An aerial view of downtown Malibu, Calif., and surrounding neighborhoods. (Doc Searls / CC BY-SA 2.0)

California’s size and complexity make it easy to hide some of the real forces shaping the state this election year.

Sure, California is deep blue, with Democrats in control of all offices. But don’t be misled. The most powerful force in the state — business — isn’t hung up on party labels. No matter what the color of California on the electoral map, there’s green to be made by business in shaping the laws of the Golden State.

The difference between the surface show of politics and what goes on in the backrooms has always intrigued me. Although I enjoy covering the glamour of big campaigns, I know the real story is often found among the lobbyists and other power brokers who control what is really going on.

Such fascinating matters are not part of the June 7 Democratic primary dialogue between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the state’s 548 delegates to the party’s nominating convention in July. All media attention is on their increasingly hot race. Even though Clinton appears to have clinched the nomination, Sanders is campaigning with an intensity more than matched by his supporters, who see themselves in a life-or-death struggle against evil, which they believe is personified by Clinton.

Nor does the influence of business rate a mention in the bland debates of the California U.S. Senate race between Democrats Kamala Harris, the state’s attorney general, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, and three little-known Republicans. Harris and Sanchez are expected to face each other in a November runoff for the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Boxer. The 53 members of the California House delegation are also on the ballot, and Democrats are expected to hold their big majority.

The lobbyists are paying attention to the elections for 80 state Assembly seats and 20 in the 40-member state Senate, offices pretty much unnoticed by most Californians, who think the capital city, Sacramento, is too far away to bother with. But the Capitol and restaurants nearby are where decisions about the state’s greatest problems get made.

Among the issues are climate change, a persistent drought, poverty in large parts of the state contrasting with affluence in Silicon Valley and other places along the Pacific Coast, a decline in the number of college graduates and a coastline under threat of overdevelopment.

These complex matters are decided by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and the women and men they appoint to the boards and commissions that vote on many matters that impact the more than 38 million Californians.

Laurel Rosenhall, who has covered the story first for the Sacramento Bee and now for the excellent website CALmatters, revealed in a CALmatters story last fall how lobbyists corral legislators:

HALF MOON BAY—It’s a lovely place to do business.

Ocean waves crash into rocky cliffs. Pelicans flap along the shoreline. And on the golf resort overlooking it all, a powerful bloc of legislators hit the links recently with donors who paid up to $40,000 for the opportunity to join them.

This was the annual fundraiser benefitting the legislators who call themselves “moderate Democrats.” …

Since 2013, the group’s political action committee has taken in more than $4 million, with nearly one third of that coming from Chevron, PG&E and other oil and gas companies. Other major donors include Wal-Mart, a hospital association and a realtors group. Only 1 percent of the committee’s money came from labor unions.

One example of how the Sacramento gang’s influence reaches through the state is the California Coastal Commission, created by a vote of the people in 1972 to protect the state’s coastline from growing development. Four of the commission’s 12 members are appointed by the governor, four by the Senate Rules Committee and four by the Assembly speaker.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and other members of the paper’s staff have revealed conflicts of interest involving commissioners meeting in private with property owners and developers. The journalists have also reported on contributions from development lobbyists being accepted by some of the commissioners (some of whom are also local elected officials in need of money for their campaigns) and explored the firing of the commission executive director, who favored a close and skeptical look at development projects.

The commissioners must decide whether to approve or turn down hundreds of coastal developments each year, and I’m sure their Sacramento sponsors don’t tell them how to vote on every one. But I’d also bet that the moderate Democrats of Sacramento who appoint them consider the business friendliness of potential appointees.

Other commissions regulate or oversee the health industry, water, the environment, air pollution and much more. Legislative committees write laws on almost every aspect of life and forward them to the Senate and Assembly floors for final votes. Gov. Brown reviews them all, deciding whether to sign or veto them if they reach his desk.

The Hollywood and high-tech crowds fight for a chance to pay thousands for a good table at Democratic film industry events or Silicon Valley fundraisers for a presidential candidate. The same is true of Republicans, although their fundraisers in this thoroughly Democratic state lack the glitter of the Reagan days.

The lobbyists and their corporate employers who shape legislation on climate, conservation, safety, pollution and other life-and-death concerns aren’t interested in celebrity or glitter. They’re simple folk, content with a good restaurant dinner in Sacramento as long as an influential legislator is at the table. For them, the most important elections in California this year are for the Legislature. Their must-attend events are a golfing weekend at Half Moon Bay or a Sacramento fundraiser for a lawmaker who will cast a vote on legislation worth millions to some company.

The business of Sacramento is truly business.


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