In case you missed them: 13 CalMatters stories that captured a state in motion in 2019

This was the year progressive politicos — a vibrant, image-conscious governor and a Democratic “giga-majority” of legislators— took charge of California. The result: an array of new laws pulling the state further to the left, albeit not as far as many leftist advocates had hoped. And the Twitter-pated occupant of the White House remained their convenient nemesis; the state attorney general suited up to battle the Trump administration in court an unprecedented number of times.

In 2019 the workings — or non-workings — of state government helped shape the lives of Californians in ways big (new rent caps and the reclassification of gig workers as employees) and small (bon appétit, it’s now legal to eat your own roadkill).

At CalMatters, we chronicled hundreds of these stories in articles, videos, podcast episodes, newsletter items and interactives. A recap of 2019’s highlights:


California’s attempt to reduce police shootings, explained

Photo of a Black Lives Matter protestor staring at a California Highway Patrol officer at a Sacramento protest following the police shooting of Stephon Clark. Photo by Max Whittaker.
Photo by Max Whittaker

Civil rights advocates have long sought more accountability for law enforcement in California, particularly as police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement have roiled cities nationwide. But even in a Democrat-controlled Capitol, those efforts have historically failed amid objections from law enforcement organizations and their influential unions.

That changed after Sacramento police killed Stephon Clark in his grandparents’ backyard, mistaking his cell phone for a gun. Clark’s death set off huge demonstrations in the capital city and created political momentum. In 2018, California passed laws to make police misconduct records available to the public and to police departments to release body camera footage. And in 2019, the state adopted a tougher legal standard to justify the use of deadly force.

Laurel Rosenhall tracked the struggle to reach a compromise in the podcast “Force of Law,” and also created this explainer.


All too often, California’s default mental institutions are now jails and prisons

Jeffrey Jurgens stood in a cage in an orange jumpsuit, screaming that he was Jesus Christ. From her seat in the Sacramento courtroom, his mother watched through tears.

Joanna Jurgens knew how important it was for the district attorney prosecuting Jeffrey for stealing a car—and the judge deciding his fate—to see the extent of her son’s illness. For years, she had begged judges to steer Jeffrey, who has schizoaffective disorder, into long-term treatment. She knew he did not belong behind bars. But she’d become convinced the criminal justice system was her last hope.

These days, the main path to treatment at a state psychiatric hospital is through jail. After decades of failure to create and fund policies that effectively help people with serious mental illnesses, jails and prisons have become the state’s default mental institutions. Jocelyn Weiner chronicles the issue in her series “Breakdown: Mental health in California” — beginning with this first installment. And Byrhonda Lyons produced this mini-doc, a version of which was featured on the PBS NewsHour.


California’s on fire, unplugged and out of easy answers. So why don’t we…?

Firefighters stand watch by a fire line along Mayacama Club Drive as the Kincade Fire burns in the outskirts of Santa Rosa on Oct. 28, 2019. Photo by Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group
Photo by Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group

The easy calls have been made in dealing with California’s wildfire crisis. We’re clearing brush, spending on firefighters, hastening insurance claims. We’ve tied the pay of utility executives to their companies’ safety records. To save lives — and liability costs — during red flag conditions, we’ve cut power to great swaths of the state.

We’ve spent billions: Rare is the press release from Gov. Gavin Newsom that does not include a litany of wildfire actions. But it hasn’t been enough, and as Californians now face the realities of climate change by the terrified millions, the only choices left are hard vs. hard: Black out even more people. Ban wildland homebuilding. Bury power lines. Build microgrids. Break up the state’s largest utility — the bankrupt one supplying half of the state — and give its aging, spark-spewing equipment to taxpayers or customers or hedge funds or Warren Buffett. Burn nature before it burns you.

So what are our options? Julie Cart and Judy Lin explore several: the pros, cons and political odds. And for background, check out this in-depth primer on California’s worsening wildfires.


Disaster Days: How megafires, guns and other 21st century crises are disrupting California schools

From massive wildfires to mass shooting threats to dilapidated classrooms, the 21st century is disrupting class at a level that is unprecedented for California’s 6.2 million students. Last year, the state’s public schools closed their doors and sent kids home in what appear to be record numbers, mainly as a result of sweeping natural disasters. It was the third significant spike in four years. 

The trend largely tracks the rising frequency and severity of climate-fueled wildfires, with big bumps in 2003 and 2007, the years of San Diego County’s huge Cedar and Witch fires, and then, in recent years, a more sustained but equally dramatic climb with the historic wine country fires and Camp Fire of 2017 and 2018.  Learn more in Ricardo Cano’s series and explore our database:


A Capitol Crime: How a 16-year-old murder reached California’s highest offices

Guard station sits high above over looking a yard San Quentin Prison San Quentin News & general population Photography by Penni Gladstone Must Credit No Sales t~ 415.706.6960
Photo by Penni Gladstone

On Christmas Day 2003, Matthew Sievert, the only child of a single mother and California state worker named Stepheny Milo, was removed from life support. He’d gone out to a Sacramento park the night before to meet an ex-girlfriend, and had been gunned down. He was 19.

The playground where he was ambushed is five miles and a world away from the white-domed Capitol that was his mother’s workplace. His murder, though, would touch not only those halls, but some of California’s best-known political figures.

In the years since the crime, the justice pendulum has swung from a policy of mass incarceration to a view that rehabilitation is a fairer and more farsighted bet. Through that lens, Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to reduce the sentence of one of Sievert’s killers — who also happened to be the brother-in-law of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon — was a study in how we balance pain and redemption, crime and punishment. Read the full narrative by Dan Morain:


“We need the food that we lost” — low-income families still reeling from blackouts

Photo by Anne Wernikoff

Pacific Gas & Electric turned off power to Ana Patricia Rios’ neighborhood in Sonoma County for eight days in October, three at the beginning of the month and five near the end. The mother of three young boys watched twice as nearly all of the food in her refrigerator spoiled. She threw out at least $500 worth of meat, fruit, vegetables, salsas and other food that would have supplied her family with months of meals. “Even if the electricity doesn’t arrive,” she said, “the bills do.”

Across California, low-income households like the Rios family faced hunger and financial crisis as the food in their refrigerators spoiled during October’s unprecedented, deliberate blackouts. CalMatters’ analysis found that one in ten residents and one in eight children in the affected census tracts live below the federal poverty level. Jackie Botts had the details:


The soul-crushing cost of college in California, explained

UC Berkeley, July 24, 2018. Photo by Robbie Short for CALmatters

It’s not your grandparents’—or even your parents’—higher-ed system. A young Californian of the Baby Boomer generation, bolstered by the post-war economic boom and the state’s investment in public higher education, could often emerge from college with little to no debt and a clear path to a living wage and homeownership.

Today’s California students graduate with an average of more than $20,000 in student debt. California offers more generous financial aid than most other states, but gone are the days of taking free college for granted. Studies show many students struggle even to afford food and housing.

How exactly did college costs get so high, and what are policymakers proposing we do about it? Read more in Felicia Mello’s in-depth, fact-filled explainer:


Paging more doctors: California’s worsening physician shortage

Wilma Chesbroe, a patient and long-time friend of Dr. Dan Dahle, sobs and holds hands with the doctor as they joke and reminisce about the many years they spent working together at the Fall River Mill hospital. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Photo by Anne Wernikoff

In a northern California valley stretching under miles of bright blue sky between Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta, Daniel Dahle is known as a godsend, a friend, a lifesaver, a companion until the end. For more than three decades, “Doc” Dahle has been the physician in Bieber, serving a region about the size of five smaller U.S. states.

At 71, Dahle has delayed retirement for years — waiting for someone to take his place.

California is facing a growing shortage of primary care physicians, one that is already afflicting  rural areas and low-income inner city areas, and is forecasted to impact millions of people within ten years. By 2030, the state could be down by as many as 10,000 primary care clinicians. Explore the problem, and potential solutions, in Elizabeth Aguilera’s series:


Who’s coming and who’s going: California in 5 interactive charts and maps

The “California Dream” is a global brand. For more than a century the state has been a magnet for migrants from around the world, and now has the largest foreign-born population of any state in the country.

In the mid-20th century, many new Californians came from states in the Midwest and South. But by the 1990s, immigrants from Latin America and Asia dominated new arrivals. As of 2017, a third of Californians came from another country. As part of our California Dream collaboration, Matt Levin built these interactives showing who comes to California from where, from 1920 to contemporary times.


California says it won’t buy cars from GM, Toyota, others opposing tough tailpipe standards

California state agencies are no longer buying gas-powered sedans — and starting in January, the state will stop purchasing vehicles from carmakers that haven’t agreed to follow California’s clean car rules.

The decision affects General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and multiple other automakers that sided with the Trump administration in the ongoing battle over tailpipe pollution rules. The policy will hit General Motors particularly hard; California spent more than $27 million on passenger vehicles from GM-owned Chevrolet in 2018. Rachel Becker got the scoop as part of her ongoing coverage of California’s tailpipe emissions battle with the Trump administration.


‘The federal government really jacked us’: How Trump’s tax cuts are working out for Californians

Jason Jarvis his wife Jun Cao and their 15 month old son Kellar Jarvis have breakfast at their home on Wednesday morning in Inglewood, California. Assignment for Tax Day story about how California families were impacted in the first year of federal tax changes. The Jarvis' say they were unable to deduct as much of their local property taxes and ended up paying about $2,000 more despite increases in other deductions, such as child care expenses. Photos by Iris Schneider on April 3, 2019
Photo by Iris Schneider

For communications professor Jason Jarvis and his wife, Jun, California just got more expensive. The Inglewood couple, who last year paid $16,000 in state and local taxes, were only able to deduct $10,000 of it from their federal taxes this year — the result of a 2018 tax overhaul pushed by the GOP and President Trump.

“The federal government really jacked us,” Jarvis said. “I don’t have a problem with my tax dollars going toward education, homelessness…But a tax cut for billionaires off my back? That’s too much.”

While millions of California families saw their federal taxes fall in 2019, the Jarvis family is among an estimated 1 million households paying more—some $12 billion more. A new cap on state and local tax deductions disproportionately hit progressive states with high taxes. Read more from Judy Lin:


7 data visualizations: Which presidential candidates are Californians funding — month by month, zip by zip?

The California big-donor money race among presidential candidates, zip code by zip code. Data visualizations by Ben Christopher for CalMatters

Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris spent much of 2019 collecting more itemized contributions from Californians than other presidential contenders — but her share plummeted from a high of 60% in January to a low of 8% in September. By December, she pulled out of the race, citing a lack of funding to continue.

As fall arrived, the single candidate taking the largest portion of those California contributions was President Donald Trump, with 30%. But that doesn’t mean the “Resistance State” has suddenly gone all Trumpy — 70% of contributions went to the array of contenders aiming to oust him.

Ben Christopher breaks down the donor data in these interactive graphics and charts:


California Legislators: Just like you? (2019 edition)

California Capitol, photo by Jeff Turner
Photo by Jeff Turner

There are (still) more white men named James in the California Legislature than African-American and Asian-American women combined. Throw in some white Robs, Bobs and Roberts, and you have a “JimBob” caucus with a membership larger than the number of Republican women, openly gay or lesbian legislators, or women from any party under the age of 40.

California prides itself on diversity, but in many ways state government looks more like the California of 30 years ago than the California of today, as this data analysis illustrates.

In a related story, Elizabeth Castillo reported that when it comes to female lawmakers, California ties Georgia for 20th place. And Matt Levin revealed that at least a quarter of California legislators are landlords, while only one wasn’t a homeowner.


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