When the average political observer looks at California they probably think to themselves; liberal, Democratic, highly ideological. Unlikely to come to mind is regionally divided. But that is exactly what California is. Now with the retirement of California Senator Barbara Boxer this regional divide is coming into focus.
Historically, California’s politics have been dominated by the North. Consider that for the last quarter century both of the state’s US Senators hail from Northern California. Seven of California’s nine statewide elected officials — Sen. Boxer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris, Controller Betty Yee, and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones — call Northern California home. Only Secretary of State Alex Padilla and Treasurer John Chiang, are from Los Angeles, but they never had to run against rivals from the north.
This flies in the face of recent demographic and population trends in the state. Almost two-thirds of California’s population live in the LA-San Diego corridor. LA remains the US’s second largest city and the city’s GDP easily dwarfs San Francisco, the largest city in Northern California. Not that this seems to impact the state’s regional power structure. As soon as Boxer announced she was resigning Attorney General Kamala Harris announced she was running for the seat. Few were surprised by the move and the endorsements and support started rolling in.
No such formidable candidate from Southern California has emerged. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti announced right after Harris he was NOT running. Garcetti’s predecessor, Villaraigosa, openly toyed with a bid for a bid before announcing he did not want to go to DC. This has left SoCal with few options. The only SoCal Democrat to step up to challenge Harris has been Rep. Loretta Sanchez. But her campaign lacks cash to put her name out statewide and she has stumbled out of the gate. First, an email announcing she was running leaked and she had to deny she was running. But soon after she announced anyways. Three days later Sanchez mimicked a Native American war cry at the state party convention. These stumbles and her already steep climb have made Democrats hesitant to endorse her.
SoCal might be able to pin their hopes on another possible contender, Rep. Xavier Becerra. A member of Congressional leadership and sitting in a district that represents downtown LA he has the ability to raise the funds to challenge Harris. In a sign he is interested in the race he reportedly asked delegates at the state convention to not endorse any candidate until the end of the summer. But even if Becerra gets in he would be the underdog in a race that demographics say should tilt his way.
The question has to be asked why? The answer is all about turnout and development. According to University of California, Berkeley historical geographer Gray Brechin, author of “Imperial San Francisco,” it’s about development. San Francisco is a product of the 19th century-it’s dense, “The only city on the West Coast with row houses like Boston or Philadelphia. San Francisco has a culture, historically, of community- and neighborhood-based activism that goes back long before the 1960s.” As a result machine politics developed and flourished in the city. By contrast San Diego and LA are newer, 20th century creations. It’s a vast, melting pot of different cultures, histories and communities. Lacking the same familiarity as NoCal enjoys no SoCal politician has enjoyed being able to build a rival machine.
SoCal’s GOP bent allowed it to somewhat blunt NoCal’s advantage on this front. Many of the state’s best known Republicans come from SoCal-Reagan, Schwarzenegger-have come from San Diego or Orange County. But as the GOP has imploded over the last several years (starting to rebuild at the local level) the Bay Area has gone from dominating Democratic politics to state politics. But again, sheer population argues against the North dominating state politics even if the GOP has shriveled. The answer to this vexing SoCal problem is turnout. Residents in the North tend to be better educated and more homogeneous culturally, politically and economically. This means they are better informed on the issues and more likely to connect ideologically and culturally with their region’s candidates.
By contrast, the South is less affluent, less culturally connected and less wealthy. Boasting most of the state’s recent population growth-immigrants from Asia and Central America-residents are much less informed about politics than the North.
Turnout in recent elections tell such a story. There are over 3.4 million registered voters in the Bay Area and 4.8 million LA. Last November, 1.7 (50%) million votes were cast in the Bay area compared to only 1.5 (31%) million from LA. Even voting by mail does not change this dynamic as Los Angeles County also ranks dead last in the state for voting by mail. This inevitably has an impact in statewide Democratic races. Such an example can be seen in the June 2014 state controller race between former Speaker of the Assembly John Perez (an Angeleno) and Board of Equalization member Betty Yee (a San Franciscan).
Perez, as a former Speaker of the House had a machine to rival little known Yee. He outspent Yee, boasted a stronger turnout operation and connected to his regional culturally. Yet, after all the votes were counted Yee beat him because, you guessed it, turnout in NoCal. Such occurrences should be alarming to any SoCal up and comers. Still, there is still hope a candidate that connects to the region culturally can come to statewide power. In 2016, some observers believe the Presidential election will drive Latino turnout in the South. Further, a strong Latino candidate could potentially expand the electorate.
There is some evidence for this idea. When former LA mayor Villaraigosa was first running for election in 2005 he won with the help of Latio voters. The city’s first Hispanic Mayor, his candidacy helped Latinos make up 26% of the electorate, 4% over their share of registered voters. Without Villaraigosa on the ballot in 2013 Latino turnout dropped to a meager 23%.
All helps explain why the North has historically and continues to be ascendant. But in the end population growth and demographics argue SoCal could see a resurgence sooner rather than later. Both the state Speaker of the House (Toni Atkins) and Senate leader Kevin Leon are from SoCal. And the number of SoCal legislators has been steadily rising since the 2010 Census.
Perhaps inadvertently helping SoCal’s rise is the creation of the top-two primary. Created in 2011 the primary allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the November general election. With the current weakness of the GOP this means a SoCal Democrat could advance to face off against a NoCal pol in the general when turnout would likely be higher.
Ultimately, SoCal’s political time will come. Whether it is in 2016 or beyond population growth argues it must. And as more voters in the region become assimilated into the US’s political culture the power of the region should grow more electorally. Then, NoCal politicians will face the same issue SoCal politicians running statewide face today.