California: Where Democrats Can Be Democrats

When friends and political analysts complain that Democrats have become more conservative than in past generations, I always have to ask -- How would they know?

Democrats have not controlled the national agenda for decades. Sure Clinton and Carter had nominal majorities in Congress for a couple of years, but GOP filibusters killed progressive bills repeatedly, forcing bipartisan deals to pass any legislation.

Even during the Great Society, Johnson, like Truman before him, faced Dixiecrat alliances with the GOP that defeated chunks of his legislative agenda with filibusters. You have to go back to Roosevelt and the New Deal years for a time when Democrats had uncontested control of the agenda -- not coincidentally the exact time most Democratic nostalgics invoke for when "Democrats were Democrats." The filibuster in the Senate creates the grand confusion in American politics of what policies each party really has, since they can never fully enact them.

My contrarian view is that Democrats are more liberal than they were a generation ago. There are just fewer of them. So policy has moved to the right in many areas.

To prove that point, the best place to look is California, where Dems took control of all three branches of government in 1998 and do not face filibusters, except on budget and tax issues where the GOP maintains a veto due to post-Prop 13 rules. (Ironically, at the federal level, the budget is the one place protected from filibusters, the reason Clinton could pass his progressive 1993 tax bill and Bush could push through his regressive 2001 tax plan.)

So what's been the result in California? An overflow of groundbreaking legislation on behalf of unions, the environment, abortion rights, gay rights, consumers and renters.

The marquee-level legislation that has made the national radar is impressive enough.

• In the face of Bush's indifference to global warming, California passed standards for cars to fight CO2 emissions that, because of size of the state's market, will force Detroit to redesign their cars nationwide in response.

• California also became the first state to mandate paid leave for new parents or those caring for a sick relative. It's only six weeks of pay, but it's a start that can be expanded and sets a precedent for national paid leave.

• And addressing the shame of our agricultural system, California has enacted new rules to mandate binding arbitration to assure that farmworkers voting to unionize get a contract to raise their living conditions. This is a crucial continuation of the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

But those high-profile bills are only the tip of the iceberg. The last few years have seen a torrent of legislation that in its sheer volume shows the issues that could be addressed if the veto by the GOP could be removed from national legislation.

On education, the state has increased spending on public schools by $9.1 billion, a 39% increase in three years, while they have tightened supervision of charter schools to assure local oversight.

On consumer rights, the state has doubled to 60 days the time landlords must give tenants before displacing them. And with corporations seeking to replace court-enforced rights with private "arbitration" courts, California Dems pushed through rules that prohibit firms from the current practice of charging consumers for the costs of a winning company's fees and barred arbitrators from handling cases involving companies with which they have any financial interests.

On health care, the state has passed some of the toughest HMO reforms in the nation, passing 21 bills giving Californians new health care rights, including:

• the right to appeal to a new Department of Managed Care, the first state agency in the country devoted solely to improved managed care.

• HMOs are now barred from forcing doctors to take more patients than they can handle, while patients now have the right to know if their doctor has settled multiple malpractice claims.

• Insurance providers are now prohibited from charging policy holders higher co-payments and deductibles for maternity services than for other hospital services

California passed four key abortion rights laws this year alone:

• Addressing the increasing shortage of trained providers, it became the first state in the nation to require that all accredited medical schools offer abortion training.

• To protect providers from violence, the state passed tough new privacy protections for the personal information of providers.

• Medical professionals are now required to provide any female rape victim emergency contraception upon request and, more generally, nurses as well as doctors have the right to prescribe the abortion pill mifepristone.

• To guard against any ruling by the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade was written into law in the state.

On gay rights, the state passed one of the most comprehensive domestic partners bills, including rights to hospital visitation, health benefits for partners of state employees, unemployment benefits if one has to relocate to be with a domestic partner, and the right to use sick leave to care for a partner or their child.

But nothing marks the changes in California with Democratic power more than the avalanche of new labor legislation passed. Along with the farmworker legislation, these provisions include:

• a return to daily overtime pay for any work beyond eight hours per day;

• increased unemployment benefits and allowing students and others who work part-time to qualify as long as they cannot find the part-time work they need;

• allowing state government union members to vote to collect dues -- i.e. create a union shop -- for all employees covered by a union contract;

• making it illegal to discharge, discriminate or take disciplinary action against an employee or applicant for lawful non-workplace activities;

• Extending state overtime laws to the construction, drilling, logging, and mining industries.

• creating the highest civil fines for workplace safety and health violations in the nation.

• limiting an employer's ability to adopt or enforce a policy requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace.

• mandating that employers reasonably accommodate employees who wish to breastfeed at work, including increased break time and privacy.

• requiring that janitorial contractors and subcontractors that are awarded contracts retain, for a period of 60 days, current employees of the previous contractor and retain them indefinitely if their work is "satisfactory."

In fact, the legislative list would be even more impressive if Gray Davis had not vetoed some significant legislation passed by the legislature, such as mandating press access to prisoners, online voter registration, even tougher limits on private arbitration, restrictions on employer rights to monitor email, and providing drivers licenses to undocumented workers. And larger budget items such as universal health insurance still face the veto of state Republicans on budget matters.

But the impressive list of progressive legislation passed in California does highlight how misguided is rhetoric that says there is little difference between the parties. That rhetoric leads many progressives to waste their efforts on marginal third party efforts or avoid electoral politics altogether, rather than analyzing the real constraints of politics when the parties are deadlocked and Senate filibusters force compromises on any party without 60+ Senators.

There are an impressive number of progressive Democrats in office at the national level. What they need to succeed are additional numbers elected.

Nathan Newman is a union lawyer, longtime community activist, a vice president of the NYC National Lawyers Guild and author of Net Loss [Penn State Press] on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email or see

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