By Harold Meyerson
When the news came late last summer that there were now more Democrats than Republicans in California’s Orange County,, it clearly didn’t rate a front-page story. Democrats have been surging and Republicans collapsing in California for the past twenty-plus years, and the extent of that surge, and that collapse, had been made clear in the 2018 midterm elections, when Democratic candidates won four congressional seats in those parts of Orange County (the coast and the southern half) that had been Republican at least since the 1930s. Or perhaps it had been made clear when Hillary Clinton carried Orange County in the 2016 presidential election, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had won the county since the Roosevelt landslide of 1936.
To be sure, in the years since FDR’s sweep, Orange County had incubated the Goldwater candidacy and the John Birch Society (even sending a Bircher to Congress in the early 1970s). It had given Richard Nixon’s senatorial campaign and Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaigns—and both their presidential campaigns—their biggest margins, and furnished Reagan’s kitchen cabinet with his union hating, regulation-detesting longtime business backers. It provided huge majorities for 1978’s tax-cutting Proposition 13. It was where John Wayne parked his yacht. But that Orange County, and that California, have vanished into the mists of time.
And just when you think America’s megastate can’t grow any more Democratic and any less Republican, every election since 2006 proves you wrong. California has ten statewide offices, and the Republicans haven’t won any of them since Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected governor in 2006. (And Schwarzenegger’s governorship was a historic accident: Because he ousted Gray Davis, the lackluster incumbent Democratic governor, in a recall election in 2003, Schwarzenegger didn’t have to go through a Republican primary, in which his [by Republican standards] moderation would likely have doomed his candidacy.) California has fifty three congressional seats, of which the Democrats now hold forty six. There are now sixty-two Democrats in the eighty member state assembly, and twenty-nine Democrats in the forty-member state senate. In all three of those legislative bodies, the Democrats’ numbers have increased in each successive election for more than a decade. In recent years, Republican representation in the legislature has fallen to the point that they’re unable to block even legislation (like tax hikes) that require a two-thirds vote. Which is why the state’s business interests no longer donate to Republican candidates’ coffers, choosing instead to fund whichever Democrats they deem buyable.
. . . [J]ust when you think America’s mega-state can’t grow any more Democratic and any less Republican, every election since 2006 proves you wrong.
Gerrymandering has nothing to do with the Democrats’ ever-swelling majorities. Redistricting in California is handled by a non-partisan commission, and even if it were somehow controlled by the G.O.P, they’d have a hard time significantly boosting Republicans’ representation. Democrats currently make up 43 percent of the state’s registered voters, while those who choose “No Party Preference” make up 28 percent. Republicans come in third, at a paltry 23 percent—and shrinking with each successive tally.
For his part, President Trump seems determined to drive even more nails into the California G.O.P.’s coffin. Railing against immigrants and minorities in a state filled with both; determined to weaken the state’s clean-air standards (that both Nixon and Reagan supported), as though the state were home to a silent pro-smog majority; and pushing through a federal tax cut that eliminated deductions for California’s relatively high taxes, Trump helped the Democrats pick up seven congressional seats in the 2018 midterm elections. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Democrats pick up still more in 2020.
For their part, California Democrats are at the forefront of their party’s pushback against Trump, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) heading up the impeachment campaign, with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra suing the Trump administration in more than sixty separate actions and with the legislature enacting sanctuary state legislation and a host of other anti-Trump measures. But this only scratches the surface of the state’s move leftward. In 2012, California voters went to the polls and chose to increase state revenues by raising taxes on the richest Californians—eliminating the state’s chronic debt and allowing substantially greater funding for social programs. For its part, the legislature has enacted laws phasing in a $15 minimum wage, requiring employers (most prominently, Uber and Lyft) to cease misclassifying workers as independent contractors when they’re actually employees, establishing statewide rent control, mandating carbon-free power sources, and giving collective bargaining rights to child care workers who receive public funding. Some of these measures became law because Gavin Newson—the state’s Democratic governor, elected in 2018—is clearly more liberal than his predecessor, Jerry Brown.
It’s Not Just Demographics
How to account for California’s transformation into the nation’s most Democratic and also most progressive state? Is it all just racial demographics? Certainly, California’s epochal transformation into America’s second least-white state (trailing only Hawaii) is at the core of this shift. In 1980, the state was 67 percent non-Hispanic white, 19 percent Hispanic, less than 1 percent Asian, and 8 percent African American. The African-American share of the state’s population has held relatively steady over the years, declining to 6.5 percent in 2018. But the Asian population has increased from that 1 percent to 15 percent, while Hispanics now constitute 39 percent of the state’s population—a larger share than non-Hispanic whites, who come in at 37 percent.
The decline of the white population is chiefly due not to white flight but to the huge influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America and from East and South Asia. The one period of genuine white flight occurred in the 1990s, triggered by the massive downsizing of the state’s largest private sector employers, which were defense and aerospace companies, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In 1985, six of Los Angeles County’s largest employers were aerospace companies; by 2014, only two were.  Production workers at California’s aerospace factories were unionized and predominantly white; when the plants downsized or outright closed, there were few comparably paying jobs available in the state. Along with tens of thousands of engineers, they had benefited from the Reagan era’s massive boost in Cold War spending directed to the Sunbelt, and when they left the state for Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, or elsewhere, some of the in-state support for Republican hawkishness left with them. (So did the Western regional headquarters of the two unions that represented aerospace workers: The Machinists’ moved from Long Beach to the Seattle area; the United Auto Workers moved from the working-class mini-city of Bell, in Los Angeles County, to Saint Louis.)
So is politics simply a function of racial demographics? Before we assent to this, consider the racial composition of Texas. While California is 39 percent Hispanic, Texas is 40 percent Hispanic. California is 37 percent non-Hispanic white, while Texas is 42 percent white. To be sure, California is 15 percent Asian while Texas is merely 5 percent Asian, but California is just 7 percent black while Texas is Meyerson 3.13 percent black. So why is Texas the anchor of the Republicans’ electoral-college support (though that may change in 2020), while California is the Democrats’ anchor?
So is politics simply a function of racial demographics? Before we assent to this, consider the racial composition of Texas.
Or, at the other end of the spectrum, consider the racial composition of Hawaii, which is just 22 percent non-Hispanic white while the California figure is 37 percent. So why was California’s vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 just half-a-percentage point below Hawaii’s (61.7 percent compared to 62.2 percent)?
Something more than demographics explains California’s massive move leftward. To understand what else has been at play, a good place to begin is Los Angeles in October 1994.
What Got Latinos to the Polls?
As spring turned to summer in 1994, Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s re-election prospects looked no better than dim. Polls showed him trailing his Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown (daughter of former governor Pat, sister of former and future governor Jerry). To arrest his slide, Wilson embraced an extreme expedient: He linked his campaign to that of a measure that would appear on November’s ballot, Proposition 187. Devised by arch-nativists, the measure proposed to deny all state-funded services save emergency medical care from undocumented immigrants—even the right to attend K-12 public schools.
By October, with Proposition 187 leading in the polls, the hundreds of thousands of undocumented students—and their classmates and their friends—were understandably and terribly upset and enraged. In the Los Angeles area, they initiated mass walk-outs from high schools to protest their impending exile from education. Some sympathetic elders (themselves fairly young) notably Gilbert Cedillo, who headed L.A. County’s public employee union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 660, and Kevin de León, who headed a group called One-Stop Immigration—began working with the students to give their protests a sharper political focus.
At that time, I was the political editor of Los Angeles’ alt-weekly newspaper, the LA Weekly, and at Cedillo’s invitation, I visited the headquarters of his union on one pre-election November evening. There, the high school rebels were working a 660 phone bank, calling chiefly Spanish-speaking voters to urge them to turn out to oppose Proposition 187 at the polls. It was a remarkable scene, but what I didn’t—actually, couldn’t—realize was that it portended the future of California politics. Proposition 187 won handily on Election Day (it was soon struck down by the courts), as did Wilson—but this was to be the last California election in which Republicans (other than Schwarzenegger) fared well. Within the next three years, a new generation of Latino political activists and leaders emerged, including Cedillo (who went on to serve in the state Assembly and Senate, where he authored the law granting drivers’ licenses to the undocumented; and currently serves on the L.A. City Council), and de León (who as president of the state Senate in 2017 authored the state’s sanctuary laws, the $15 minimum wage, and the laws mandating the decarbonization of California’s energy sources). Within the next three years, undocumented workers began to play a key role in Southern California elections.
L.A. Labor Steps Up
If one person was the key to this transformation, it was Miguel Contreras, an official of the hotel and restaurant union, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), who in 1996 became the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor—the county’s AFL-CIO labor council, comprising more than 300 local unions with roughly 800,000 members. A child of farmworkers who’d come to California under the bracero program, Contreras had gone to work for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers (UFW) while still a teenager. As head of the Fed (as the County Federation was called), he realized that no one had yet electorally mobilized Los Angeles’ huge Latino population—and decided to change that.
Previously, L.A. unions had focused their election work largely on their own members. Contreras realized that Proposition 187 created the possibility that labor could reach out to the entire Latino community, and not just with mailings, but with precinct walks and phone banks staffed by the Latino, often Spanish-speaking, members of local unions. For many years, the conventional wisdom in Los Angeles, and much of California, was that it was too spread out, too far-flung, too horizontal, for precinct walks. As an L.A.-based political activist, then consultant, then journalist, I had grown accustomed to a practice of politics in which elected leaders such as former Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Howard Berman (D-CA) raised considerable funds which they spent on direct mail campaigns for their political allies across the state. People, as such, didn’t have much of a role to play in those campaigns. Contreras was to change all that.
If one person was the key to this transformation, it was Miguel Contreras, an official of the hotel and restaurant union . . .
Initially, labor’s foot-soldiers in Latino neighborhoods were drawn disproportionately from two local unions—the janitors of the Service Employees International Union and Local 11 of HERE, headed by Maria Elena Durazo, who also drew early inspiration from the farmworkers and happened to be Contreras’ wife. A large number of the members of these unions were undocumented, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t precinct walk on behalf of pro-labor, pro-immigrant, progressive candidates. There was no need to tutor these members in the need for good labor and immigration legislation. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, Local 11 had won a remarkable provision in its contracts with leading L.A.-area hotels, stipulating that if its undocumented members were deported, the hotel would guarantee their re-hire if they could find their way back within two years, and retain their seniority rights if they could return within one year. Moreover, these two locals were well known in the broader Latino community, as each staged highly visible street marches and rallies in the lead-up to contract negotiations and during their strikes. The first election in which this new kind of campaign figured prominently was a 1997 special election to fill a vacancy in a downtown, heavily Latino assembly district. The old guard of L.A. Latino politics, which had largely confined its operations to neighborhoods bordering downtown, put forth its own candidate, but Contreras’ new guard put forth Cedillo, who had members of his own union, and the janitors and the hotel workers, pounding the pavement for him. Cedillo won an upset victory.
Contreras realized that Proposition 187 created the possibility that labor could reach out to the entire Latino community . . .
Thus emboldened, Contreras cast a wider net. The demographics of Los Angeles County—the nation’s most populous, home today to 10 million people—were rapidly changing, but its line-up of elected officials reflected its past more than its present. The core of the county was solidly Democratic, sending Latino representatives to Washington and Sacramento from its eastside, African-American representatives from south-central, and Jews from the westside and the west San Fernando Valley. But the peripheries of the county remained represented by Republicans, though they had tilted toward Bill Clinton in the two previous presidential elections. Devising outreach campaigns to Latino and other Democratic voters in those peripheral districts, Contreras oversaw a massive registration and get-out-the-vote campaign in 1998, at the conclusion of which Democrats picked up six Republican-held congressional seats on the fringes of the county. In the effort, Contreras created a scorecard for each of the Fed’s then-320 member locals, ranking them by how many afternoon or evening shifts their members had spent either precinct-walking or phone-banking during campaign season. (The janitors and the hotel workers usually placed first and second.) The Fed’s campaigns were abetted by and coordinated with a separate voter registration and mobilization campaign backed by SEIU. The architect of this campaign was Eliseo Medina, a rising SEIU leader who, like Contreras, had gone to work as a teenager for the UFW. Having risen to the leadership ranks within the Farm Workers, Medina split with Chavez over whether the organization should become a movement (Chavez’s position) or a union (Medina’s).
The movement-left pedigree that Contreras and Medina brought to their work characterized the leadership cadre of the new generation of California’s Latino Democrats. As Contreras and Medina had been schooled by Chavez, so Cedillo, Durazo, and a young union organizer turned pol named Antonio Villaraigosa had been mentored by Bert Corona, an L.A.-based radical who built community and left-wing organizations on the city’s eastside. A number of the candidates whom the Fed successfully backed had distinctly radical or movement backgrounds, among them Jackie Goldberg (a Jewish lesbian veteran of Berkeley’s free-speech movement, whom the Fed successfully backed over a mainstream Latino candidate, and who authored L.A.’s groundbreaking living-wage legislation) and Karen Bass (a south-central community organizer who was to become Speaker of the State Assembly and later a member of Congress).
The movement-left pedigree that Contreras and Medina brought to their work characterized the leadership cadre of the new generation of California’s Latino Democrats.
I clearly recall one meeting I had with Contreras in his office, where he laid out the Fed’s campaigns plans for two progressive candidates in their first (ultimately successful) runs for elective office (in both cases, the State Assembly): Bass and the Fed’s own political director, Fabian Núñez. What was memorable about the meeting was that Contreras predicted that each would eventually become Assembly Speaker—which they both did. In another such meeting, outlining how one of Núñez’s successors as Fed political director would win an L.A. City Council seat,
Contreras drew an outline of the district on a whiteboard, and subdivided it into sections: HERE members would precinct walk in this heavily Latino section, a disproportionately African American local would walk here, the candidate would walk here, this mailing would go to this area, so on and so on, and the candidate would win with 53 percent of the vote. Which he did.
In all this, the Fed and the Democrats generally were greatly aided by an entirely Republican initiative. In 1990, anti-government Republicans placed a proposition on the statewide ballot establishing six-year term limits for the State Assembly and eight-year term limits for the State Senate. The measure passed, and the limits kicked in just as L.A. labor was gearing up its new electoral programs, creating a host of empty seats in districts whose demographic profiles had changed substantially since 1990. The term limits on the legislature have been lengthened in recent years, but while those of the 1990 ballot measure were in effect, they clearly sped the racial and political transformation of the state in a Democratic and progressive direction.
The transformation of L.A. County’s peripheries that began in 1998 continued apace. By 2000, Democrats had picked up all of the county’s twenty or so congressional districts save that in the high- desert north county, which they won, finally, in 2018. The county’s neighbor to its southeast, Orange County, had become overwhelmingly Latino in its northern half by the turn of the century, and Democrats claimed those districts in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Southern Orange County remained largely white, though with a rising share of Asian and Latino residents. That racial diversity and the revolt of college educated Republicans against Trump helped turn that region’s districts Democratic in 2018.
Other regions of the state are transforming their political profiles as well. The growing presence of Latinos and Asians in the electorates of San Diego, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties has reduced the number of Republican U.S. House members to a bare two in the thirty House districts south of the Tehachapi mountains, and three of the seven seats the Democrats picked up in 2018 were in the long-Republican San Joaquin Valley. For decades, Latinos in the San Joaquin Valley, many of them agricultural workers, weren’t part of the electorate, but more recently their children have been registering and voting to the Democrats’ advantage.
Generally, however, the Democrats from inland California—the San Joaquin Valley, and San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties—are more centrist than their coastal counterparts. They form the core of the Moderate Caucus, which has come in and out of existence in recent years in the state legislature. It’s the Moderate Caucus to which California business interests now direct their campaign contributions, and, emblematic of its politics, two legislators who headed that caucus at various times left in midterm for private sector jobs—one, to work for Pharma, the other, to work for Chevron.
The coastal-inland split reflects not just broad differences in the districts’ political profiles, but also the geography of labor’s strength in California. In Los Angeles and the Bay Area, labor plays a decisive role in candidate selection and promotion, but in inland California, where labor is weaker, unions play a less prominent role in generating candidacies.
Which returns us to the question of why California’s politics differ so radically from those of Texas, given the similarity of the states’ racial compositions. The primary difference, as I see it, is unions. In California, the share of the workforce that belongs to unions is 14.7 percent; in Texas, it’s a trace level 4.3 percent .Some of the most politically active unions have large California memberships; SEIU has roughly 700,000 members in the state. It’s unions—and not just the L.A. Fed or SEIU—that have mobilized great swaths of minority voters to get to the polls and vote for Democrats. Over the past 20 years, the state AFL-CIO, under the leadership of Art Pulaski, has also played a key role in identifying potential voters, including those in the state’s Asian communities, which, according to exit polls, have been giving more than three-quarters of their votes to Democratic candidates.
The labor movement in Texas, by contrast, lacks the heft of California’s, and consequently the resources to wage comparable campaigns. They have played a role in moving some Texas cities leftward over the past decade. Also, Texas Republicans in the pre-Trump days weren’t as viciously nativist as the California Republicans who promoted Proposition 187, so the Texas G.O.P presented a smaller target for the unions and Democrats to campaign against than the one that Pete Wilson so disastrously put forward.
Finally, non-Hispanic whites in California have long been almost immeasurably to the left of their Texas counterparts—and, for that matter, to their counterparts in Hawaii. Beginning in the 1950s, the San Francisco machine put together by Congressman Phil Burton was just one of several organizations anchoring Bay Area Democrats in the party’s progressive wing. The first two Democratic Party institutions in the nation to go on record against the Vietnam War were the largely (though not entirely) white California Young Democrats and the California Democratic Council (the group of Democratic clubs), both in 1965. The Tom Hayden-led Campaign for Economic Democracy formed the left flank of the party during Jerry Brown’s first go-round as governor. Today, while many of the Silicon Valley techies hold libertarian views on economics, they don’t comprise a majority of the voters even in their own districts—one reason why the congressman from the heart of the Valley, Ro Khanna, can be one of the leftmost in Washington, D.C.
The linchpin of California’s shift from a purple to a blue state . . . has been the labor-Latino alliance . . .
What’s particularly notable about the current crop of Sacramento Democrats is that the inland moderates, after extracting some concessions from the coastal liberals, voted with those liberals to end the misclassification of workers and to establish statewide rent controls during this year’s legislative session, despite the opposition of some major corporate interests and business groups. What’s also notable is Gavin Newsom’s decision to sign such legislation, which Jerry Brown might well have vetoed.
The linchpin of California’s shift from a purple to a blue state, then, has been the labor-Latino alliance, the product not only of such farsighted leaders as Contreras, Medina, and Durazo, but also of everyday workers—janitors, hotel housekeepers, grocery employees, and thousands like them—who’ve walked the precincts and made the phone calls that have been cumulatively key to transforming the state. That’s not to say that California has become a workers’ paradise. The state suffers from a dearth of decently paying blue-collar jobs. When aerospace and other durable goods manufacturing fled the state, the middle fell out of the California economy and has yet to return. Not surprisingly, then, California Democrats have yet to come up with anything resembling a solution for the state’s number-one problem: that the cost of housing vastly exceeds what median-income Californians can afford to pay. It will require the kind of good-job generation that a federal Green New Deal could bring to create anew the kind of the great middle class that once flourished in America’s Golden State.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect, and from 1989 through 2001 was executive editor of LA Weekly. From 2003 through 2014, he was an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, and is currently a regular op-ed contributor to the Los Angeles Times.
1. See https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/ 2019-08-07/orange-county-turns-blue-withmore- registered-democrats-than-republicans
2. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_G._Schmitz
3. See https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0510-meyerson-los-angeles-middleclassjobs-20160510-story.html
4. See https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2019/hawaiiand-new-york-had-highest-union-membershiprates-the-carolinas-the-lowest-in-2018.htm