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Politics & Government

Why Are Prison Guards Backing the Death Penalty?

Of the 17 propositions on this year’s California ballot, few are as divisive as the issue of capital punishment. There are actually two separate initiatives targeting the death penalty: Proposition 62, which would abolish the death penalty, and Proposition 66, which would speed up executions.

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San Quentin’s death chamber.

Of the 17 propositions on this year’s California ballot, few are as divisive as the issue of capital punishment. There are actually two separate initiatives targeting the death penalty: Proposition 62, which would abolish the death penalty and replace it with prison without the possibility of parole; and Proposition 66, which would speed up the process to send condemned murderers to the death chamber.

According to campaign finance disclosures compiled by the California Fair Political Practices Commission, much of the pro-death penalty campaign funding is coming directly from police and prison guard unions. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) alone spent $498,304 on Prop. 62, while the Peace Officers Research Association of California spent $455,000 and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen ponied up $250,000 to keep capital punishment.

One recent advertisement, paid for by California’s largest prison guard union, opens with grainy surveillance footage. It shows a terrified young woman squaring off with an attacker. As the woman struggles, a voice-over narrates: “Charles Ng raped, tortured, and killed women. Murdered their babies. Killed their husbands…” Another ad bankrolled by CCPOA features a few members of law enforcement explaining their support of the death penalty — and why voters should support it, too.

“I’ve seen what the worst among us can do,” says Sergeant Dan Cabral of the California Deputy Sheriffs’ Association in one video. “Killings so brutal, families never recover. That’s why we have the death penalty.”

In 2012, another ballot initiative, Proposition 34, also sought (but failed) to eliminate the death penalty. At that time, however, law enforcement unions donated a tiny fraction of what they have spent on the 2016 ballot. It begs the question: Why are law enforcement officers so intent on keeping the death penalty?

The official arguments provided by California law enforcement groups supporting capital punishment claim that the death penalty provides closure to victims’ families, saves taxpayers millions of dollars and that repealing it would jeopardize public safety. Essentially, union officials say the death penalty process in California is broken, but they want legislators to fix it.

Brian Moriguchi, a lieutenant with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the president of the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association, which represents 8,800 members of law enforcement, says the death penalty should be reserved for the “worst of the worst.”

“Most police officers, by a very large margin, support the death penalty,” he says. “We’ve been to those calls where somebody has raped and mutilated a child, and we’ve seen the type of people that do that. They are a threat to the safety of others as long as they are alive. Even locked down in prison, [they are] still a threat.”

Lt. Moriguchi says there is increased support for the death penalty this year, as opposed to 2012, because of an increase in violence targeted against police officers, not just in California, but around the country. (According to FBI data released in October, 41 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2015. Already in 2016, 46 officers have been killed.)

“What has changed since 2012 is that there is a greater attack on police officers today, where people want to kill police officers,” Lt. Moriguchi says. “ We’re passionate about that this year particularly because we see the assaults on police officers increasing. We want to see justice for those police officers, and we want to see those people on death row.”

(The other top three unions behind the campaign did not return requests for comment.)

Some outside of law enforcement, however, believe the motivations to support the death penalty are far more political than practical.

Bill Zimmerman, a longtime California political campaign manager, says the current wave of law enforcement support for the death penalty is a reaction to increased scrutiny over police and prison officials. The unions, he says, are “feeling threatened by this climate of police reform. They see this as a battle in a long war, and it’s a battle they don’t want to lose. If they can win this battle, they see it as something that gives them more clout, or at least the perception that they’re a powerful political force when it comes to legislative matters.”

Zimmerman believes financial support for the death penalty is a reaction to movements like Black Lives Matter, which some police officials say undermine respect for law enforcement.

“Their support for the death penalty fits into a larger context of criminal justice reform going on in California,” Zimmerman says. “The events in Ferguson, Missouri led to a new wave of public demands for reform — of criminal justice and police behavior. We’ve seen an enormous increase in the fundraising capability of law enforcement [unions]. Organizations that used to give $5,000 to $10,000, in this death penalty fight in 2016 are giving $50,000 or $100,000.”

Both sides agree that the death penalty system is outrageously expensive, costing some $150 million per year for the state because of extra litigation costs and a lengthy appeals process. The entire death penalty system is said to have cost taxpayers $5 billion since 1978. However, rather than just get rid of it, law enforcement groups say the death penalty process should be reformed.

“Death row inmates have murdered over 1,000 victims, including 226 children and 43 police officers; 294 victims were raped and/or tortured,” the campaign explains. “It’s time California reformed our death penalty process so it works.”

Prison guard unions particularly support the death penalty, largely because their leaders say that convicted murderers would have nothing to fear (and might target prison guards) if the death penalty were not on the table. “Without the death penalty, what’s to stop the killer who’s serving life without parole, from killing inside the prison? asks CCPOA president Chuck Alexander in the latest advertisement. “It’s our last defense.”

Matt Cherry, executive director of Death Penalty Focus of California, disagrees with that notion, and says that even with the death penalty, a convicted murderer could still harm a guard on death row. More broadly, though, Cherry says there’s no statistical evidence to show that states with the death penalty experience fewer attacks on police officers. (In fact, the murder rate is lower in states without the death penalty.) “That’s one of the arguments that police like to use,” Cherry says. “I personally don’t think it’s convincing.”

Cherry believes police and prison guard unions feel they’re under pressure.

“There is a certain sense amongst police that times are changing, that there’s more criticism of police actions and the union leaders are hunkering down and rallying around the traditional causes that they have supported,” Cherry says.

He adds, “I don’t think that’s universal, though. You see a lot of smart police chiefs who don’t take that opinion.”

He’s right — not all police chiefs support the death penalty. A 2009 report from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit research group, polled police chiefs around the country about all the different methods that could be used to reduce crime. Their findings: The use of capital punishment ranked dead last, according to the police chiefs.

So what’s the disconnect? Why do union leaders and police officials continue to support the death penalty if many, at least in the privacy of an anonymous poll, agree it’s ineffective and too expensive? According to Dr. George Kain, a current police commissioner in Ridgefield, Connecticut, it’s because police unions have an “arm-in-arm” mentality.

“It’s so polarized,” says Kain, who began his career as a probation officer. “You can’t be on the fence with this if you’re a cop. The political climate now is forcing people to one side or the other. It’s easier to get pushed towards support of the bully mentality: ‘We’re gonna execute more people, and we’re gonna execute them more quickly.’”

 Dionne Wilson, widow of a slain police officer.

Dionne Wilson, widow of a slain police officer.

In California, that sort of mentality could have extreme consequences. Right now, there are 741 inmates on death row — more than any other state. However, California has only carried out 13 executions since it reinstated the death penalty in 1978. (Its most recent execution was in 2006.)

As of mid-October, opponents of Prop. 62 (which would keep the death penalty legal) have raised about $4.3 million, compared to $8.9 million raised by groups that want to abolish the death penalty. Supporters of Prop. 66 (which would speed up the death penalty process) have raised $4.9 million, compared to the $10 million collected by its opponents. Put simply, groups supporting the death penalty are being outspent by about 2-to-1 by groups that oppose it.

However, the most recent polls are showing a tight race; there is a slight lead for proponents of abolishing the death penalty, but only by a slim margin. Nationally, support for the death penalty is waning. A September 2016 Pew Research poll found that support is currently the lowest in more than four decades.

Regardless of national sentiment, law enforcement leaders within California, such as Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones, are hoping voters will keep (and reform) capital punishment on November 8. “The public and law enforcement recognize that [capital punishment] makes our communities safer by acting as a deterrent and ensures that the most violent criminals will never be released into our communities again,” Jones, the president of California Peace Officers’ Association, wrote in a recent letter.

But they are facing an increasing amount of opposition, not just from wealthy anti-death penalty advocates — but from crime victims as well.

One of them is Dionne Wilson. Wilson’s husband, Dan Niemi, was a police officer in San Leandro, California who was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2005. Irving Ramirez, 23, was charged and convicted of Niemi’s murder.

At the time of his sentencing, Wilson says, she “begged” the judge for a death penalty sentence. On August 3, 2007, Wilson got her wish. (Ramirez remains alive and on death row.)

But as the years went on, Wilson’s opinion began to change about the death penalty. She no longer supports it — in fact, she’s on a crusade to get the death penalty repealed. Instead of executions, Wilson wants to see legislators use that $150 million go towards victim services, programs to treat mental illness and drug addiction, education and afterschool programs, and other crime reduction initiatives.

“I understand that type of vengeance-based reaction,” she says. “Trust me, I get it. But there seems to be a lack of analysis in that position.”

She adds, “Our criminal justice dollars are misused in this way. It’s frustrating to me. It’s just ‘cop killers deserve to die.’ Well, okay, but is there a better way to hold people accountable than propping up a system that has wasted $5 billion for the past 30 years? I can certainly think of better ways to invest that money.”


Lethal-injection room photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Politics & Government

Big Pharma Bankrolled Pro-Trump Group As Trump Pushed Pharma Tax Cut

In 2017 the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America gave $2.5 million to America First Policies Inc. — a major dark money group supporting President Donald Trump’s political and economic agenda.

David Sirota

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The major dark money group supporting President Donald Trump’s political and economic agenda raked in millions of dollars directly from the pharmaceutical industry’s main lobbying group — at the same time Trump backed off his position on a major drug issue and promoted a tax plan that was a windfall for the industry.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America gave $2.5 million to America First Policies in 2017, according to IRS documents. America First Policies was formed by former Trump advisers in 2017 and proudly touts itself as a pro-Trump organization. The PhRMA money represented more than 10 percent of America First Policies’ revenues in 2017, according to the group’s own IRS filings.

The IRS documents were obtained by MapLight, a nonpartisan group that tracks the influence of money in politics.

While campaigning for president, Trump pledged to take action to generally reduce drug prices and to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prices for prescription medications. He then appointed a former pharmaceutical executive to run the Department of Health and Human Services, and slammed the Medicare negotiation concept after a meeting with pharmaceutical executives.

“I’ll oppose anything that makes it harder for smaller, younger companies to take the risk of bringing their product to a vibrantly competitive market,” Trump said. “That includes price-fixing by the biggest dog in the market, Medicare.”

While Trump has moved to allow limited negotiation in some parts of Medicare, he has rejected the larger policy he campaigned on, leaving it out of his prescription drug proposal released earlier this year.

Trump also passed a tax cut that benefited the pharmaceutical industry, but that has not corresponded with a drop in prescription drug prices. America First Policies launched an ad campaign to promote those tax cuts, and spent the end of the 2018 campaign promoting them. PhRMA also gave $1.5 million to the American Action Network, which aired an ad campaign in support of the tax-cut legislation.


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Immigration

ICE’s Stealth Campaign to Expand Its Budget

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could pose a challenge to the agency’s chronic overspending — and to its aggressive detention and deportation policies.

Robin Urevich

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Photo: DHS/ICE

In June the Dept. of Homeland Security asked Congress to allow it to transfer $200 million to ICE to cover agency overspending, continuing a pattern of such requests.


Big spending on immigration enforcement at the Department of Homeland Security promises to be a major sticking point as Congress prepares to negotiate a budget deal early next month.

Even though illegal immigration to the United States appears to be at its lowest point in 46 years, spending on immigration enforcement is at an all-time high. (The U.S. Border Patrol reported that in 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border had dropped to 303,000, and had been declining nearly every year since 2000, when a record 1.6 million people were arrested.)


 By overspending its congressional allocation, ICE is effectively writing its own budget.


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention operations exceeded the agency’s budget this year, while ICE spending on its vast system of immigration jails shows no sign of slowing.

But a newly elected Democratic majority in the House of Representatives could pose a challenge to the agency’s chronic overspending — and to its aggressive detention and deportation policies.

ICE jailed so many immigrants in 2018 that it ran out of space in its more than 200 lock-ups, and placed 1,600 people in medium-security prisons.

Congress set detention and deportation spending for 2018 at $4.4 billion, enough to detain some 40,520 people annually.

However, by June, 44,000 men and women languished in immigration detention, filling 4,000 more beds than Congress authorized. DHS asked Congress to allow it to transfer $200 million to ICE to cover agency overspending. The department plucked the funds from several of its agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration.

Critics of ICE say that by overspending its congressional allocation, the agency has engineered a stealth expansion of the U.S. detention system, effectively writing its own appropriation, and skirting the Constitution’s separation of powers in which Congress, not the executive branch, has the authority to set spending limits.


Congressman: “We shouldn’t be using FEMA as a piggy bank to fund detention beds.”


“It allows them to quickly expand the detention system contrary to congressional intent,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a non-profit immigrant rights group.

Such intradepartmental funds transfers aren’t uncommon, but a congressional staffer who asked that his name not be used for this story said this one was controversial because nearly all of the money went to ICE for detention and deportation. ICE has received other big budget increases in the past two years. In March 2017, the agency got a $2.6 billion supplemental appropriation; three months later, ICE was back, requesting that Congress approve a $91 million funds transfer.

The $200 million June 2018 transfer, wrote DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman in an email, was “in line with the FY 2019 president’s budget request for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

However, the additional funds covered FY 2018 overspending – not future shortfalls in 2019; Congress has yet to agree to a permanent fiscal year 2019 budget. Waldman didn’t answer an email asking to clarify her comments.


Congressional Staffer: Whenever ICE outspends its budget and adds detention beds, it gains leverage for the next round of budget negotiations.


The same congressional staffer who discussed the controversy surrounding the $200 million DHS funds transfer also noted that when ICE outspends its budget and adds detention beds, it gains leverage for the next round of budget negotiations because reducing beds would mean freeing detainees and, ICE argues, their release could jeopardize public safety.

Growth by funds transfer also generally avoids public scrutiny. Transfer documents submitted by government agencies are not released to the public. But earlier this year, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) released DHS’s June 2018 transfer and reprogramming request, noting that $10 million had been taken from FEMA just as Hurricane Florence was making landfall in North Carolina.

DHS shot back, claiming the funds were administrative and weren’t earmarked for hurricane relief. But according to Ur Jaddou, director of the advocacy group DHS Watch, and a former Chief Counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the DHS agency that oversees immigration and citizenship applications, “The government these days doesn’t operate on a plethora of administrative resources. It’s really functioning on a very limited budget. When they say they’re using unused money, it’s just a ruse.”

Congress has shown its frustration with ICE’s disregard for its authority, but hasn’t acted to rein in agency spending.


Congress has scolded ICE for its “lack of fiscal discipline and cavalier management.”


In budget recommendations for fiscal year 2019, the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote, “In light of the Committee’s persistent and growing concerns about ICE’s lack of fiscal discipline, whether real or manufactured, and its inability to manage detention resources…the Committee strongly discourages transfers or reprogramming requests to cover ICE’s excesses.”

Two years before, the explanatory language in the supplemental appropriations bill was even harsher. Appropriators pointed to a “lack of fiscal discipline and cavalier management” of detention funding, saying the agency seemed to think its detention operations were “funded by an indefinite appropriation. This belief is incorrect.”

“We shouldn’t be using FEMA as a piggy bank to fund detention beds,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD). “Unelected agency heads shouldn’t unilaterally shift taxpayer dollars for purposes they weren’t intended.”

Still, despite congressional annoyance with ICE’s free-spending ways, it hasn’t conducted meaningful oversight of the immigration detention system, said Greg Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“The current leadership in Congress hasn’t been interested in conducting hearings on detention spending and whether detention is even necessary at the scale it is now,” Chen said.

When President Trump issued an executive order calling for no-holds-barred arrests of undocumented immigrants in January 2017, the border patrol reported that apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border were lower than at any time since 1972 — when the detention population was a fraction of its current size.

ICE reported that in fiscal year 2017, 41 percent of crimes of which detainees had been convicted were traffic- or immigration-related.  Just 11.4 involved murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery or assault.

Chen argued that ICE has a legal responsibility to screen each person in its custody for risk – either of flight or to public safety. “ICE is just not doing that and defaulting to the practice of detaining people.”

Democrats in Congress could take on a more robust role in overseeing ICE spending, now that they’ve gained a majority in the House. They could put conditions on spending, call for Government Accounting Office reports and hearings, cut funding, demand answers if ICE overspends and bring its actions to the attention of the press, said DHS Watch director Ur Jaddou, who is also a former congressional staffer.

“The next time they [ICE] need something,” Jaddou said, Congress can respond, ‘Do you really want it? You better listen.’”


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Education

Will New York Fund Amazon Subsidies or Student Debt Relief?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. Now, however, prominent Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have slammed the idea of offering taxpayer subsidies to the retail giant.

David Sirota

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Long Island City photo by King of Hearts

Co-published by Splinter

Elections have consequences, and they may have particularly immediate consequences for billionaire Jeff Bezos, as newly empowered New York Democrats appear to be positioning themselves to try to block new state subsidies for Amazon, now that the online retailing titan has chosen New York City and Northern Virginia as new headquarters locations.

A day before last week’s midterm elections, when Amazon’s choice was still up in the air, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” said Cuomo, as reports surfaced about Amazon potentially moving in to Long Island City.

The next day, though, Democrats won control of the state Assembly and state Senate. Now, prominent Democrats in those chambers have slammed the idea of New York offering taxpayer subsidies to Amazon. And one lawmaker wants the legislature to decide between giving Amazon taxpayer largesse or addressing the state’s student debt crisis.

Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim announced that he will introduce legislation to slash New York’s economic development subsidies and use the money to buy up and cancel student debt — a move he said would provide a bigger boost to the state’s economy. The legislation, says Kim, would halt any Cuomo administration offer of taxpayer money to Amazon, which could reap up to $1 billion in tax incentives if it moves to Long Island City. The deal is a goodie bag for Amazon: It includes everything from a $325 million cash grant to a promise that taxpayers will help secure a helipad for Amazon executives.

“Giving Jeff Bezos hundreds of millions of dollars is an immoral waste of taxpayers’ money when it’s crystal clear that the money would create more jobs and more economic growth when it is used to relieve student debt,” said Kim, who recently published an op-ed with law professor Zephyr Teachout criticizing the Amazon deal. “Giving Amazon this type of corporate welfare is no different, if not worse, than Donald Trump giving trillions in corporate tax breaks at the federal level. There’s no correlation between healthy, sustainable job creation and corporate giveaways. If we used this money to cancel distressed student debt instead, there would be immediate positive GDP growth, job creation and impactful social-economic returns.”

New York has the most expensive set of corporate subsidy programs in the country, and a report by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that such subsidies “are not cost-effective, with either no statistically significant effects or large costs per job created.” Kim noted that in 2015 alone, New York gave out more than $8 billion in corporate incentives. He pointed to a recent study by the Levy Institute that found cancelling student debt would result “in an increase in real GDP [and] a decrease in the average unemployment rate.”

In New York, student debt has ballooned. A 2016 report by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office found that “the delinquency rate among New York student loan borrowers rose by more than a third over the past decade while average borrower balances in the State increased by nearly 48 percent, to $32,200.” A memo outlining Kim’s bill says the legislation would empower New York officials to “exercise their eminent domain powers to buy, cancel, and/or monetize the state’s out of control student debt,” which the memo says totals more than $82 billion.

Kim’s move followed criticism of a possible Amazon deal by Senator Michael Gianaris, who led Democrats’ successful effort to win control of the chamber, and who is expected to be in one of the Senate’s top jobs.

“Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” Gianaris and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, both of whom represent Long Island City, said in a press release. “The burden should not be on the 99 percent to prove we are worthy of the one percent’s presence in our communities, but rather on Amazon to prove it would be a responsible corporate neighbor.”


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2018 Election Results

7 Takeaways from California’s Elections

Two of the biggest shockers happened in Los Angeles and Orange counties, in races that have historically drawn the most conservative voters: sheriff and district attorney.

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Official voting results are weeks away from getting verified for the 2018 general election, but big, historic trends are already emerging: some old, some new, some bad — and a lot of Blue.


1. Real estate interests prove again that they’re some of the evilest people in California history

The people who helped to bring to the Golden State housing covenants, redlining, Proposition 13, the overturning of the Rumford Fair Housing Act, McMansions in canyons that always burn and so much more housing nastiness were on the wrong side of history again this election cycle. They spent at least $74 million to demonize Proposition 10—which would only allow municipalities the right to consider rent control—to the point where even renters felt it was a nefarious plot to destroy property values and bankrupt elderly landlords. Unsurprisingly, Prop. 10 lost by a nearly two-thirds majority, and real estate special-interests groups will spend even more if another such measure ever goes statewide again.

2. The Democrats’ next big battleground will be the Central Valley

Most of the Dems’ millions were spent on flipping Orange County blue, but as I wrote for the Los Angeles Times recently, the Democrats can learn a lot for 2020 by what’s happening in the Central Valley. There, Latino candidates have climbed the political ladder from school board seats to a majority of the Valley’s state Assembly and state Senate seats, flipping two of the latter with Latinas (Anna Caballero in the 12th, Melissa Hurtado in the 14th) on Tuesday. What they yet don’t have is one of the congressional seats held by the region’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: David Valadao, Jeff Denham, Kevin McCarthy and Devin Nunes, all whom won their races this time around (although Denham is still sweating his out). Expect the Dems to groom some rising stars for 2020—and expect them to mine data from the Valley about how to attract rural voters.

3. People in Southern California mistrust law enforcement more than ever before

Two of the biggest shockers happened around elected positions that have historically drawn the most conservative voters: sheriff and district attorney. In Orange County, Supervisor Todd Spitzer handily beat 20-year incumbent DA Tony Rackauckas, who has been dogged by a jailhouse snitch scandal for years. But even more surprising was the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s race, where Jim McConnell—supported by virtually the entire L.A. political class—lost to former deputy Alex Villanueva. Villanueva will be the first Democratic sheriff in more than 100 years.

4. Los Alamitos is now unofficially Southern California’s City of Hate

The tiny northwest Orange County town made news earlier this year when the city council decided to pass an ordinance protesting California’s sanctuary state law. The councilman who pushed that resolution, Warren Kusumoto, was reelected this week. But also winning a seat was former councilmember Dean Grose, who made national headlines in 2009 when he emailed a racist cartoon of a watermelon patch growing outside the Obama White House.

5. AIDS Healthcare Foundation needs to stop wasting money on propositions

The nonprofit giant spent over $23 million on the Yes on 10 battle, two years after spending $4.5 million on Proposition 60 to mandate condoms on adult films sets in California and more than $14 million on Proposition 61 to regulate prescription drugs bought by the state. Last year, it spent $5.5 million on Measure S, an anti-development ordinance in Los Angeles. All that money went to nothing, as each measure lost handily. Maybe AIDS Healthcare Foundation head Michael Weinstein should’ve spent that $47 million on services?

6. The California GOP’s last, best hope are Asians

The party has long been dead in the state, but a glimmer of hope has emerged for it in Orange County. Asian-American Republicans there now hold one congressional and state Senate seat, two state Assembly spots, three of the five chairs on the Board of Supervisors, and multiple school board and city council positions. And the new mayor of Anaheim, Orange County’s largest city, is Indian-American Harry Sidhu. Leave it to Orange County to get minorities to side with the Party of Trump!

7. With five of seven congressional seats now Democrat, this ain’t your dad’s Orange County anymore

It’s not even your Orange County. A brave new OC awaits all of us, indeed….


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Environment

Why Was Climate Change Omitted From Colorado’s Debate Over Fracking?

Co-published by Westword
The total absence of climate change discussion in Colorado’s 2018 election was striking, considering the state’s intensified floods, droughts and wildfires.

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Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Over eight debates between gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton, Colorado’s press corps mustered just three questions about climate change.


 

Co-published by Westword

It is no overstatement to say that Colorado’s Proposition 112 and Amendment 74 were two of the most significant and far-reaching climate change measures in America’s entire midterm election. But don’t blame yourself if you didn’t know that. While the initiatives sparked a pitched battle about the fossil fuel industry just as scientists were issuing a dire warning about climate change, that term — “climate change” — was largely absent from the state’s political conversation in 2018, even though some local officials say climate change could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the near future.


While Colorado’s oil and gas industry was asserting that burning carbon-emitting fracked gas is “helping to reduce carbon emissions,” it sponsored an anonymous website attacking journalists who report on energy and climate issues.


Oil and gas corporations spent roughly $40 million to oppose 112, which would have mandated larger distances between fossil fuel extraction sites and schools, hospitals and residential neighborhoods, and likely restricted some fossil fuel development. Some of that money also went into promoting 74, which would have empowered those same oil and gas companies to sue towns that try to restrict drilling and fracking. While the industry offered a smorgasbord of arguments in its campaign — it would defund schools, it would kill jobs, etc. — those criticisms were all based on one central premise: that the setbacks measure would allegedly ban all new oil and gas exploration.

Had climate change been a central topic of conversation, that assertion could have boomeranged on the industry — proponents could have argued that an all-out ban was in fact urgently needed in light of a recent United Nations report warning of a full-fledged dystopia if new fossil fuel development is not halted. And they might have found a receptive audience: Recent polling from the University of Colorado has shown that 70 percent of Coloradans say they are at least somewhat concerned about climate change — and that survey was done before a summer of climate-change-intensified wildfires.


Even though Prop. 112 was not a total ban on fossil fuel extraction, at least a few national voices noted that it represented an important front in the climate change battle.


However, the Colorado press corps barely mentioned climate change in its coverage of the fight, and groups pushing the proposition never made climate change a central argument in their campaign.

An analysis by Media Matters found that out of 12 Colorado newspaper editorials about 112, just one — that of the Boulder Daily Camera, which endorsed the measure — even mentioned climate change. News coverage of 112 focused alternately on the health and environmental hazards highlighted by activists and industry doomsaying about its economic and budgetary implications, but reporting on fossil fuel-related carbon emissions and their contribution to climate change was almost nonexistent.

That was true not only of the fight over 112, but of the state’s wider political discourse. Over eight debates between governor-elect Jared Polis and opponent Walker Stapleton, the Colorado press corps mustered just three questions about climate change, accounting for less than 10 minutes of discussion during eight and a half hours of debate.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association was sponsoring an anonymous website attacking journalists who report on energy and climate issues. And as a backup measure to defang any potential climate arguments, the industry also ramped up its production of promotional PR asserting that burning carbon-emitting fracked gas is “helping to reduce carbon emissions,” as COGA insists. That assertion relies on the public never realizing that it’s only true in comparison to burning coal, but not actually true overall: Natural gas is a fossil fuel, so carbon is emitted when it is burned — no matter what COGA tries to insinuate.


The defeat of an explicitly climate-related ballot measure in Washington State suggests that many voters are not willing to support even modest efforts to frontally address climate change.


That context, though, is rarely noted in a political arena that has long been dominated by armies of fossil fuel lobbyists and millions of dollars of fossil fuel campaign spending. This year, much of that money was spent on ads designed to narrow the debate to one primarily about jobs and economic impact, thereby precluding 112 campaigners from broadening the conversation to one about the climate change dangers of fossil fuel extraction. Colorado Rising, the group behind Proposition 112, was boxed into making arguments only about better protecting the public health and safety of those living near fracking rigs, and to defensively insist that the measure wasn’t an actual ban.

In a media environment that was already erasing climate change from the conversation, there was no space for them to more straightforwardly argue that dramatic reductions in fossil fuel extraction are necessary to address climate change.

“What the polling is showing is that if people are really convinced that it’s an outright ban, they aren’t going to vote for it,” Colorado Rising’s Anne Lee Foster told Capital & Main when asked why climate change wasn’t a more prominent part of the campaign. “It’s not about what the actual percentage [ban] is, it’s proving that they have been blowing this out of proportion the whole time.”

At times, 112’s proponents ended up publicly asserting that the measure would not significantly reduce fossil fuel extraction at all, even as climate scientists argue that’s exactly what’s necessary.

“The oil and gas folks out there will still be able to do their thing,” said Mark Williams, a former Democratic congressional candidate, at a Longmont town hall where he promoted 112. “My concern is you have all these operators that are out there that are trying to make a quick buck, [but] Colorado does not have strong enough regulations.”

There’s no guarantee 112 would have been more successful had the proponents tried to focus the fight on climate change; the oil and gas industry’s success in defeating an explicitly climate-related ballot measure in Washington State suggests that many voters are not willing to support even modest efforts to frontally address climate change.

However, the total absence of the issue in Colorado’s 2018 election was striking, considering not only the IPCC report, but also the state’s own specific struggles with the effects of climate change. After all, leading scientists say that climate change is already intensifying Colorado’s floods, droughts and wildfires. And although COGA has demanded that “natural gas must be part of the climate change conversation,” many of those scientists disagree.

“There is more than enough carbon in the world’s already developed, operating oil, gas, and coal fields globally to exceed 2°C,” wrote a group of 26 climate scientists in a July letter to California Governor Jerry Brown, urging him to immediately halt the approval of all new oil and gas drilling. “There is simply no room in the carbon budget for any new fossil fuel extraction.”

“Absolutely no new fossil fuel developments. None,” said climate scientist Will Steffen, when asked earlier this year what the U.S. needs to do to help avoid global catastrophe. “That means no new coal mines, no new oil wells, no new gas fields, no new unconventional gas fracking. Nothing new.”

This is why even though 112 was not a total ban on fossil fuel extraction, at least a few national voices noted that its potential to somewhat reduce that extraction represented an important front in the climate change battle.

In a guest column for the Denver Post, former NASA scientist James Hansen encouraged Coloradans to vote for 112 because it would “help prevent climate change by making oil and gas harder to access.” Senator Bernie Sanders, who has called for a nationwide ban on fracking, also endorsed the measure on climate-related grounds. And toward the end of the campaign, 350.org founder Bill McKibben promoted the measure as part of his organization’s nationwide push to combat climate change.

But by that point, the industry’s PR machine was already skilled at suppressing any discussion of climate change and transforming every 112 argument into economic alarmism. An editorial in oil magnate Phil Anschutz’s Colorado Springs Gazette was emblematic: In attacking McKibben, it didn’t even bother to mention climate change, much less address his substantive argument.

Instead, its headline simply screamed, “Out-of-stater comes to kill Colorado jobs.”


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2018 Election Results

CA-49: A GOP District Realigns With Democrats After Mike Levin Victory

Republican Diane Harkey ended her dispirited campaign by attempting to distance herself from Trump’s personality but supporting him on “substance.”

Kelly Candaele

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Mike Levin

Was the victory of Democrat Mike Levin in the 49th Congressional District race a decisive one? It seems so. Levin’s roughly seven point victory over Republican Diane Harkey might make newcomers to the district – running from southern Orange County down the coast to northern San Diego – wonder how Republicans have dominated that stretch of California for so long.

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Demographic shifts explain part of what happened. Educated high-tech workers have moved into the area, and Levin targeted Latinos and women in this “year of the woman.” Levin was also blessed with a weak opponent plagued by her husband’s financial scandals.

But perhaps something beyond political math was also taking place. Decades ago political scientist Walter Dean Burnham worried that American political parties had deteriorated to such an extent that they could not deal with critical national and international issues. Burnham lamented the decline in voting participation, particularly among the lower classes, and trained his analytical eye on “realignment” elections that led to durable shifts in political coalitions and public policy. The results in the 49th district could be such a realignment where a general political crisis can force a breakthrough and renewal.

One sign of how much has changed in the 49th is that Levin brought Bernie Sanders to campaign with him in the final week of the campaign, a risk in what most political observers regard as a “centrist” district. Sander’s message denouncing the state of our health care system and the cost of higher education is neither scary nor politically costly when it resonates with the realities of so many people’s lives.

Harkey ended her dispirited campaign by attempting to distance herself from Trump’s personality but supporting him on “substance,” meaning the “booming” economy she said he created.

For many voters, the “substance” now is their aesthetic and existential disgust at how President Trump is attempting to re-create our country.

The current battle may lead to the rebuilding of a political force on the progressive side that is able to fight more effectively by forging broader, more sustainable coalitions. That rebuilding is certainly under way in the 49th Congressional District.


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2018 Election Results

Proposition 11: Emergency Crews Lose Out

Framing Prop. 11 as necessary to protect public safety was a strong argument, but it didn’t help that the opposition failed to file paperwork in time to have their arguments against the measure included in the state’s voter guide.

Gabriel Thompson

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Proposition 11, which rewrites California’s Labor Code to allow private ambulance companies to require paramedics and EMTs to be on call during breaks, cruised to an easy victory on election night, with 60 percent voter support. The result wasn’t surprising; polling showed the measure was leading by a two-to-one margin. Prop. 11’s primary supporter, private ambulance company American Medical Response, vastly outspent the opposition, pouring $22 million into the campaign to argue that response times to emergencies would increase if the measure were defeated.

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The proposition came in the wake of a 2016 California Supreme Court ruling that private security guards are required to be given uninterrupted rest breaks. That ruling likely would apply to the state’s private sector EMTs and paramedics, who are also on call during breaks, and who have filed several lawsuits challenging the practice, including one against AMR. Last year, a legislative attempt to solve the problem stalled in the face of AMR opposition; one of the sticking points was whether the bill would protect AMR from active lawsuits. (As written, Prop. 11 shields AMR from liability regarding breaks in pending litigation.)

Framing Prop. 11 as necessary to protect public safety was a strong argument, but it didn’t help that the opposition, led by the United EMS Workers, an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local, failed to file paperwork in time to have its arguments against the measure included in the state’s voter guide. (Disclosure: AFSCME is a financial supporter of this website.) AMR largely drowned out the local’s attempts to highlight the grueling working conditions faced by emergency workers, and the need for extra staffing to allow more predictable breaks.

What remains to be seen is whether Prop. 11 will in fact shield AMR and other private ambulance companies from pending lawsuits, a decision likely to be determined in court. Jason Brollini, president-executive director of United EMS Workers, estimates that AMR could owe workers as much as $100 million in settlements if the cases are allowed to proceed.


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2018 Election Results

CA-25: Katie Hill Ends Knight Reign in Changing District

While Hill’s youth, bisexuality and comfortably modern persona got the attention of Vice and other media, Steve Knight was seemingly out of touch with his own constituents.

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Katie Hill went to bed last night at the end of an excruciatingly tight congressional race, not knowing if her home district was red or blue. At stake was California’s 25th District, where Hill spent the last 18 months on an unlikely quest to unseat two-term GOP Rep. Steve Knight. By six this morning, Hill, a 31-year-old first-time candidate, appeared to have won by more than 4,000 votes.

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The seat was among several Republican-held offices targeted by the Democratic Party, in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it was never going to be easy. CA-25 had been in Republican hands since 1993, representing territory stretching from northern Los Angeles County to parts of Ventura County. It may have been tilting from red to purple, but Hill wisely shaped her campaign to the immediate kitchen-table interests of the district, and avoided all discussion of presidential impeachment, Russia or special counsel Robert Mueller.

“We’re not running an anti-Trump campaign,” Hill told Capital & Main early in the campaign. “I just don’t think that’s the issue that people care the most about here.”

Hill grew up in the tiny district town of Rosamond and, later, in Santa Clarita, and now resides in rural Agua Dulce. She was a cop’s daughter running against former LAPD officer Knight. Hill began her campaign after working eight years at PATH, one of the largest homeless services providers in California. Growing homelessness in CA-25 was one of her core concerns, along with health care and economic opportunity.

While her youth, bisexuality and comfortably modern persona got the attention of Vice and other media, Knight was seemingly out of touch with his own constituents, many of whom commuted daily to Los Angeles. He was on record as supporting legislation banning gay marriage and voted with President Trump 99 percent of the time, including the failed attempt to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. If her lead holds through the week’s final ballot count, Hill will join an unprecedented wave of women elected to Congress and presumably will take a new and far different path than Knight.


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2018 Election Results

CA-10: AP Calls Election for Josh Harder Over Republican Incumbent

Four-term Central Valley Congressman Jeff Denham appears to have been defeated after a week of ballot counting.

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UPDATE, Nov. 13: The Associated Press tonight has declared Democratic challenger Josh Harder to be the winner over GOP incumbent Jeff Denham in the hard-fought 10th District race. According to AP, “With votes continuing to be counted, Harder’s edge has grown after Denham grabbed a slim lead on Election Day. After the latest update, Harder had a 4,919-vote lead out of about 185,000 votes counted, a margin too large for the congressman to overcome with remaining votes.”


A TV ad for incumbent Republican Congressman Jeff Denham stated that his Democratic challenger Josh Harder “shares Nancy Pelosi’s liberal San Francisco values.” The ad, running in the Sacramento media market and on digital platforms throughout California’s 10th District, went on to state that Harder, if victorious, would leave residents of this Central Valley district with dramatically worse health care options.

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It was a puzzling claim, considering Denham voted with his party to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, several times, and voted for the Republican replacement, the unpopular American Health Care Act.

As of Wednesday morning, Jeff Denham clung to a lead of 50.6 percent of the vote, with Harder claiming 49.4 percent. While 100 percent of precincts had reported, the race had not been called, pending the counting of mail-in and provisional ballots. Democratic activists said enthusiasm and campaign cash were up. Harder raised more than $7 million in this cycle to Denham’s $4.4 million.

Back in February, most of the volunteer canvassers trying to boost Democratic registration in Modesto, the heart of the district, were from the Bay Area. They said they had driven east to turn this purplish district solid blue. CA-10, which voted for Hillary Clinton by three points in 2016 while giving Denham a similar margin of victory, was one of the top Democratic targets for flipping in 2018.

Whether Denham or Harder end up winning, the trend of people relocating from the pricey Bay Area could end up re-shaping the electorate in the district. New research from BuildZoom and the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley shows a growing connection between the Bay Area and its neighbor to the east, CA-10. “More than 55 percent of Bay Area out-migrants in households earning less than $50,000 a year stayed in California, [heading to] more affordable markets, such as the Sacramento region or Central Valley metro areas, like Modesto or Fresno,” the study said.


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2018 Election Results

CA-21: TJ Cox Reverses Tally to Declare Victory

Throughout the campaign, Cox was on the offensive, blasting the GOP incumbent’s votes for the unpopular Republican tax reform bill, and the even more unpopular American Health Care Act (ACHA) or “Trumpcare.”

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UPDATED November 28: Late ballot counting continues to show Democratic Party candidate TJ Cox with a slight lead (currently 506 votes) over GOP incumbent David Valadao. Cox has declared victory. The following story was written when election-night returns showed Valadao ahead by 4,400 votes. 


California’s 21st District seemed like a plausible target to flip from red to blue in 2018 even though incumbent Republican Congressman David Valadao had beaten his Democratic challenger Emelio Huerta by 13 points in 2016. Hillary Clinton handily carried the district, and the demographics also looked good for a Democrat. The district is 71 percent Latino, a group that gave Clinton 66 percent of its vote nationwide two years ago. Republicans account for 27 percent of registered voters in CA-21, 16 points lower than Democratic registration. According to the political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight, Valadao voted with Trump policies nearly 99 percent of the time.

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Despite those headwinds for Valadao, and visits from Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic challenger TJ Cox fell far short. By early Wednesday, Valadao claimed 53.7 percent of the vote to 46.3 percent for Cox with provisional and mail-in ballots still to be counted.

Throughout the campaign, Cox was on the offensive, blasting Valadao’s votes for the unpopular Republican tax reform bill, and the even more unpopular American Health Care Act (ACHA) or “Trumpcare.”

Valadao claimed the Republican tax plan saved families thousands of dollars in a district with a far lower median household income than California as a whole. He also touted his willingness to break from Trump in a failed attempt at immigration reform earlier this year.

Valadao’s strong ties to the district may have given him an advantage. A dairy farmer, small-business owner and son of Portuguese immigrants, Valadao grew up in the district, and has given unwavering support to agribusiness interests, a very important position in this largely agricultural region. Cox, an engineer who has never held elected office, owns a home just outside the district in Fresno and earlier in the election cycle claimed a home in suburban Washington, D.C. as his principal residence.


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