Fearing backlash, California Democrats chart centrist path
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - Democrats in California have a level of power they have craved for years, holding the governorship and large legislative majorities, but to the consternation of some party faithful - and the surprise of many Republicans - they are reining in some progressive impulses.
Fearing a backlash from moderate voters, party leaders have held back on a number of touchstone issues, spending less than many wanted on social programs and placing a proposal to weaken the state's tax reform law, Proposition 13, into legislative limbo.
With the 2013 legislative session ending on Friday, a package of gun control measures has been held up for months, while a bill to regulate fracking, the process of extracting oil from rock by injecting it with water and chemicals, passed only after a proposed moratorium was removed.
"We have been modest," said Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat. "We have used the super-majority selectively and strategically."
Democrats won two-thirds majorities in both houses of the legislature last year, giving them the power to pass tax increases or put constitutional amendments to voters without any Republican cooperation.
Governor Jerry Brown is also a Democrat, and the combination had been widely expected to spur quick passage of bills on a wide variety of progressive issues.
Indeed, dozens of bills - on fracking, gun control, taxes and other topics - were quickly submitted but many were ultimately derailed.
"When it was confirmed that we had two-thirds control over the legislature, there was a lot of speculation that we would be going after Proposition 13 and things like that," said John Vigna, spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Perez. "And it's not where we wanted to go."
To be sure, the legislature remains firmly in the liberal camp with regard to many social issues. Last month, lawmakers passed a bill that, if signed by Brown, would allow nurses and other medical professionals besides doctors to perform some first-trimester abortions.
Brian Jones, who chairs the Assembly Republican caucus, said such actions make him skeptical that Democrats were really charting a more moderate path. The proof, he said, will come before lawmakers recess next week, when gun control bills and other measures that had been shelved are likely to come forward.
Even so, Jones said he was surprised Democrats were not more heavy-handed. "They're not pushing the two-thirds advantage as much as I thought they were going to," he said.
Among the biggest deterrents to runaway progressivism in the most populous state is that Democrats only gained their majorities because of support from moderate and conservative Republicans in many districts, political analysts say.
Last year, the state implemented a new primary system, in which the top two vote-getters in any race advance to the election, even if they are members of the same party. In blue California, the two winners were often Democrats.
But to win in the general election in many districts, successful candidates need support from moderates and conservatives, said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. Suddenly backing a raft of liberal legislation may alienate those voters, he said.
Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican strategist who now publishes data on state elections in the California Target Book, said he was not surprised Democrats had charted a more moderate path.
"They elected a lot of moderate to conservative Democrats," he said. "If they had a solid liberal agenda, it would be difficult to get it passed, and it would be very difficult to get the governor to sign the bills."
Instead, Democrats have put off some of their more controversial ideas - like tweaks to Proposition 13's limits on the state's ability to impose taxes - until at least next year.
Democrats also say they were somewhat chastened by the extent to which the economic downturn battered the budget.
"We have this support because we've done the right things to keep California's house in order, and we want to keep going with that," said Vigna, the spokesman for Assembly Speaker Perez.
Adding to pressure is a continued drumbeat from Brown, who used the bully pulpit and veto pen to force the legislature's hand on spending and on issues like education and prison reform.
The governor has charted a strongly centrist path. He kept advisers who served Republican predecessors and pressed Democratic leaders to accept their conservative budget projections.
He worked with education reformers to allow school districts more control over money received from the state, quashing opposition by offering progressives some concessions while refusing to budge in other areas.
"They've got adult supervision - the governor," University of Southern California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said of the legislature.
The tilt has rankled some progressives. Brown's proposal to spend $315 million next year to expand the prison system without allocating funds for mental health care or rehabilitation was a disappointment, said Larry Levin, spokesman for Democratic Senator Loni Hancock of Berkeley.
Perez signed onto the plan, but Senate leader Steinberg opposes it.
The party must chart a careful course, Steinberg said.
"There are two dangers with our new power," he added. "One is to overreach, and the other is to underreach."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Von Ahn)