Progressives disappointed over Barack Obama’s California numbers can be cheered by three critical facts. First, Obama did much better than was projected only a month ago, and California’s delegate selection process minimized Clinton’s popular vote margin. Second, the defeat of Proposition 93 promises to usher in a new era of progressive leadership in Sacramento, with the possibility that a “dream team” of Karen Bass as Assembly Speaker and Darrell Steinberg as Senate pro tem could be installed this session. Third, Prop 93’s defeat set up contested Democratic primary contests across the state, which will greatly increase voter turnout in June for the campaign to defeat Prop 98 – the measure to abolish rent control. The California Republican Party put ideology over pragmatic politics in spending heavily to defeat Prop 93, enabling the state’s progressives to come out of the February 5th election stronger than before.

Despite pre-election polls showing Prop 93 losing badly, the initiative trailed by only a few points with nearly 2/3 of the vote counted. But the margin held, meaning that California Democrats will finally be able to remove the compromised legislative leadership team of Don Perata and Fabian Nunez that has proven such a gift to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

New Progressive Leadership:

Legislators could be deciding as soon as this week whether to replace these lame-duck leaders now rather than at the end of the year. This is somewhat of a tradition in the Legislature, as it gives new leadership an extra year in power.

African-American Assembly member Karen Bass from Los Angeles is the leading candidate to replace Nunez as Speaker. Bass has strong support from labor unions and other key Democratic constituencies, and would represent a night and day difference from the wheeling-dealing Nunez.

One is hard-pressed to recall the last time California had a solidly progressive Assembly speaker who could rally the public behind a clear agenda. Jess Unruh and Willie Brown backed some progressive causes, but both became symbols of backroom deals and big-money special interests that ultimately did not advance the progressive cause.

At a time when progressives must rally the state to opposed the Governor’s draconian budget plans, Bass’ election as Speaker would be ideal.

Sacramento State Senator Darrell Steinberg, who was elected Senate leader late today, has been a staunch affordable housing advocate and, like Bass, represents a sharp departure from current Senate leader Don Perata. Steinberg’s public image is as clean as Perata’s is tarnished, and he and Bass could build support among the state’s residents to force the Governor and a handful of Republicans to support the tax increases on the wealthy necessary to stabilize the budget.

Californians feel disconnected from state government. A major reason is a culture of backroom legislative dealing that ignores the need to organize grassroots support for progressive policies. A legislative leadership team that went out to the cities and towns across the state to sell a progressive agenda would help put the Governor on the defensive as labor unions successfully did in 2005.

A Boost for “No on 98”

Prop 93’s defeat means heavily contested primaries across California, and increased voter turnout against the anti-rent control Prop 98. Consider the impact in the East Bay alone.

Had Prop 93 passed, there would be no contested legislative races in June in Berkeley or Oakland. Now, there will be fierce fights for the Assembly seat to be vacated by Loni Hancock, and the Senate seat finally being vacated by Don Perata.

While initiative campaigns can boost turnout, voters are more motivated by candidates.
In the State Senate race, both the Hancock and Wilma Chan campaigns will be sending out slate cards that include No on 98, and their GOTV efforts – including absentee voter campaign – will increase turnout against the landlord-backed initiative.

Two of the East Bay Assembly candidates – Kriss Worthington and Nancy Skinner – are also strongly pro-tenant and their voter outreach will help the No on 98 campaign. So rather than have thousands of voters potentially ignoring the projected low-turnout June election, these contested legislative races gives them greater reason to vote.

This East Bay dynamic of increased No on 98 voter turnout will be replicated in Los Angeles and other rent-control jurisdictions that include contested primaries. And Prop 98’s presence on the ballot means that tenant issues will be more important in distinguishing between candidates than ever before, which could ensure a more pro-tenant legislature in 2009.

What Happened to Obama in California?

This is already old news, but let’s give credit where credit is due. As I wrote previously, Clinton’s California campaign manager Ace Smith is at the top of his game and proved on February 5th that he can effectively coordinate state as well as local campaigns (his strategy for Villaraigosa’s 2005 mayoral campaign was key to winning what at one point looked like a long-shot effort).

Whereas Smith had all the resources he needed for a multi-month absentee and voter ID campaign, Obama’s forces had no choice but to try to match this in two weeks. They tried their best, and limited Clinton’s final margin to almost half of what was projected only a few weeks ago.

And now it’s on to the Washington caucuses on Saturday, where Beyond Chron has a correspondent on the ground in Seattle who will provide an inside report next Monday.