There were three kinds of initiatives this year: those designed to boost conservative turnout, liberal initiatives a step or two ahead of the dysfunctional, overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, and bond measures desperately trying to paper over the state's inability to fund infrastructure.
The result: a hodgepodge of Bush- and Obama-oriented results with the only certainty being that the state is going to keep hurtling into ruinous and potentially catastrophic debt.
This being California, of course, the initiative that got the most attention was actually a Rove-ian throwback, a wedge issue with little impact on the fiscal health of the state — Proposition 8. That's the one that was intended to protect Adam and Eve from the horrors of opening their mailbox and finding a wedding invitation from Adam and Steve. The campaign to ban gay marriage began about 15 seconds after the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that gay marriage was, in fact, a state constitutional right.
Proponents of 8 — the Mormon and Catholic churches figured heavily in that group — thought they had a clear, if not easy, path to victory. Even in California, gay marriage doesn't get good polling numbers, and the signature-gathering campaign for ballot qualification was, as these things go, a breeze. But they were stunned by two setbacks at the beginning of the campaign:
The first was courtesy of California Attorney General Jerry Brown (yup, the former and perhaps future governor). Using his statutory authority to title and summarize ballot propositions, Brown dumped all the "defense of marriage and tradition" language and decided it would go on the ballot as, "The Elimination of the Right to Marriage."
Then, a series of polls over the summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times showed Proposition 8 headed to a crushing defeat.
Alarmed, 8 supporters went nuclear at the end of the summer with one of the most ominous, frankly bigoted ads you're ever going to see in an American election. That's the one ending with a pomaded, jubilant, red-faced and hoarse San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, shouting into a microphone Howard Dean-style, "Like it or not, it's gonna to happen." For about a month, it was impossible to turn on a television in California without seeing it.
It was a fantastically successful "opening argument." The polling gap closed to just a few points. Follow-up ads hammered home one point in particular: if gays get married, little Johnny was going to hear all about "gay marriage," i.e., sex, in the second grade.
Meanwhile, Brown's well-intended move became an albatross — a self-inflicted albatross, if you will — around the neck of the "No on 8" campaign. They focused on that point — "elimination of rights" — with a singleness of purpose.
In a series of television ads — that's the field of battle in a California election — the California Superintendant of Public Instruction, the virtually unknown Jack O'Connell, claimed that, shucks, no, gay marriage had nothing to do with public education. Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, probably the most popular elected official in the state, talked about how important it was not to endorse discrimination. The actor Samuel L. Jackson, in non-Snakes on a Plane mode, tried to link Proposition 8 to World War II-era internment camps for Japanese-Americans, miscegenation laws and anti-Armenian discrimination. (The Armenian-American community is a major player in politics in the Central Valley.) Cuddly, pointedly hetero senior citizen couples with gay offspring were enlisted to look into a camera and say they just wanted to see their son or daughter get married.
The ads barely mentioned marriage and actual gay people were nowhere to be found. It was a misleading and uninspired campaign, bespeaking a complete lack of confidence that voters would actually support gay marriage if they knew that that's what they were doing.
Voters punished the bloodless campaign by endorsing 8 by a four-point margin. The most brutal fact for 8 opponents to reconcile is that Los Angeles County, the largest county in the state and one of the most reliably Democratic, backed 8. Exit polls show that black and Hispanic voters, more often churchgoers, and many of whom also backed Obama, were the proximate cause of 8's defeat. To put it another way, if Los Angeles County voters had spurned Proposition 8 at the same rate at which they backed Barack Obama, Proposition 8 would have been crushed.
The initiative faces a court challenge by the now traditional army of lawyers that descends on California on Election Day and tries to sort out the mess that the initiative process leaves us with every two years. They're going to argue that the initiative contradicts other parts of the state constitution, and that it tries to do too many things — California requires ballot initiatives to have a single, clear purpose.
It remains to be seen whether the fundamental "right to marry," passed by 4-3 margin in state court, will hold up.
Also on the wedge-issue docket, California voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 5, which would have declared a ceasefire in the Drug War, turning the state's criminal justice system away from punishingly expensive and ineffective incarceration of non-violent drug offenders and towards rehabilitation and education. Californians may have helped to elect a black president, but for black inmates (the largest ethnic group in California prisons) doing drug time, life remains terrible.
The biggest and most cynical "Bush"-style victory for the Republicans was Proposition 11, a "non-partisan" redistricting plan. It was approved by a small margin.
In terms of the national picture, what you need to know about this is nothing: Proposition 11 doesn't change redistricting rules for congressional seats, so the California House delegation will continue to be overwhelmingly Democratic.
For state legislative districts, "government auditors" will nominate a pool — not unlike a jury pool — of potential representatives to a redistricting commission of five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents. Republicans are a shrinking minority in the state, so this plan gives them equal footing and a huge advantage over the status quo. If the plan rings a bell, it should. The requirement that both parties strongly support reapportionment is already written into the state constitution in budgetary matters: It's what's destroyed the state's financial integrity over the last thirty years.
That was the "Bush" half of the results from Election Day.
The "Obama" half produced some enormously practical change, and because this is California, the changes aren't just about California:
Voters approved Proposition 1A, a bond issue which provides most of the money for the construction of high-speed rail — think bullet trains in Japan, the TVG in France — between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Besides making tons of environmental sense — the San Francisco—Los Angeles air corridor is one of the busiest in the world — it also amounts to perhaps the largest single jobs project in the country right now.
You hear people tossing around estimates like, "It'll be running in 2018 and cost $50 each way," so adjusting for political inflation, figure 2023 and $100. A lot of it depends on which transportation bosses show up: the ones who rebuilt freeways in Los Angeles in the blink of an eye after the Northridge earthquake, or the ones who are still working on rebuilding the eastern span of the Bay Bridge 19 years after the Loma Prieta quake.
Proposition 2 will end some of the worst abuses of factory farming. It's going to require every major agribusiness outfit in the country to rethink how it handles its animals, and given the tendency to standardization in the industry, will probably affect places like Arkansas and Nebraska as much as it affects California.
A third wedge-issue initiative, Proposition 4, was the latest in a series of attempts by anti-abortion activists to require parental notification for teenage girls seeking abortions. It failed.
Still, the passage of Proposition 8 has embittered many Californians and perhaps given us a peek at some of the disappointment this may inevitably cause. With President-elect Obama soon to be dealing with filibustering Republican senators and a court system stacked with movement conservatives, it's going to be a bumpy ride.