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Opinion | Just How Liberal Is California? The Answer Matters to Democrats Everywhere.

A contest emblematic of the California divide is unfolding in Los Angeles. From a crowded field of mayoral candidates, the two most likely to advance offer a stark contrast: Representative Karen Bass, a stalwart liberal embraced for both her politics and her background in community organizing, and the billionaire developer Rick Caruso, who has sounded the familiar refrain that it’s time for a businessman to clean up the failures of the political class. In a bow to the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, Mr. Caruso, best known for his high-end shopping malls, recently changed his registration from no party preference to Democrat — even though the race is nonpartisan. For her part, Ms. Bass has called for freeing up more police officers for patrol (and hiring replacements for administrative duties) and equivocated on abolishing cash bail, positions that alarmed some of her natural allies.

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It is hard to know just how much the pandemic, on top of the Trump years, has scrambled the political calculus. We have traffic jams at the ports that rival those on the roads, restaurant tables where cars once parked, hotels that catered to tourists now sheltering the homeless. Anger over closed schools and mask mandates has triggered a record number of recalls (most notably the landslide that recalled three San Francisco school board members, on which progressives and moderates agreed). In the far northern county of Shasta, a group including members of a local militia won control of the board of supervisors by recalling a Republican ex-police chief who had not been sufficiently anti-mask or pro-gun. A prominent anti-Trump Republican consultant called the vote a “canary in a coal mine” for the direction of his state party.

If mask and vaccine mandates have become the litmus test for the far right, the left has chosen as its defining issue a far more complex — but seemingly unattainable — goal: single-payer health care. When a bill (with an estimated price of more than $300 billion a year) made it to the Assembly floor, progressives threatened to deny party support to any Democrat who voted no. Far short of the necessary yes votes, the sponsor, Ash Kalra of San Jose, a progressive Democrat, pulled the bill rather than force a vote that could be used against his colleagues. He was pilloried as a traitor by activists.

The Working Families Party, which has pushed for progressive priorities in the New York State Legislature, recently established a branch in California in hopes of having similar influence and endorsing and supporting progressive Democrats. The group’s state director, Jane Kim, a former San Francisco supervisor who lost the 2018 mayoral race to the moderate London Breed and then helped Bernie Sanders win the California primary, argues that the state’s electorate is more liberal than its elected officials, who are beholden to the influence of large corporate donors. Still, in the 2020 general election — with a record-setting turnout — voters defeated almost all ballot initiatives that were priorities of the progressives, opting not to restore affirmative action, nor impose higher taxes on commercial and industrial properties, nor abolish cash bail, nor expand rent control.

In the arena of criminal justice, where voters and lawmakers have consistently made progressive changes in recent years, the growing concern about crime (some justified by data and some not) will soon test the commitment to move away from draconian sentences and mass incarceration. The conservative Sacramento district attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, is running for state attorney general on the slogan “Stop the Chaos,” tying her opponent, the incumbent Rob Bonta, to what she calls “rogue prosecutors” like the progressive district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco, who are targets of recall campaigns.

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