Sep 01, 2020
THE BROCKBANK POLITICAL REPORT
Marin's Local Races, The State Ballot Measures, Control of Congress, and Biden v. Trump
Sep 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.
MARIN’S LOCAL NONPARTISAN RACES: CITY COUNCILS AND SCHOOL BOARDS AND SPECIAL DISTRICTS, OH MY!You may recall that Marin’s local nonpartisan races were mostly held in odd-numbered years until the law changed a few years ago to get higher turnout. Many of us thought that was a mistake, because now local candidates have to compete with partisan statewide and even presidential candidates for voters’ time, attention, volunteer help, and donations. The close of filing for the November election was in mid-August, as always, but this election now has a larger number than ever of potential and actual races. (A race shifts from potential to actual when more candidates file than seats available.)
Marin has nine incorporated cities and towns (no real difference) with elected city or town councils, but three of them (Novato, Corte Madera, and Ross) just had council elections last November (for the last time in an odd-numbered year), or this past March, so they do not have scheduled races this November. And among the other six, Tiburon had only the two incumbents (David Kulick and Holli Thier) file for re-election, so it will not have a race on the ballot and the two will be automatically appointed to new four-year regular terms. Uncontested elections are very common in special districts, and somewhat common among school boards, but relatively uncommon in council races, as evidenced by the other five cities all having contested races on the ballot for their city councils.
Sausalito has the largest field of candidates – six – including one incumbent (Joan Cox) and five others: Vicki Nichols (a planning commissioner who has run twice before, and I think will be a favorite this time), Melissa Blaustein (who also ran two years ago), Aaron Singer, Janelle Kellman, and Ian Sobieski.
SAN RAFAEL MAYOR
San Rafael is Marin’s only charter city, and has Marin’s only directly elected mayor, because the charter requires that. Every other city in Marin rotates the mayor’s job yearly among the five elected councilmembers. In San Rafael, incumbent Gary Phillips is stepping down after eight years, and Vice Mayor Kate Colin has long been known to be ready to run to replace him, and is in fact the strong front-runner. At the last minute, another candidate filed, a local shopkeeper named Mahmoud Shirazi, so there is an on-the-ballot race.
SAN RAFAEL DISTRICTS
This is San Rafael’s first election with its new districts, with two seats up this year and the other two up in two years. In District One, which includes the Canal area, only one candidate filed to run for the seat – Maika Gulati, who happens to be the first Hispanic President of the San Rafael School Board. Unopposed, she will start a regular four-year term in December.
District Four, covering the Terra Linda area, is the other seat up this year and is interesting because it features two other San Rafael School Board members (Rachel Kertz and Greg Knell) challenging incumbent councilmember John Gamblin. And there is a fourth member of the same school board, Linda Jackson, who is running unopposed for another term, but may be appointed to Kate Colin’s council seat if Colin wins the Mayor’s election. Jackson is a super-activist, and was a long-time City of San Rafael planner, and would definitely be an outstanding councilmember.
Fairfax has all three incumbents up this year running for re-election – Bruce Ackerman, Barbara Coler, and John Reed, along with two challengers: Joe McGarry and Chance Cutrano. Unless one or more incumbents have suddenly become unpopular and/or there is a sudden issue dividing the town, or a fireball campaigner surprises everyone and sweeps public opinion, incumbents usually win.
Similarly, all three incumbents in San Anselmo are running for re-election – Brian Colbert, Alexis Fineman, and John Wright – along with two challengers: Eileen Burke and Ann Politzer.
Here, only one incumbent is running for re-election – Nancy Kemnitzer – and there are three other new candidates – Steve Block, James Lynch, and Chelsea Schlunt – running for a total of three seats.
SCHOOL BOARDSMarin has 18 school districts (including two of the last six remaining one-room schoolhouse school districts in the state), all of which should be potentially scheduled for trustee elections this year (again, mostly in the November election). But of the 32 or so potential races, only eight districts had more people file for a seat than there were seats available.
MARIN COMMUNITY COLLEGE DISTRICT
Also known as College of Marin, or the COM Board, it nearly always has a race, even when, as in this case, all four incumbents up this year (it’s a rare seven-member board) are running for re-election: Phil Kranenburg, Eva Long, Stephanie O’Brien, and Stuart Tanenberg. They are being challenged by Paul Da Silva and Robbie Powelson. This is still a countywide “at-large” race, although I understand they will be moving to district elections starting two years from now.
MARIN COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION
This board has long elected its board members in individual “area” seats, and in all four areas up this year (it’s another seven-member board), the incumbent filed to run for re-election. Only in Area Four was the incumbent trustee, Robert Goldman, challenged: by Felicia Agrelius, so the others get a “free ride” and one gets a rare (in this office) race.
Novato is having its first election with new trustee areas, and three of the four seats’ incumbents (because existing trustees were assigned to the new areas) filed to run for re-election and were unchallenged. But in the fourth, Trustee Area Three, the incumbent stepped down, and there are two new candidates for this true “open seat” – Desmond Fambrini and Julie Jacobsen.
In San Rafael’s new district areas, one incumbent (Linda Jackson) was unopposed, as mentioned, and the other seat up this year had the incumbent step down (to run for city council instead). The open seat has drawn two new candidates: Gina Daly and Samantha Ramirez. As noted, Linda Jackson may be appointed to the city council if Colin wins the mayor’s race so there could be another empty seat after the election.
This body has seen literally decades of controversy over everything from allegedly unequal funding of its two schools (one all Black, and one, a charter school, mixed), to an Attorney General’s report that concluded the district was segregated, to the current plan to merge the two schools into one school with two campuses. Since one of the schools is a charter school, that would have to change in a merger. Both incumbents up this year have stepped down and there are four new candidates running for the two open seats: Lisa Bennett, Yasmine McGrane, Jennifer Conway, and Alena Maunder.
This is another school district that has faced controversy in recent years, from superintendent turnover to failed parcel tax measures (with another try this November – this one just a renewal). The two incumbents, Leslie Harlander and Karen Loebbaka, are running for re-election, along with three challengers for the two seats: Tiffany McElroy, Mandy Downing, and Brandon Johnson.
SPECIAL DISTRICTSMARIN HEALTHCARE DISTRICT
This is another big, almost-countywide (no Novato or West Marin) district that has had a number of hard-fought controversies in recent decades, but not in recent years. I understand that they, too, will be going to district elections in two years, and many veteran board members stayed on to usher in the new Marin General Hospital wing, along with the replacement for longtime CEO Lee Domanico, who is retiring. And in fact, the two incumbents (two terms each?) are running for another term: Hank Simmonds and Anne Sparkman. But they are being challenged for their two seats by Edward Alfrey, yet another prominent physician (backed by veteran board member Larry Bedard), and Melissa Bradley, who founded Marin’s largest realty company and ran for this seat two years ago.
MUIR BEACH COMMUNITY SERVICES DISTRICT
This tiny body in this tiny community often has spirited elections for board members, and tax measures, and in fact a few years ago held a public election forum at which more than half the district’s voters were present – how’s that for democracy? None of the incumbents are running for re-election this time, and three candidates are running for the two open seats: David Taylor, Ming Hwang, and Paul Jeschke.
TAMALPAIS COMMUNITY SERVICES DISTRICT
Another small CSD, which probably has more than its share of contested board member elections, and this year features all three incumbents – Steffen Bartschat, Steven Levine, and Matthew McMahon – challenged by Mark Tarpey-Schwed.
MARIN MUNICIPAL WATER DISTRICT, DIVISION TWO
This is one of the few special districts in Marin that has long elected its directors by district (they’re now joined by a few new ones), and with an incumbent stepping down (pretty rare: they tend to hang around for decades and continue to get re-elected, usually), there is a true open seat in this Division, with three candidates: Carsten Anderson, Mark Lubamersky, and Monty Schmitt.
MARIN MUNICIPAL WATER DISTRICT, DIVISION FIVE
In the only other Division up this year on this often-controversial board, veteran incumbent Larry Russell is being challenged by Chris Hobbs.
STATE BALLOT MEASURESPROP. 14: STEM CELL RESEARCH FUNDING. This measure authorizes $5.5 billion in state general obligation bonds to fund grants from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which would add to the amount from the original ballot measure that founded and funded the institute. Like all bonds, more money will be paid back over time when interest in included, but I haven’t heard anything bad about the measure.
PROP. 15: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY TAX REASSESSMENTS. Over 40 years ago, California’s landmark Prop. 13 reduced all property taxes, and limited their annual increases, a massive blow to local property tax control that is still controversial today. Most property tax used to be paid by commercial property owners, but now the majority is from residential properties because they at least get re-assessed occasionally, when they’re sold. Commercial properties tend to stay in the same name for decades longer, often a corporate name, specifically to avoid market-rate property taxes. This measure would fix this imbalance by regularly re-assessing commercial properties to market value, while leaving residential properties untouched except after sales, as per Prop. 13. The additional revenue would go to schools and local government budgets.
PROP. 16: AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. Affirmative action, despite varying definitions, was seen for decades as giving a boost in university applications, hiring, and contracting to people of color who had, after all, been treated unfairly for centuries. But the practice was banned (specifically, “quotas”) via ballot measure in the 90s, establishing that there must be no racial preferences. These days, the need for diversity is greater than ever, as is the awareness that affirmative action should be used to try and remedy past discrimination, and this ballot measure would reverse the ban and allow affirmative action once again.
PROP. 17: PAROLEE VOTING. State laws vary in the extent to which they grant parolee and felon voting rights, and currently in California, parolees cannot vote. This measure would restore their right to vote if they’ve completed their state or federal prison terms.
PROP. 18: VOTING AGE. This measure would allow 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election if they would turn 18 before the general election.
PROP. 19: PROPERTY TAX TRANSFERS. Yet another in a long line of measures expanding Prop. 13 (or creating more loopholes, depending on your perspective). This one would allow people age 55 and older, and victims of wildfires and other disasters, to take a lower property tax basis with them when they move to a new home.
PROP. 20: CRIMINAL SENTENCING INCREASES. This measure would expand the list of violent crimes for which there is no early release, adding sex trafficking of a child and felony domestic violence. It would also require DNA collection for those convicted of several types of misdemeanors.
PROP. 21: RENT CONTROL. A few decades ago, about a dozen large cities in California adopted their own rent control ordinances, and the Legislature responded in 1995 with the Costa Hawkins Rent Control Act, limiting cities’ ability in such ordinances to control rents to only buildings built before the Act was passed, and excluded various other building types from rent control, including single-family homes. Rents (and real estate prices generally) continue to be higher than in other states, and tenants are having to pay higher and higher percentages of their income for these rapidly-rising-for-decades rents. This measure is being proposed to repeal the Costa Hawkins Act and allow local governments to pass more restrictive rent control laws, despite the fact that the first-ever statewide rent control law was passed last year which is quite similar to Prop. 21.
PROP. 22: GIG WORKER CLASSIFICATION. California’s recent gig worker classification law, AB5, caused screams from many sectors, but none louder than ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft, and to a slightly lesser extent, DoorDash. They funded this measure to create an exception for them, to allow them continue to classify drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, which AB5 would otherwise force them to do.
PROP. 23: KIDNEY DIALYSIS CLINICS. This measure would increase state regulation of dialysis clinics to, e.g., prevent discrimination based on source of income; it is almost identical to a measure that lost two years ago. This follows an increasingly common pattern of industry workers fighting what they claim are unsafe working conditions and inadequate patient safety, coupled with monopoly and excess profit by owners, through statewide ballot measures after failing in other arenas.
PROP. 24: CONSUMER DATA PRIVACY. This measure would expand California’s consumer privacy law, passed two years ago. It would triple penalties for companies that break laws regarding the collection and sale of children’s private information, and create a state agency to enforce consumer privacy protections.
PROP. 25: CASH BAIL. A 2018 law eliminated cash bail as a requirement to release people from jail before trial. Not surprisingly, the bail bonds industry did not like that and qualified this measure for the ballot to overturn it.
CONTROL OF CONGRESSHOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Immediately after the Democrats flipped the House and took control two years ago, Republicans vowed to win it back this year. I didn’t think then that would happen, and I still don’t, given that Trump is finally starting to fall in the polls, and he seems very likely to take a lot of Republicans with him.
California is a good microcosm, where seven Republican House seats (out of 14) were flipped two years ago, and six of the new Democrats look to be in pretty good shape for re-election. The seventh resigned last year after a sex scandal, and a Republican recently won the special election. But the Democrat is likely to win the seat in November, given the greater Democratic turnout in a presidential election compared to a special election.
Most individual House races don’t do public polling the way Senate races usually do, so we can’t aggregate polls and tell you whether the Democratic majority will be larger (I think yes) and by how much (a dozen or two?), but Democrats have consistently led the “generic poll,” which asks voters whether they’d rather vote for an unnamed Democrat or an unnamed Republican. Democratic “enthusiasm” has consistently been high, motivated primarily by a visceral dislike of Trump, both personally and politically.
When this election cycle started after the 2018 elections, Democrats faced an uphill battle to flip the Senate because even though two-thirds of the seats up are held by Republicans, most of them are in solidly red states, and things would have to fall just right to take the four seats needed for control (the Democrats are short three seats, but they will almost certainly lose their Democrat in Alabama, who won by a fluke in a special election two years ago).
But now, things have shifted in the Democrats’ favor. Battles that looked like they’d be close, now have comfortable Democratic leads. Races thought to be unlikely to win are now neck-and-neck. The Democrats seem likely to win at least five or six seats, if not seven or eight.
ARIZONA: Republican incumbent Martha McSally was appointed two years ago to fill out the rest of John McCain’s term, after just having lost a race for the state’s other Senate seat. The Democratic challenger is retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who is also the husband of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot at a public gathering several years ago. She still struggles to walk and talk, and she and her husband founded an influential gun control organization in response. Kelly leads McSally by over 10 points.
MAINE: Long-time Republican incumbent Susan Collins has long been considered “moderate” because she sometimes talks like she might buck her party and vote with the Democrats, but in the end she virtually never does. Most recently, her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh steeled anti-Collins sentiment more strongly than ever, and her Democratic challenger, former Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, leads Collins by five to 10 points in the polls.
COLORADO: Republican incumbent Cory Gardner won this seat six years ago, and hasn’t done much in six years to improve his standing. And Colorado is not only purple, it has elected mostly Democrats as senators and governors for a couple decades now, so arguably Gardner is a fluke. Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper was a Denver mayor, then governor, and still a folksy populist with good approval ratings, despite a pretty bad campaign for president and earlier saying he had no interest in this Senate seat. But he leads Gardner by five to 10 points.
NORTH CAROLINA: Republican Thom Tillis won this seat six years ago, but has been undistinguished (and unheard of) since then. Even so, many have been surprised to see former state legislator Cal Cunningham take a five to 10-point lead over Tillis in this usually-red-but-turning-swing state.
IOWA: Republican incumbent Joni Ernst won this seat six years ago and is best known for saying she knew how to cut pork because she used to castrate hogs on her family farm. Her Democratic challenger, state legislator Theresa Greenfield, leads Ernst by less than five points.
MONTANA: This very red state always votes Republican in presidential races, but has often had popular Democrats in the Senate and the governor’s mansion, including now. The Republican incumbent is Steve Daines, but the Democratic challenger is Governor Steve Bullock, who spends most of his time dealing with COVID-19 in his role as governor, and is getting good reviews, and the result is a lead over Daines of less than five points.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Republican incumbent Lindsay Graham hadn’t been considered endangered, but probably too many voters watched him turn too abruptly from Trump critic and rival, to shameless sycophant, although now he’s starting to distance himself from Trump a bit. The Democratic challenger is Jaime Harrison, a Black attorney and former chair of the state Democratic Party. Some polls show him leading Graham, and the race is considered a toss-up.
GEORGIA: The Republican incumbent is David Purdue, yet another little-known Republican in what is perhaps surprisingly rapidly becoming a purple swing state. The Democratic challenger is Jon Ossoff, who three years ago came out of nowhere to raise $26 million for a special House race, and most consider this race a toss-up.
GEORGIA-SPECIAL: Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson resigned from his seat at the end of last year, and the governor appointed a wealthy businesswoman, Kelly Loeffler, who now has to win in November to finish out the full term. But she quickly got into trouble earlier this year when she bought and sold stocks based on information she received in a classified Senate briefing on COVID-19, and many people consider that illegal insider trading. The format of the election is unusual: all candidates will be on the ballot in November, including Doug Collins, the Republican Trump wanted appointed last year and the Democrats include Rev. Raphael Warnock (the head of MLK’s old church) and Matt Lieberman (Joe’s son). If no one gets over 50 percent (which appears likely at the moment), the top two, regardless of party, will face a run-off on January 5, 2021. It’s hard to predict this one without knowing the matchup but some people say this race is a toss-up with polls of hypothetical matchups showing Doug Collins most likely to beat a Democrat.
In sum, there’s a Senate race in which the Democratic challenger has over a 10-point lead, which I’d consider a slam dunk, and three others where the Democratic challenger has a five to 10-point lead, which I’d call very likely indeed. Then there are three more still where the Democratic challenger has a less than a five-point lead, but I’d still call them more likely to win than lose, especially if Trump keeps going down, which I think he will do. Finally, there are three other races that are considered toss-ups, but I think may be slight favorites by election day if current trends continue. And there were some states that Democrats had hoped they could win, and may have even been close in the polls at some point, but in which the Republican incumbents now have narrow leads: Kentucky, Texas, and even Kansas. Although most pundits and poll aggregators now say the Democrats are likely to have a one or two-seat margin, I’m more optimistic and give them a three or four-seat margin.
BIDEN V. TRUMPMany Democrats, including me, didn’t think at first that Trump would even be a serious candidate, much less the Republican nominee, much less win the presidency. He was just “interesting” enough in a large field of primary candidates who were too much alike, and that gave him a slim lead almost wire-to-wire, until, as I predicted in December 2015, that he would indeed be the nominee.
But virtually no one I know saw him winning (although some now claim to have predicted it), and we all then thought that he would be a disaster from day one (which he has been), but who would have predicted that he would surround himself with people arguably even worse than he was and is (with nearly all of them certainly unqualified). We thought his already-low approval ratings would drop far and fast, but they didn’t, and in fact now he’s about as high as he’s ever been, and nothing seems to drop them further (despite scandals aplenty), until this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crash and skyrocketing unemployment.
As a result, Trump has seen Joe Biden’s narrow lead in the polls grow into a surprisingly big one (high single digits or low double digits, far larger than Hillary Clinton’s ever was), in part because Biden sailed easily and uneventfully through the primary races (after he lost the first three), had a very good Democratic convention, and gave a very good acceptance speech, taking away the argument Trump had presumably hoped to use about Biden being too old and feeble for the job.
Those of us with scabs under our chins (from our jaws hitting the floor so often) are still amazed at how Trump seemingly doubles down whenever he gets called on a ridiculous, racist, and/or blatantly unconstitutional executive order, seemingly to distract voters from his last gaffe (in most cases less than 24 hours earlier), while simultaneously delivering the required red meat to his base.
I repeated throughout last year and earlier this year that I worried that Joe Biden was too fragile a frontrunner, and we needed someone with a bolder and more progressive agenda, like Sanders or Warren, because Trump was eminently beatable. Well, Trump seems more beatable now than ever, and one side of me misses the chance to get a real progressive in there, who could also have beaten Trump. But now I’ve concluded that Joe Biden is exactly what most Democrats (and most voters) need now – a calm, competent, reassuring uncle who won’t rock the boat too much, and will repair much or most of Trump’s damage, and restore our frayed international relations, and with any luck we’ll get a few new progressive laws and policies passed. The real fun may begin after 2024, when President Kamala Harris or someone else takes office.
Trump may yet ultimately do what he planned four years ago when he thought he’d lose, which is to start his own TV network; his presidential campaign was just to build his brand and name recognition. That is, if he stays out of jail, which he may not be able to do, given Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who will shortly have Trump’s tax returns, and New York State Attorney General Letitia James, who is also investigating and, according to some, very likely to indict and try Trump on a variety of matters, some of which occurred before Trump became president, and maybe even some based on activities occurring while he was president.
Many friends fear an October Surprise, but Trump didn’t create one two years ago, when he knew the Democrats were very likely to win the House, and what could he possibly do to make up the amount he’s behind in the polls? Whatever it may be, the public may well be very likely to see through it.
Others fear that Trump will refuse to vacate the office, and/or leave the White House, but despite the fact that Biden tweets don’t have nearly the reach of most of Trump’s, he had a tweet that exceeded by a factor of ten Trump’s most re-tweeted tweet. It was in response to Trump’s suggestion that he might not leave (if he feels the election was rigged, and his supporters don’t let him), with Biden adding the people will decide the election, and that the Secret Service is quite capable of removing trespassers from the White House.
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.