PODCAST: California's 'political earthquake'

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In the past five years, California has experienced a little known ‘political earthquake’ of sorts. City politics and those who hold local office have dramatically changed and this has affected politics throughout the Golden State.

In his Decade in Review, Robb Korinke, member of Grassroots Lab, outlined some of this ‘earthquake’ with KCBS Radio on Monday’s “The State of California.”
He said that not that long ago, California was a Republican state, which has since changed dramatically.

“Ten years ago, I started tracking the 500 cities in the state, which have nominally non-partisan mayors and council members,” he said. “Historically, it’s been a bucked trend that these local, elected officials as recently as five years ago, a plurality of them were Republicans statewide.”

But beginning in 2016, it started to change, Korinke said, saying that ‘the bottom fell out.’ When he started to track the data ten years ago, he said Republicans had a stable lead over Democrats by a couple of percentage points, where both of them were in the low to mid 40s for five to six years.

Korinke said that with each successive election cycle in 2016, 2018 and 2020, there has been a collective loss of hundreds of offices across the state. He attributes the shift to three elements.

“One is, there have been some structural changes to how cities hold their elections that have come to the fore in the last four or five years,” he said. “One is a state law that compelled cities to ensure that their local elections coincided with state-wide elections.”

Korinke said this had a particularly large impact in Los Angeles and Marin counties, as well as in the Central Valley.

“You had a large number of cities (probably 150 or more cities in the state) that used to have elections in odd years,” he said, adding that they were very low turnout elections. “They favored an older and more conservative electorate. Those cities have now all consolidated their elections, we call it, that have favored a younger, kind of more progressive turnout.”

He said there have also been about 150 cities that moved to district-based elections, which were driven by lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act. It led to more people of color being elected, with younger and more progressive candidates who run in very small elections where less money is needed to run and there are more neighborhood and community-run elections.

Second, Korinke pointed to a “macro political phenomenon,” where there seemed to be a stable relationship of the two parties at the local level for years, until 2016, when it is “impossible to separate the Trump era and seeing that as a marker.”

“There’s been a lot of local organizing by left-leaning and progressive groups that have been very successful, with groups like Indivisible and Run for Something, groups that sprung up within weeks of Trump’s election in 2016,” he said. “Their plan was to engage locally and indeed to run for local offices, and that started to bear fruit.”

Lastly, Korinke points to the issues that have driven the California electorate, even at the top of the ticket, from housing, homelessness, civil rights and police reform to cannabis.

“Those issues have started to merge with issues that are very much local issues,” he said. “[It’s been a] tremendous awakening of California voters to holding local officials accountable, but also engaging at a level of government where they will see results there.”