The Rise of Corporate Democrats in California
Photo Credit: California State Assembly (L, Marc Levine); California State Assembly (R, Steve Fox); Composite Screenshot / Wikimedia Commons
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Marin County is one of California’s most liberal regions and, with its iconic redwoods and stunning coastline, it is also a power center for environmental activism. And so, when a bill to give the state Coastal Commission authority to levy fines against shoreline despoilers came for a vote in the state Assembly in 2013, it was taken for granted that Marin’s new Assemblyman, Marc Levine, would vote for passage. That didn’t happen. Instead, the San Rafael Democrat sat out the single most important vote for his constituents that year — which helped doom the measure.
But Levine was not finished. In Sacramento he would abstain or skip votes on bills helping farm workers and creating a bill of rights for domestic workers. He has also voted against legislation requiring economic impact reports for big box stores and requiring more rate-increase disclosure from Kaiser Permanente. That Levine keeps at arm’s length the progressive values of the 10th Assembly District, which includes much of equally liberal Sonoma County, should come as no surprise. During his two Assembly campaigns he has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from some of the state’s largest business interests.
What is baffling is that Levine, who declined to comment for this article, is neither a DINO (a conservative who is a Democrat in name only) nor a farm belt centrist. He remains a committed suburban liberal. One, that is, who happened to attend a local Mitt Romney rally in 2012 and who felt at ease appearing at a Republican Lincoln Dinner last year. Levine is also no aberration. Rather, he is part of a new breed of Democrat, one exceedingly attentive to big business while tone-deaf toward the Democratic Party’s traditional base, which includes union workers, environmentalists and public school advocates.
At the very moment that California’s Republican Party is melting into electoral irrelevancy, Levine and other hybrid Democrats are appearing in all corners of the state. Their ranks include Bill Dodd, a Napa County Supervisor and former Republican who is running as a Democrat for a wine country Assembly seat, and Palmdale Assemblyman Steve Fox, another erstwhile Republican. Fox, who says he is proud to have earned the California Chamber of Commerce’s highest approval rating for a Democrat, tells Capital & Main that the Democratic Party’s becoming friendlier to business is a positive development.
“We’re pulling the party to the center, towards being more business friendly,” Fox says.
Then there’s Orinda city councilman Steve Glazer, a former top advisor to Governor Jerry Brown, who recently worked as a consultant to the California Chamber of Commerce and its Jobs Political Action Committee. Glazer is currently running for an Alameda County Assembly seat and has fiercely challenged the right of transit workers to strike.
“I am trying to redefine what it means to be a Democrat,” Glazer told Capital & Main. “I think you can be a financial conservative and be a strong Democratic officeholder.”
The rise of what might be called the Corporate Democrat can only be partly explained by shrinking GOP delegations in Sacramento. It is also the product of redistricting and effects of the “top-two primary,” by which members of the same political party can win the top two primary positions and then face off in November. These two structural changes were approved by voters in, respectively, 2008 and 2010. Since then, powerful corporations, agricultural associations and other political high rollers have been turning away from their traditional Republican partners and placing more and more of their chips on the Democratic end of the table — specifically, on candidates like Marc Levine. These changes are only now catching the attention of Democratic electeds and activists, who see a coming fight for the soul of their party.