 opponents, largely composed of unions and allied labor organizations, raised roughly $20 million, leaving it outspent ten to one.

Over the last decade, we have seen the power of investing in digital campaigns to harness a broader base of small dollar contributors.

I’m not suggesting we raise $200 million. Progressives know how to stretch a dollar. Even if we raise half, our ground game would be enough to put us at the doors and on the phones of workers up and down the state.

Resources allow us to build a broad-based, multi-racial, working-class coalition that helps voters understand that when one person loses her employer benefits, we all do. And I am not just talking about blue-collar workers: the majority of Google’s workforce is composed of independent contractors as well.

Third, we must do a better job of making the connection between policy and solution.

We did not make an effective case that affirmative action can help end systemic racism or that rent control can combat homelessness.

If a voter has to google the term “affirmative action” after looking at a mailer or does not make the connection between the high cost of housing and growing homelessness in California, we are losing the battle. Instead, we must organize local business owners of color who have trouble navigating the byzantine city contract process that larger and more established businesses, usually owned by white males, maneuver with expensive lobbyists and attorneys and families who work full time minimum wage jobs who cannot afford the average two bedroom rental in any county in our state.

We have to meet people where they are, with a focus on the specific, direct impact that these ballot measures will have on their daily lives.

The conditions for building a more progressive agenda are here — widening wealth inequality, the untenable affordable housing crisis, fires turning neighborhoods to ash, and the growth of a young, multi-racial, cross-class voter base that wants to fix those problems and more.

Over the next decade, we are going to see the continued growth and power of California voters currently under 45. And they are disproportionately people of color and immigrants.

While the victories seem just out of reach today, the future of progressive politics is bright in California — if we organize.

Written by

Bernie 2020 California Political Director. Former San Francisco Supervisor, Board of Education President, Community Organizer + Civil Rights Attorney.

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