This is a tale of coattails. The coattails of an 800 pound gorilla known as Proposition 13.
In 1978, support for Proposition 13 swept 17 new legislators — nicknamed “Prop 13 Babies” — into office. It was clear, at the time, that Proposition 13 had very long coattails.
Over the years, the professional political class has tried to downplay the influence of Proposition 13 on electoral politics, even though polls show that it would pass by the same two-thirds margin as it did in 1978. Political consultants have advised candidates, in all but the most left-leaning districts, to pay lip service to Proposition 13, but then to move on to other issues. Few candidates have been willing to make the defense of Proposition 13 the centerpiece of their campaigns.
The thinking that Proposition 13 really doesn’t matter to today’s voters has been turned on its head by the recent results from the Special Election in the 45th Assembly District, located in the Los Angeles suburbs in the southwest San Fernando Valley.
When Rep. Bob Blumenfield resigned in the middle of his term to take a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, voters chose as the top two candidates for a Nov. 19 runoff a self-described pro-business Democrat and a Republican who pledged to defend Proposition 13 against efforts by majority Democrats in the Legislature to destroy its taxpayer protections.
Virtually no one gave Susan Shelley, a socially moderate, fiscally responsible Republican, a chance. (In the interest in full disclosure, she was supported by the Howard Jarvis taxpayers Association PAC.) The 45th Assembly District voter registration shows 49 percent Democrats and 25 percent Republicans. Last year, the district gave President Obama 63 percent of its votes and Sen. Feinstein 67 percent. The California Target Book, which applies professional analysis to each contested legislative district, called it a “safe Democratic district,” and the big money flowed to the Democrat.
Shelley, an articulate, informed and energetic candidate, was not deterred. She understood and shared the concerns of her community, where homeowners feel threatened by efforts in the Legislature to make it much easier to increase property taxes and other charges and levies on taxpayers.
She adopted the slogan “Protect Proposition 13” and pushed that message — almost to the exclusion of other positions — in every speech and political advertisement. She alerted voters to the fact that the Democrats, who now have an overwhelming majority in the Legislature, are pushing bills that would severely undercut Proposition 13’s protections for taxpayers.
On Election Day, the political establishment was rocked by the result. Shelley trailed Democrat Matt Dababneh by less than 200 votes with nearly 3,000 late-arriving ballots still to be counted.
When asked by the Associated Press to comment on election results and voter concerns about Proposition 13, several spokesmen for legislative Democrats scoffed at the idea that Prop. 13 is at risk because of their efforts. But this simply isn’t true. Seven bills backed by Democrats are designed to do one thing, and one thing only; to circumvent the protections contained in Proposition 13 so they can vacuum out the contents of taxpayers’ wallets. If they don’t intend to increase the burden on taxpayers, why would they introduce and support this legislation in the first place?
The latest ballot count shows that the Democrat pulled out a very narrow victory. Some will say that the close result of this David and Goliath contest has little meaning for other elections. After all, they will rationalize, it is typical in special elections for turnout to be low, and anything can happen. This overlooks the fact that Dababneh is an attractive candidate himself, he outraised Shelley by 10 to one, and was running in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. That he was barely able to squeak by in spite of having every advantage is the direct result of a high quality, courageous candidate harnessing the power of Proposition 13. In next year’s regularly scheduled elections, candidates who refuse to fully and enthusiastically commit to preserving Proposition 13 better be looking over their shoulders.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.