Jun 01, 2020
The Brockbank Political Report
March Primary Results and a Preview of the November Election: Musings on the Longest Local Ballot Ever and Party Prospects in Sacramento and D.C.
Jun 01, 2020
By Greg Brockbank
Note: The views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and are not intended to reflect those of MCBA nor is this column an endorsement of any candidate.
MARCH PRIMARY ELECTION
You may recall that California’s March primary election was usually in June, but moved to March starting this year, although we’ve tried that twice before in recent decades and then gone back to June. You may also recall that the vast majority of our local, nonpartisan elections have been held for decades in November of odd-numbered years, but a new law forced Marin to move them to even-numbered years for the higher turnout (especially in presidential elections). There are all kinds of problems with that philosophy, but it’s done, and this year is the first year of having every local election in even-numbered years. Most jurisdictions chose November, so there were few potential races in March, fewer actual races, and no surprise results. Nonetheless, we still did vote for some notable offices.
There were three seats for county supervisor (of the five) up in March, as has been the case for decades. It’s not unheard of for at least one of them to go unchallenged, which is what happened this time in the Ross Valley district of veteran Supervisor Katie Rice. In West Marin and Corte Madera (and parts of Mill Valley, Greenbrae, San Rafael, Novato, and Corte Madera), Supervisor Dennis Rodoni won a second term easily against perennial (but underfunded and unendorsed) candidate Alex Easton-Brown. In Southern Marin, Supervisor Kate Sears announced her retirement early last year, and the immediate favorite (and big winner) was three-term Mill Valley Councilwoman Stephanie Moulton-Peters. The Board of Supes remains in good hands!
City Councils and Sanitary Districts.
In Ross, voters returned incumbents Elizabeth Brekhus and Paul (“Beach”) Kuhl (both attorneys) to office, and elected new candidate Charles Kircher (also an attorney!) to replace a retiring colleague for the third seat. Voters in Mill Valley re-elected incumbent Sashi McEntee, the only incumbent running for another four-year term, as one (Jim Wickham) was unopposed to finish the final two years of a recently retired colleague (signaling his retirement in two years), and another one stepped down entirely. Urban Carmel was actually the top vote-getter, having served on dozens of local boards, and the third contested seat went to another new candidate, Tricia Ossa, beating out young activist Max Perrey and second-time candidate Kirk Knauer.
In Tiburon, Jack Ryan beat out Daniel Amir and Kathleen Defever to fill out the final two years of a retiring councilmember. In Corte Madera, two incumbents stepped down but only two candidates filed to replace them; hence, no election. The new councilmembers are Fred Casissa and Charles Lee. Finally, only the incumbents filed for re-election in both the Ross Valley Sanitary District (Mary Sylla and Doug Kelly) and the Almonte Sanitary District (Lewis Kious, Robert Cox, and Anne Lahaderne).
NOVEMBER’S LOCAL BALLOT
Eight types of government bodies have elections scheduled for November. My chart below gives you an idea of the large number of contests the Marin Registrar of Voters will be contending with. I have listed the number of potential races in each category; most districts have more than one. Filing opens in mid-July and closes in mid-August, as usual for November elections, at the Registrar of Voters’ office at the Civic Center (or, in the case of council elections and the San Rafael Board of Education, the city halls.) We won’t know how many races end up contested and on the November ballot until the close of filing in mid-August. I’ve also listed the number of current officeholders in each category.
* The number of potential races is actually even a little bit higher because the San Rafael and Novato School boards, and possibly two or three others, continue to move to district instead of at-large elections, so there will be some brand-new one-seat “districts” within various school districts. What used to be one big race will now be several smaller ones in each jurisdiction.
San Rafael will have not just one, but five potential races. The voters there elect their mayor separately, and will elect two councilmembers in separate district races for the first time (with another two in districts for the first time in two years). They are also holding their city attorney and city clerk “races,” but the incumbents are rarely opposed, even though the jobs pay real money, unlike most elected positions that have actual policy responsibilities. Mayor Gary Phillips announced last year he would step down at the end of this term, and Vice Mayor Kate Colin is already running to replace him (and is, in my opinion, a prohibitive favorite).
Other cities with incumbent councilmembers whose seats are up in November (we often won’t know if they’ll actually run again until the close of filing in mid-August) include Belvedere (Nancy Kemnitzer, Claire McAuliffe, Robert McCaskill), Fairfax (Bruce Ackerman, Barbara Coler, John Reed), San Anselmo (Brian Colbert, Alexis Fineman, John Wright), Sausalito (Joe Burns, Joe Cox, Ray Withy), and Tiburon (David Kulik and Holli Thier).
Some people think that Marin’s 19 school districts are far too numerous and we should consolidate. They might be surprised by County Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke’s presentation on how Marin consolidated many decades ago from about twice as many as we have now. Polling shows most residents really like having their local neighbors be in charge of their local schools, rather than some larger, regional entity. All 19 will be on the ballot.
Marin’s school districts range in size from “medium” (by state standards), e.g., Novato Unified, Tamalpais Union High, San Rafael, and Novato, to slightly smaller or much smaller: Kentfield, Lagunitas, Larkspur, Mill Valley, Miller Creek (formerly Dixie), Nicasio, Reed, Ross, Ross Valley, and Sausalito, to a couple of the remaining six one-room schoolhouses in California, each with its own school district: Lincoln and Laguna. (Although I’ve never known anyone on those one-school boards, I’ve noticed that some of the trustees stay on for decades.)
Of the 45 incumbent school board members whose seats are up in November (too many to list before most readers’ eyes would glaze over), probably somewhere between a quarter to a half of them will not run for re-election, and another half will be in uncontested “races” that don’t get on the ballot because the number of candidates did not exceed the available seats. That may mean only 8-10 or so of the 24 potential races actually appear on the ballot, usually with most but not all of the non-retiring incumbents.
These districts (comprising everything besides the county offices, city and town councils and other municipal offices, and school district trustees) represent 28 or more potential races for 66 elected officials whose seats are up – about half November’s total. The three biggest categories are: the seven Sanitary Districts (Alto, Homestead Valley, Las Gallinas Valley, Novato, Richardson Bay, Sausalito-Marin City, and District No. 5 – Tiburon), the six Community Services Districts (Bel Marin Keys, Marin City, Marinwood, Muir Beach, Tamalpais, and Tomales Village), and the six Fire Protection Districts (Kentfield, Novato, Sleepy Hollow, Southern Marin, Stinson Beach, and Tiburon). There are also three Public Utilities Districts (Bolinas Community, Inverness and Mesa Park), and two Water Districts (Marin Municipal and North Marin), and three one-district categories: The Marin Healthcare District, the Strawberry Recreation District, and the Marin Resource Conservation District.
The big one, voter-wise, has usually been the Marin Healthcare District, which covers most of Marin except Novato and West Marin, and has in decades past been the site of pitched battles pro- and anti-Sutter, as well as over other issues, but in recent years has “settled down” into a surprisingly noncontroversial body, with long-time incumbents who didn’t used to get along but now do. The seats of two of them are up in November, Harris Simmonds and Anne Sparkman, who are running for second and third terms, respectively, and I expect they will run again and win re-election without much controversy—there seems to be no organized opposition or factionalism as there was in the past.
Some Community Services Districts (CSDs) are pretty quiet and, like most special districts, rarely even have contested elections, but others are more controversial, like the Marin City CSD, which almost always has an election. The last one featured slates, along with a candidate who won the final seat by one vote. It will be interesting to see how much the controversy over the Sausalito-Marin City School District will spill over, if at all, into the CSD race. And last time the CSDs elected directors, three different districts had all the incumbents run for re-election (which isn’t unusual), with each district having one lone challenger (which is). Even when someone steps down (which is rare—they often stay on for decades), it would be unusual to have a contested election. One of the challengers won last time, in the Las Gallinas Valley: a bright young water engineer who works for MMWD beat a typical incumbent who thought he didn’t have to campaign much, if at all, because he hadn’t had to for decades.
Fire Protection Districts (FPDs) are for cities like Novato that don’t have their own municipal fire departments, and may also exist to give special or enhanced coverage to specific unincorporated areas above and beyond the coverage the Marin County Fire Department can give. I’m hard pressed to think of any controversies in any of them in recent decades. Probably the most significant—and I use the term loosely—event was when the Southern Marin FPD increased its board from five to seven members.
Sanitary Districts (SDs), on the other hand, seem to have had more than their share of controversy, especially the Las Gallinas SD and the Ross Valley SD—spills caused by negligence, property disputes with neighbors and buyers and sellers, you name it. These are all thankless jobs, in many ways, usually without pay (or nominal pay at best), but thank goodness for the good-hearted and nearly all quite capable community volunteers who review the staff reports and make policy decisions, and hire, evaluate and sometime fire the chief executive officer.
You, too, can run for any of these positions: check out their websites and attend their meetings (presumably via Zoom these days). Filing for all these offices (except city councils) is at the County Registrar of Voters’ office (if it’s open, which it wasn’t as of this writing) and runs from mid-July to mid-August. The Registrar did complete the March election, and is preparing for hopefully a fairly normal November election (even if every registered voter must now be mailed a ballot—that’s no big deal in Marin, as the vast majority already get mailed a ballot).
LOCAL, STATE, AND NATIONAL RACES FOR STATE LEGISLATURE AND CONGRESS
Other than the presidential race (which is always the race that most people are most interested in, by far), this is a slow year for other partisan races, at least here. We have no U.S. Senate race this year, and the statewide elected office races are still two years away. It’s true here and elsewhere that incumbent state and federal legislators have high odds of getting re-elected, but at least every six years, term limits would have forced a State Assembly member to step down, and there would be a high-profile race for their replacement. With the changes to term limits early in this past decade, that’s now more often 12 years, and our Assemblyman, Marc Levine, is 7 ½ years in, so he’s got a while yet (although things will start heating up for his replacement immediately after he is elected to his final term in 2 1/2 years). Our Congressman, Jared Huffman, has been in office for the same amount of time, but has no term limits, so he could be there for decades, (which would be good, since he’s outstanding, but personally I’d like to see him appointed as Secretary of the Interior under President Joe Biden).
Democrats in Sacramento have made incremental gains for several decades now, to the point where they’ve passed the two-thirds supermajority needed to ignore the Republicans completely if the Democrats all stick together, (which usually most of them do, and budgets, tax increases, and placing measures on the ballot all require a two-thirds vote). Republicans have made noise about cutting into that Democratic supermajority and taking back some seats the Democrats have flipped recently, but it’s probably just that—noise—as the blue trend has shown no signs of abating in California. Similarly, after the Democrats flipped seven California Republican House seats in 2018 (half the GOP’s total), the GOP is fighting hard to win at least some of them back, and in fact, a few Republican candidates came in first in a few of the spirited primary races, which you will recall are all now races where the top-two go on to the general election regardless of party. But in those races, when the eliminated Democrats’ totals in the March primary are combined with the total of the (recently) incumbent Democrat, along with November having better Democratic turnout (especially in presidential elections), I’ll wager that none of those new Democratic House members in California lose their seats this year (notwithstanding Mike Garcia's special election win in May to serve out Katie Hill's term until November).
Nationally, although the GOP talks about taking back the House, that isn’t going to happen either. In fact, the Democrats may pick up a few more seats but it won’t be easy, as they got all the easy ones in 2018. Taking back the Senate has always been an uphill climb for the Democrats, even though there are twice as many Republican seats up this year as there are Democratic seats, but most of the red seats are in quite red states, so the odds of beating a Republican incumbent are pretty slim in most of them.
The current Senate count is 47 Democrats (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats—Bernie Sanders and Angus King), so they’d have to pick up four to have a tie (counting the expected Alabama loss), and five to have a majority, something that was always against the odds. But as of early May, pollsters like Five Thirty-Eight’s Nate Silver and the New York Times’ Nate Cohn now give slight odds in favor of the Democrats taking back the Senate. In part, that’s because Trump’s approval ratings are starting to fall (finally), as he was expected to run primarily on a strong economy, which has now crashed. Many of the swing states also have swing Senate races, including some of those mentioned immediately above, where a falling economy and a falling Trump may help drag down a few Republican Senate incumbents as well.
So the Democrats may take the Senate after all, and of course keep the House, something we’ve dreamed of for three and a half years now, but which seemed just out of reach until Trump’s recent decline.
THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE
For over a year now, I’ve been writing every two to three months about the presidential race, but really only about the Democratic primary, which had a huge number of (mostly quite good) candidates. While Joe Biden was the frontrunner most of the time, I and others thought he was a little fragile, and might lose frontrunner status and in fact did, early this year, just before and during the period when he lost the first three primaries. But he went almost immediately to presumptive nominee when he won the fourth primary, in South Carolina, by a larger than expected margin, and then did better than expected by winning most of the large number of Super Tuesday states a few days later. And he has won virtually every state since then, including some by two-thirds margins where Bernie Sanders won four years ago by two-thirds margins.
I would have guessed that Biden would do about the same as Hillary Clinton did four years ago, which is one reason the general election race has been predicted to be close, at least until the past month or two. But unless Joe Biden is turning out to be a much stronger candidate than Clinton was, which seems unlikely despite his suddenly easy primary victory over Sanders, it’s more likely that Trump is finally imploding, no doubt over the economy and perhaps his handling of the response to the novel coronavirus. Many of us predicted an implosion almost as soon as he took office over three years ago but nothing until now has noticeably dented his support.
Different “experts” will give you different answers as to the number of swing states, but let’s say it’s somewhere between seven and 15. Biden currently leads Trump in all of them. Biden could afford to lose a few and still win the presidency, but Trump has to win them all, and the trend in recent months and weeks is clearly in the blue direction. As of the first week in May, Biden now has enough states in which he has a five percent or greater (that’s five percent beyond the margin of error) lead in the polls to get to 270 electoral votes, so he’d have to drop dramatically for Trump to win.
But they say a month is a lifetime in politics, and we’ve seen, as predicted, that Biden is more than capable of the kind of gaffes that can damage him (although why that doesn’t seem to apply to Trump remains one of the great questions of modern politics). Also, sometime this summer, pollsters will start counting only respondents who “intend” to vote in November, as opposed to just “registered voters,” and that change shifts the numbers one to three percent in favor of Republicans. Remember that in 2016, Clinton was ahead by about two percent in most or all of the upper Midwest states she ultimately lost by less than one percent.
But “energy,” motivation, new voter registration, and the youth vote all point to a bigger than usual turnout of people motivated by, perhaps primarily, dislike of Trump and his policies. 2018 was a pretty big blue wave, especially for a mid-term election, but there were two blue waves in a row in 2006 (Democrats re-took the House and made Pelosi Speaker for the first time) and 2008 (Obama’s election, and Democrats re-taking the Senate). I predict 2020 will be like 2008, and make it two blue wave years in a row.
Democrats (including me) were too complacent four years ago, thinking Clinton had it in the bag. We were relying on polls (which we hadn’t noticed were tightening, especially in the last week, when there was little polling), and then-FBI Director James Comey chimed in with “I found another computer with more of Hillary’s emails” nine days before the election. Comey’s “nothing new to see here” came two days before the election, which may have been too late to undo the damage. This time we are determined not to be so complacent, and although every presidential election year there are a few new organizations founded to do better next time, this year there are more than ever, not just calling swing states, but text-banking, post-carding, and engaging in other new methods of voter persuasion.
Some Democrats fear an “October Surprise,” although I feared that in 2018, and it didn’t happen. Some think Trump will try to cancel the election, or won’t leave office after he loses, but I think the states will hold the election regardless of what Trump says, and virtually the entire country will answer to the newly sworn-in president.
So if the Democrats take the House, Senate and presidency, will this be the end of the Republican Party? Its obituaries have been written prematurely before, and ones for the Democrats as well, but the two major political parties have reinvented themselves several times in the past century or two. For example, the Republican parties of Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump have all been quite different, so while I think Trump damaged the Republican party, and the Democrats may benefit from that for some years (decades?) to come, Americans don’t seem to like one-party rule indefinitely, which explains why they have elected presidents from different parties every four to eight years since FDR (except George H.W. Bush’s single term after Reagan’s two terms).
This year may in some ways be similar to 2008, when George W. Bush was a lame duck, with terribly low approval ratings, and the clear inability to keep the economy from crashing further. It fell to Barack Obama and John McCain in the final months of the campaign to try and come together and develop bipartisan consensus on a rescue plan for the economy, and of the two, Obama emerged as the leader, which may have contributed to his electoral success immediately thereafter.
As far as what effect such a Democratic victory would have on our laws, I’ve long felt that Trump has unreasonably targeted every Obama law and regulation he could get his hands on to reverse, just out of petty, immature spite, but the truth is I’d be happy if Biden and the Democrats reversed as many as possible of Trump’s laws and regulations. We have a lot of repairs to make, domestically and internationally. I’ve always been proud to be an American (like most of us, I assume), and I hate being embarrassed about it, as I am now, and having to apologize for our President. Maybe next year, we can start to resume our natural position as a leader among the world’s nations, instead of the laughing-stock and obstacle to world progress we are now.
Greg Brockbank is a 30-plus-year attorney and civic and political activist, having served for 22 years on the College of Marin Board of Trustees and then on the San Rafael City Council. He is the senior member and immediate past chair of the Marin Democratic Party governing board and has attended 30 state Democratic conventions. For over 20 years, he has provided numerous groups with detailed lists of the contact info for all candidates for Marin’s local offices, and appears as a commentator and election-night co-host on public access television.