The Decade in Review: a Political Earthquake in California Local Government

Its the earthquake nobody knew about.

The last ten years have seen an extraordinary shift in local government representation across California. Historically conservative majorities on City Councils have collapsed, beginning in November 2016, and ushered in hundreds of newly elected local officials that are substantially more diverse -- and substantially more progressive -- than the state has likely ever seen. 

The adage that “there’s no Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole” was the zeitgeist of local politics for decades. And while infrastructure may remain relatively non-controversial, in today’s City Halls there are most certainly partisan ways to fill budget gaps, manage pension obligations and assert local control over hot button issues such as immigration, public safety, public healthy, housing, environmental regulations and other key matters. 

So while conservatives controlled a plurality of seats over years of our tracking at GrassrootsLab, a remarkable turn of events transpired in 2016 -- Democrats took control of City government on a statewide level. Moreover, since that inflection point, the Republican share of local seats has been in complete freefall for three cycles now, with the GOP losing a substantial share of seats in 2016, 2018 and 2020. 

 

It is difficult to overstate the significance of this, regardless of the “Blue” tilt of the state over recent decades. Local government, as a nominally non-partisan entity, has been largely inoculated from state political trends. In November 2012, when Democrats captured super-majorities in both chambers of the statehouse, they actually lost seats in municipal government. 

Indeed, our tracking showed a small but stable lead statewide for local GOP office holders for years prior to 2016, and we would strongly surmise that lead existed for decades prior. 

Why is that? The change has been driven by several key factors:

  • Political reaction to the Trump era, galvanizing new candidates and local organizing by progressive groups.
  • Structural Changes to Elections vis a vis Districting and Consolidation.
  • The Confluence of Kitchen Table Political Topics such as housing and public safety with Local Government. 

The results:

  • The Expulsion of Republicans from Suburban California. 
  • The Rise of Women, and Particularly Women of Color. 
  • An Evaporation of the GOP “farm team” for higher office. 

The Collapse of Republican Control in California -- Not a Geographical Anomaly. 

California has obviously been trending towards progressive politics for decades at the state and federal level. To see this trend extend down-ballot to non-partisan local races is remarkable, not only because these races have traditionally favored more conservative candidates/issues, but because it has happened almost everywhere across the state.

 

The Bay Area

One of the nation’s Democratic strongholds -- San Francisco has not has not elected a Republican to its Board of Supervisors since 1973 -- the Bay Area at-large entered the decade with Democrats holding two-thirds of local seats. It has actually managed to grow bluer still in the last 10 years, to over 75 percent. 

Unlike Los Angeles, Republican seats have not shifted to No Party Preference (NPP) members, but rather directly to Democrats. GOP numbers have nearly fallen in half, and they currently hold just over 1 in 10 seats region-wide.

Alameda County has actually seen a status-quo among local electeds. Contra Costa County, on the other hand, which has been one of the few remaining battlegrounds in State legislative politics and home to various centrist legislators, has swung notably left. Less than half of Contra Costa City Officials were Democrats at the outset of the decade, now they number more than two-thirds. 

Los Angeles

Los Angeles County has actually been one of the most stable areas from a partisan standpoint over the last decade. Democratic share of local seats across LA sit marginally higher than in 2011, but basically the same level. Republican losses that have occured can be almost directly translated to NPP gains, with GOP losing 7 percent of seats and NPP seeing just over a 6 percent rise during this period. 

There are at this point no remaining Republican councilmembers in the City of Los Angeles, and just one remains in Long Beach. The Antelope Valley remains a GOP stronghold, however, where 14 of 15 sitting Councilmembers are Republican.

San Diego, Orange County and the Inland Empire

Over the last 10 years, Republicans have fared worse in San Diego than perhaps anywhere else in the state. The Democratic share of local seats grew nearly 20% here, higher than any other region. And while the Republican decline in San Diego is similar (percentage wise) to Orange County and the Inland Empire, those areas still see Republcians hold a majority of seats.

Pete Wilson launched his political career from the mayoral seat in San Diego. He is in fact the last Southern Californian to win either the Governor’s race or a US Senate seat without the aid of a recall or Gubernatorial appointment. In the last year, San Diego Republicans have lost not only Wilson’s old mayoral seat, but the County Board of Supervisors, and they retain just 42 percent of municipal seats countywide. 

Orange County and the Inland Empire have seen nearly identical patterns over the last decade. Republicans still hold nearly 60% of seats in each area, but both regions are down from more than 75% a decade ago. NPP members have more than doubled in the IE during that span. 

The Central Valley1

Kern and Merced Counties are perhaps the lone bright spot for the GOP. Home to Congressional Republican Leader (and former Kern Community College District trustee) Kevin McCarthy, Republicans have seen double digit gains in Kern County. Merced also saw double digit gains for the GOP. The rest of the Valley is a different story. Driven by a rising latino vote, the Southern San Joaquin Valley has grown bluer everywhere else south of Sacramento.

North of Sacramento has seen some clear gains by GOP as well, though there are so few cities/seats in these areas a change of one or two seats can yield double digit swings. Yolo County has techncially seen a 10% swing towards the GOP, but Dems yet hold 11 of 17 seats there. 

Dramatic Rise in Female Officeholders

In 2014 the Leadership California Institute (LCI) published a comprehensive report on women in California State Government, noting that “in almost every level of California government women comprise under 30% of all elected representatives.” At the time women held just 28% of City seats, just marginally higher that where they sat in 2010. 

Today women hold nearly 39% of municipal seats, a dramatic rise that like other trends has been supercharged in the last five years. Women are also a main driver of the rise in Democratic city officials.

Nearly two out of three women city councilmembers are Democrats, up from roughly half a decade ago. 

 

More than one-third of all women city councilmembers are women of color, and among that group, Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 6 to 1. Nearly half of the African American officials in our overall tracking are women. Latinas are roughly 40 percent of all Latino officials, and the number of Latinas in city government has nearly tripled since the beginning of the decade.

The LCI centered its analysis on local seats being a critical pipeline to higher office, and this is certainly a factor. Of 36 women currently serving in the state legislature, 22 served at some level of local government, including Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins and recently appointed State Attorney General Shirley Weber. Several others were council aides or commission appointees

 

Rise of Latino City Officials. 

Latino representation on city councils has grown by 50% since 2010. This tracked alongside a substantial rise in latino voting over the last decade, and again, one that spikes beginning in 2016.

 

2016 also marks the beginning of the mass transition of smaller California cities to district-based elections. Driven by lawsuits brought under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), more than 125 cities have made this switch. This has not been a silver bullet for increasing latino representation in the affected cities -- some cities have seen no increase at all despite the change -- but overall latino representation has increased tripled among just these cities.

It would be a mistake to attribute all the growth in Latino officeholders to districts however. As noted in a California Latino Economic Institute report, 2016 saw a spike in Latino voting not seen since the aftermath of Prop 187 in the 1990s. It established what is likely a new floor for the Latino share of California’s electorate, above the 20 percent threshold even in mid-term elections. This has substantial implications for local Latino candidates and the results are already evident. 2016 was a seminal political moment for Latino voters in California, and the beginning of a significant expansion of Latino representation on City Councils in both districted and traditional "at-large" elections.

What Does it Mean and What's Next?

The macro trend toward Democrats in local government has clear implications for both local policymaking and the dozens of state legislative seats coming open in the next few years due to term limits. We will explore more on those issues, as well some of the other underlying trends shaping local government in a follow on report in the coming days.

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