A Toast To 2014's Top California Political Stories

Let's be honest: Who doesn't like a good old-fashioned annual rite of passage? Spring cleaning. The Fall Classic. Swallows returning to Capistrano. (Well, maybe not that one these days, it seems).

And a list of top news stories to wrap up a year. Which brings us to this list covering California politics in 2014.

It was, well, an odd even-numbered year.  Statewide elections usually spark some big stories and important debates, but 2014 was  rather tepid compared with previous electoral cycles.  Even so, there were a few big moments that won't be soon forgotten.

So without further ado...

Leland Yee was accused of corruption in March 2014 as part of an FBI investigation.
Leland Yee was accused of corruption in March 2014 as part of an FBI investigation. (Justin Sullivan/Getty) (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Political Quote of the Year: "People Need Certain Things"

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If you were casting a movie about a political scandal and you needed a legislator on whom to base a character accused of corruption ... Leland Yee wouldn't have been your guy.

The San Francisco Democrat was a fairly high-profile member of the California Legislature, but not a flamboyant one or one who was the subject of gossip and rumor. And that's probably why the news in March landed with such a bombshell, when the 66-year old former psychologist was arrested and charged with not only corruption, but also with allegedly participating in a scheme to smuggle illegal weapons into the United States.

The irony was impossible to miss: gun trafficking charges against a Democrat who made a name for himself as a fierce advocate of gun control, a politician who championed a nationally debated California law to ban children from buying violent video games.

And now, that infamous quote contained in the FBI affidavit, one attributed by investigators to Yee during a secret meeting that focused on the potential smuggling of weapons:

"People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don't care. People need certain things."

Yee's political career pretty much ended the same day the detailed allegations were made public, part of a bigger FBI investigation into the Chinese immigrant community of San Francisco. 2014 also saw Yee and two other state senators suspended over ethics charges: Ron Calderon, the focus of his own FBI corruption sting, and Rod Wright, convicted of perjury in a case involving whether he actually lived in his legislative district.

Only Wright's case was closed in 2014. We're still waiting to see what happens to Calderon and Yee.

The historic drought helped loosen opposition to long-running political debates.
The historic drought helped loosen opposition to long-running political debates. (Justin Sullivan/Getty) (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Top Political Actor in a Dramatic Role: California's Drought

Let's leave it to Gov. Jerry Brown to explain this one.

"We've got a drought," said Brown in September. "And that's got everybody's attention."

And so it was in 2014, where California's unquenched thirst helped break the logjam on several water policy fights that had been dragging on for years. Brown's quip came just after he signed the state's first-ever regulations on the use of groundwater, something unthinkable in years past. The year also saw lawmakers negotiate, and voters approve, a $7.5 billion bond package for water reliability and storage -- a package where politicos had long fretted about the public's distaste for new borrowing but one that ultimately received a ''yes" vote from 67 percent of the voters who cast ballots on Nov. 4. Campaign strategists say it's simple: The drought was a huge motivating factor, something voters didn't need a political campaign to explain to them.

Randall Elementary School in Milpitas, Calif.
Randall Elementary School in Milpitas. (Charla Bear/KQED) (Charla Bear/KQED)

 Simmering Fight Over Teacher Tenure

The decision made by a Los Angeles judge on June 10 had the potential for huge political impact: California's tenure rules for K-12 teachers were found to violate the constitutional rights of students to equal protection.

A huge ruling, yes, but one that surprisingly caused only a small series of political rumbles in 2014.

The 16 pages of findings in Vergara v. California by Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu handed down a scathing indictment of the system of tenure -- one that Treu said unfairly disadvantages students from communities of color or from low-income families:

"It therefore cannot be gainsaid that the number of grossly ineffective teachers has a direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students, now and well into the future for as long as said teachers hold their positions."

The ruling was immediately praised by critics of the tenure system and self-described reform groups, but panned by teachers unions and state officials who argued the judge overstated the number of "bad" teachers on the job.

But why Vergara didn't land a more powerful political punch in 2014 is hard to say.  While it did play a real role in one statewide race -- the contest for superintendent of public instruction -- and a few legislative races, there was no groundswell of action or outrage. Even the decision by Gov. Jerry Brown to appeal the ruling (a decision he tried to defend on legal grounds during the political season's only gubernatorial debate) extracted no real political price. Nonetheless, Vergara resonated in education and government circles and could continue to make news depending on the outcome of the appeals process in 2015.

Box Office Sleeper: The Kashkari Kid

No candidate made a bigger bet on public outcry over the Vergara ruling than Neel Kashkari, the Republican newcomer hoping to topple a sitting governor with a household name.

Kashkari, the longshot candidate for governor, during the Sept. 4 gubernatorial debate.
Kashkari, the long-shot candidate for governor, during the Sept. 4 gubernatorial debate. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP) (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Kashkari, the former U.S. Treasury official who bested a more conservative Republican to win the second of two spots on the fall ballot, had always insisted that education would be one of only two priorities should he somehow win the race for governor (the other being job creation). But he didn't seem to talk much about his education agenda, as he seemed to be much more energized about schools after Vergara swept into the news.

In the only debate between the two men, held on Sept. 4 and sponsored by KQED along with three other media organizations, Kashkari unloaded on Gov. Jerry Brown's decision to appeal the ruling. One month later, he released a television ad that never mentioned the tenure court case by name -- opting instead for the shock value of a drowning kid and his GOP rescuer.

The ad also highlighted the challenge for the Kashkari campaign team: finding something ... anything ... that would stick to Jerry Brown. The candidate began the race in January talking about poverty; then he lampooned Brown's support for the "crazy train" of high-speed rail; then he went back to poverty by posing as a homeless man on the streets of Fresno; then a series of attacks on the Brown political dynasty.

And on it went, even though polls suggested either that voters weren't impressed or were simply oblivious to the entire campaign.

The lingering question: Does Neel Kashkari, a man with now at least a modicum of statewide name ID, run for something else in 2016 or 2018?

California's new law banning plastic bags may be on hold until a statewide referendum in 2016.
California's new law banning plastic bags may be on hold until a statewide referendum in 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty) (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

The Ban That May End Up Getting Banned Itself

There are more than 100 communities across California that have imposed some kind of limit or ban on single-use plastic bags in recent years. So, it's not surprising that a statewide effort would be launched in Sacramento. Still, few legislative fights in 2014 were more intense, or more chock-full of backroom wheeling and dealing, as the one that ended with legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to impose a statewide plastic bag ban starting in July. When enacted, the ban will be the first of its kind in the nation.

Or will it? The plastic bag industry quickly ponied up $3 million to gather signatures for a referendum asking voters to overturn the law -- and they appear to have enough to make that happen in November 2016. That would also mean the new law is on hold, allowing the plastic bag industry to keep selling its products for at least an additional 16 months.

Five separate versions of Senate Bill 270 were considered before all was said and done at the state Capitol. Grocers were given a concession of 10 cents for every paper bag, and Latino Democrats (who helped kill a similar effort in 2013) signed on after efforts were promised to help mitigate any job losses at plastic bag manufacturing plants. The governor played the final card, surprising at least a few political watchers by agreeing to sign the bill. Now, its fate is unclear -- as even more cities across California prepare to enact their own bag bans in 2015.

Voter turnout in 2014: historically low. (Katie Brigham/KQED)
Voter turnout in 2014: historically low. (Katie Brigham/KQED)

Suppose We Held An Election ... And No One Showed Up?

For a state where it's become common to watch millions of voters skip elections, it wasn't surprising that 2014 -- a year without a presidential race and not a lot of widely anticipated ballot propositions -- was going to end with low turnout.

But boy, who knew it would be this bad.

The June and November elections each set records for voter apathy: Only 25.17 percent of registered voters cast ballots in June, 42.2 percent in November. Never have any regular primary or gubernatorial elections in California seen such tepid interest from the voters.

And turnout was even worse in a number of individual legislative and congressional districts.

No on Prop. 46 television ad
No on Prop. 46 Television Ad

The Political Power of No

The low turnout didn't do much to help backers of any of the six propositions on November's ballot. In fact, the 2014 election cycle proved once again how much easier it is to kill a ballot measure than it is to pass one.

The most-talked-about initiatives, Proposition 45 and Proposition 46, were a textbook case of death by a thousand cuts. Opponents had more money and an easier message: The measures were too complicated, poorly drafted, clever Trojan horses that really had an ulterior motive. Prop. 45, the measure to boost the regulatory power of the state insurance commissioner over health care rates, was a rebuke to Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, who championed the proposal. Prop. 46, the fight over doctor drug testing and medical malpractice awards, was a lawyers-versus-doctors smackdown that landed on the ballot after the two sides failed to reach any kind of deal in the Legislature.

Mark DiCamillo, the longtime director of the nonpartisan Field Poll, has long joked that if he ever hung up his pollster badge and became a political campaign consultant, he'd only take on clients who wanted to defeat initiatives. "No" is where the easy money is, it seems. And combined, the Prop. 45/Prop. 46 opposition campaigns raised more than $111 million.

Tim Draper, the author of the Six Californias initiative. (Max Morse/Getty)
Tim Draper, the author of the Six Californias initiative. (Max Morse/Getty)

Let's Stay Together, Loving You Whether ...

Some day years from now, you'll see it at an auction: a bright crimson-colored, custom tie -- one with a multi-colored map of California sliced into six new state configurations.

And you'll say to yourself, "Oh yeah, that Six Californias thing."

It wasn't meant to be, at least not in 2014. The owner of that tie, Silicon Valley investor Tim Draper, came up short in his quirky quest to ask Californians to go their separate ways. Not only did his split-it-six-ways plan fail to make the fall ballot, but Draper's hired guns failed to even collect enough valid signatures to get it on the ballot in 2016. And that's after he sank almost $5.3 million of his own cash into the endeavor.

Skeptics doubted Draper was serious. Politicos mused that he was trying to get his name out there for a future run for statewide office. (But which state? Ah, the jokes). And legal scholars said the initiative was absolutely unworkable and likely unconstitutional.

But hey, at least he's still got that tie.

Gov. Jerry Brown may have had the best year in politics of anyone in California. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)
Gov. Jerry Brown may have had the best year in politics of anyone in California. (Jeremy Raff/KQED)

The Tao of Jerry

And finally, the hard-to-deny consensus big political winner in a year where Californians didn't even seem to want to think about politics: Edmund Gerald Brown Jr.

Jerry Brown's 45-year political career is best left to biographies rather than end-of-the-year lists. But suffice it to say, in an year when the electorate didn't seem to want to embrace politics,  the low-key style of Brown's third term as governor seemed to suit Californians just fine.

Still, it would be unfair to imply that Brown wasn't working hard behind the scenes to secure a fourth term. From beating back legislation at the state Capitol that didn't suit his finely honed persona of frugality ... to the non-campaign campaign that saw him preach propositions rather than himself ... Jerry Brown found a way to successfully match his political message to the electoral mood.

"He has an impeccable sense of timing," said the governor's top aide, Nancy McFadden, to a business group in November.

(Yes, but perhaps he learned it from having a lousy sense of timing in 1976 ... and 1980 ... and 1982 ... and 1992.)

Where Jerry Brown chooses to steer his governorship in the new year and beyond remains to be seen. But for now, he seems to like the course that he -- and California -- are on.

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Here's hoping he and the state's other political players make 2015 an interesting one to watch.

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