The two major parties will be arrayed as usual when Gov. Jerry Brown looks out from the podium of the state Assembly chamber as he delivers his combination inaugural and state of the state speech, Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other.
But that will be slightly misleading. For voters have succeeded in one of the aims that was often stated when they created the top two primary election system via the 2010 Proposition 14: The California Legislature now includes Republicans, standard Democrats and a de facto third party that might best be called “business Democrats.”
All that’s needed to be sure this is true is to watch the votes of members of this new quasi-party and check out where they got their campaign money.
Yes, the business Democrats are still consistently colored blue on issues like immigration, same-sex marriage, gun-control and abortion. But when it comes to things that matter greatly to business, like industrial regulations, land development and minimum wage increases, these folks will often vote with Republicans.
This came about because in 2012, business interests like the state Chamber of Commerce began to understand that primary elections in many districts across California will for many years most likely produce same-party contests in November runoff elections for legislative and congressional offices.
Where that happens – mostly in districts whose voter registration is dominated by Democrats – business clearly understands it won’t work for them to fund Republicans in the primary. Instead, they now donate to some Democrats in primaries that are all but certain to produce a two-Democrat runoff.
Last fall, this produced major results for the business lobby. In seven out of 10 same-party races where a business-funded Democrat faced a more traditional liberal, the business-funded Democrat won.
One independent business group called Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy spent about $1.1 million on such races. That group now figures Democrats in the Assembly will be about evenly split between folks it calls “moderates” and others more likely to back the party’s more traditional tough-on-business positions.
Few legislators themselves are willing to discuss the new configuration, but new Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins of San Diego did tell one reporter that the combination of top two and term limits has created “wholehearted change in how the Legislature is structured and comes together.”
A typical race occurred in 2012, when former Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom, backed by business funding, beat the labor-backed former Assemblywoman Betsy Butler after her previous district was decimated by reapportionment.
Another occurred in the Sacramento area last November, when business-backed Richard Pan defeated Roger Dickinson for a Senate seat in a faceoff between two Democratic assemblymen. Dickinson later told a reporter, “I think what it does is that it places a premium on being willing to align with business interests.”
Not that Pan and others didn’t also get some union funding. For labor often aligns with big business when it believes the measures business wants will create union jobs.
Many business Democrats prefer to call themselves moderates, and they didn’t all win, by any means. One loser was Steve Glazer, an Orinda city councilman and a former top adviser to Brown, who alienated labor by doing work for the chamber. He lost a bitter, expensive primary in the East Bay area; as a result, the seat eventually went to a moderate Republican.
All of which means voters have pretty much gotten what they wanted when they passed top two, at least in the Legislature. Many voters told pollsters then they wanted more moderation and compromise in government, less gridlock. They now have just that; there have been no notable legislative deadlocks over the last two years-plus.
No one can be quite certain how this will play out in the long term: A moderate wing for America’s most liberal state Democratic Party? A three-party system where moderate Democrats combine with moderate Republicans in a centrist party?
These are the kinds of non-automatic, unpredictable questions that should make following politics fun for years to come.