Your guide to California policy and politics
BY Ben Christopher September 14, 2022
Presented by Health Net and Association of California Water Agencies

In big California campaigns, no room for debate

As Election Day approaches, you’re likely to spot Gov. Gavin Newsom popping up in plenty of television ads. You’ll see state controller candidate Malia Cohen on her various social media feeds. Attorney General Rob Bonta will be busy attending plenty of press conferences.

But what are the odds that voters will catch any of these Democrats at a televised political debate? Don’t bet on it.

That’s over the strenuous objections of their three Republican opponents and the state GOP. For weeks, controller candidate Lanhee Chen has been calling on Cohen — sometimes accompanied by a dancing chicken — to meet him on the debate stage. 

On Tuesday, two other GOP candidates for statewide office joined the call. State Sen. Brian Dahle, who is running a long-shot campaign to unseat Newsom, cheered on Fox 11 anchor Elex Michaelson after the reporter offered to moderate a gubernatorial debate. Two hours later, attorney general candidate Nathan Hochman challenged Bonta to not one, but three debates — at minimum.

The offers, demands and feathered mascots don’t seem to have swayed any of the Democrats. Newsom’s campaign reportedly turned Michaelson’s offer down. Bonta’s campaign met Hochman’s tweet with deafening silence. And after my colleague Sameea Kamal reached out to Cohen’s team, she got a very definitive thanks, but no thanks.

  • Cohen campaign: “Cohen does not take orders from the Republican operatives who put Trump in power and have now placed their bets on Lanhee Chen.”

2022 Election

Your guide to the 2022 general election in California

There’s no mystery why a Democrat running for statewide office in California wouldn’t be interested in going head-to-head with their opponents.

The conventional wisdom in electoral politics: If you’re already ahead, don’t do anything that might give voters a reason to reconsider. And in California, a Democrat facing a Republican in a statewide race is automatically the presumed frontrunner. A few quick facts: The last time a GOP candidate beat a Democrat in a race for statewide office was 2006. Back then Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 8 percentage points. This year the gap is 23 percentage points. 

  • Counterpoint, offered by Hochman in a press release: No matter the electoral odds in a race “no candidate should feel entitled to a free ride to an election.”

In Monday’s newsletter, CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn explained that California law might consider the student debt forgiveness offered by the Biden administration as taxable income — in effect, taxing borrowers for the debt they no longer own. Mikhail asked the state’s tax authorities to look into it but hadn’t heard back. On Tuesday, he got a response:

  • California Tax Franchise Board spokesperson Andrew LePage: “The student loan debt forgiveness would be taxable in California.”

The question now is what the Biden administration or California lawmakers want to do about it. The two leading Democrats in the Legislature — Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins — have vowed to “make the relief tax exempt” before next year’s tax filing season.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Thursday, California had 10,329,995 confirmed cases (+0.01% from previous day) and 94,558 deaths (+0.2% from previous day), according to state data now updated just once per week on Thursdays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 79,697,832 vaccine doses, and 72.1% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1 Abortion on the ballot

Pro-choice protestors rally in front of the State Capitol on May 14, 2022. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters

From CalMatters politics reporter Alexei Koseff:

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in June, access to the procedure has become a political hot button as states sort out how to respond to the decision. The heat was turned even higher on Tuesday when Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, unveiled legislation that would ban abortion nationally after 15 weeks — an announcement with the potential to ripple all the way to California in the November election.

The bill is unlikely to go far in the current Democratic Congress, though Graham vowed that it would get a vote if the GOP wins back the House and the Senate this fall. Rather, the senator is trying to give Republicans a unifying campaign message to counter Democratic efforts in Congress to write abortion protections into federal law.

  • Graham at a Capitol Hill press conference: “After they introduced a bill to define who they are, I thought it’d be nice to introduce one to define who we are.”

But his proposal seems to have had the opposite effect; many of his own colleagues quickly distanced themselves from the plan, while Democrats immediately latched onto it as further evidence of a Republican “war on women.” 

Within hours, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has pushed to make California a “sanctuary” for abortion access as other states ban the procedure, was fundraising off the bill in an email with the subject line “Lindsey Graham.”

On Tuesday, Newsom also launched a state website with information including how to find an abortion provider, where to get help paying for the costs and what legal rights exist for people who are traveling from outside California for an abortion.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, public polling has found that abortion rights remains as popular as ever in California.

Emboldened Democrats are increasingly leaning into their defense of abortion in campaign messaging to limit their losses in the November election.

Just this week, three California Democrats in battleground districts unveiled new ads focusing on abortion rights: Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine; Will Rollins, who is running to unseat Republican Rep. Ken Calvert in Riverside County; and Paula Villescaz, a candidate for a Republican-leaning state Senate seat near Sacramento.

Supporters of Proposition 1, a November ballot initiative that would enshrine abortion rights in the California constitution, called Graham’s bill “despicable” but “no surprise.”

  • Sen. Atkins and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California President Jodi Hicks, in a joint statement: “California will not be bullied by right wing extremists looking to chip away at our fundamental rights.”

2 Bad rap?

Photo illustration by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters, iStock

When Gary Bryant Jr. was put on trial for the murder of a man in Antioch in 2014, prosecutors set out to convince the jury that the 28-year-old had a “criminal mindset.”

Exhibit 1: Bryant’s own rap lyrics.

An Antioch police officer testified that when Bryant, a local rapper from nearby Pittsburg, referred to himself in song as “geeked up,” that was code for packing firearms. Likewise, his plans to “lay a demo” referred to an intent to shoot someone. 

Bryant and an expert hired by his lawyer Evan Kuluk disputed those translations (“geeked up” meant under the influence and “lay a demo” referred to recording music, they said). No matter, Bryant was found guilty of first-degree murder. 

As CalMatters justice reporter Nigel Duara explains, a bill sitting on Gov. Newsom’s desk would put new restrictions on when and how prosecutors can use a defendant’s “creative expression” in court.

In theory, the term “creative expression” encompasses a lot. But nationwide, prosecutors tend to focus on one type of art form above others: Rap music. 

As Nigel notes, researchers in Virginia found roughly 500 cases of lyrics introduced in state or federal trials. Almost all of them were rap. In Contra Costa County, a clerk in Kuluk’s office trawled through county court records in trials that went to appeal and found 13 examples. All the lyrical evidence came from rap songs. Of the 13 defendants, 10 were Black and three were Latino.

More California criminal justice news:

3 End of a COVID era

A man, who did not want to be identified, swabs himself for COVID-19 at a testing site at the Long Beach Airport on Jan. 11, 2022. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

Starting this Saturday, unvaccinated hospital nurses, elementary school teachers, homeless shelter workers and dental hygienists will no longer be forced to get tested for COVID-19 once per week.

That’s according to a revised order issued by the California Department of Public Health on Tuesday afternoon. 

Since September of last year, the state has required workers in designated high-risk settings, such as health care centers, schools and congregate facilities, have either been required to get vaccinated or get tested at least once per week.

It’s yet another example of the state easing up on some of its last remaining COVID-era policies. Starting on Monday, the department also stopped reporting new cases and deaths twice a week, switching instead to a once-per-week schedule.

The change in testing policy — the latest in a long-term shift in COVID strategy — is a product of both good news and bad news, Department of Public Health director Tomás Aragón said in a statement. The good news is that the majority of workers in most high-risk settings are now vaccinated.

  • The bad news, said Aragón: “Weekly testing of unvaccinated groups is no longer slowing the spread as it did earlier in the pandemic due to the more infectious Omicron variants.”

The department stressed that “the state’s vaccination and booster requirements for employees in healthcare, correctional health, and adult residential settings remain in effect.” The state will leave it up to each employer to verify who is and isn’t up-to-date on their shots. 

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CalMatters Commentary


CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: In what’s becoming a California political trend, a newly signed law to regulate wages and working conditions in fast food restaurants is being challenged by the industry via a ballot measure.

Misguided measure: A bill that seeks to limit contract labor by imposing onerous restrictions on small businesses that provide services to the University of California is unnecessary and harmful, write Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine, the co-chairpersons of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education.

Other things worth your time


Some stories may require a subscription to read

California’s cannabis “black market is booming in plain sight” // Los Angeles Times

California barely avoided heatwave blackouts: Win or wake-up call?  // Sacramento Bee

Reparations advocates ask California governor to veto bill // Associated Press

Former Tijuana soccer star charged with human smuggling // San Diego Union-Tribune

Opinion: California’s ham-handed new rules for fast-food industry // Washington Post

Evacuations ordered as mudslides hit San Bernardino County // The Sun

A first: Gay and bisexual men less than half of new SF HIV cases // Bay Area Reporter

Aggressive northern California wildfire damages more buildings // New York Times

Cops say Insta post may have led killers to rapper PnB Rock // Daily Beast

After regulators lose case, California’s power to police water in doubt // Sacramento Bee

This developer wants to build a 2,300-Unit project in a NIMBY Stronghold // Reason

Teens still love Snapchat. But its business is struggling to grow up. // Washington Post

Fed up: New San Francisco poll finds pervasive gloom // San Francisco Chronicle

A wealthy O.C. insider fenced off public land in Newport Beach // Los Angeles Times

See you tomorrow

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