What the Single-Payer Loss Reveals About the Role of Corporate Money in California Politics

The chair of the California Democratic Party’s progressive caucus explains how it went down.

Theo Anderson

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks to reporters during a news conference on May 11, 2017 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Last week, the speak­er of the Cal­i­for­nia State Assem­bly, Antho­ny Ren­don, shelved a bill that would have cre­at­ed a sin­gle-pay­er health­care sys­tem. Pro­gres­sives have looked to New York and Cal­i­for­nia as the best hope for cre­at­ing a sin­gle-pay­er, uni­ver­sal health­care sys­tem at the state lev­el, and poten­tial­ly trans­form­ing the nation­al debate. Rendon’s deci­sion dealt a seri­ous blow to that hope. It is a par­tic­u­lar­ly painful set­back because Democ­rats, with a super­ma­jor­i­ty in the leg­is­la­ture, can pass any bill they choose to.

We're always constantly amazed how it is that California seems to have such a liberal and progressive reputation around the rest of the country.

The push for sin­gle-pay­er health­care dom­i­nat­ed the race for Cal­i­for­nia Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty state chair in May. Sup­port­ers of Kim­ber­ly Ellis were strong­ly behind it. The win­ner of that race, Eric Bau­man, has also said he sup­ports a sin­gle-pay­er sys­tem. But Bau­man has been an advis­er to Ren­don, and a con­sult­ing firm he owns has accept­ed mon­ey from phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies to defeat a bill that would have capped drug prices in the state. The Ellis camp is now chal­leng­ing the results of the election

The sin­gle-pay­er bill’s most influ­en­tial oppo­nent has been California’s gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown. Ren­don derid­ed the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion as woe­ful­ly incom­plete.” Brown, Ren­don and anoth­er mem­ber of the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment, Sen­ate leader Kevin De León, have received $3.4 mil­lion in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from the health insur­ance indus­try since 2010.

Karen Bernal, chair of the pro­gres­sive cau­cus of the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, recent­ly talked with In These Times about the fate of sin­gle pay­er in Cal­i­for­nia — and the path for­ward. The inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity.

Theo Ander­son: What is the holdup? I mean, I know it’s mon­ey from the insur­ance industry.

Karen Bernal: Peo­ple need to under­stand that the gov­er­nor has not sup­port­ed sin­gle-pay­er for a long time. And every­one has known in advance that that this bill was doomed to fail — that the gov­er­nor would nev­er sign it. And the only deci­sion about this was where, and in what com­mit­tee, it was going to die. That’s it. I know I’m sound­ing very cyn­i­cal right now, but they nev­er had the inten­tion of pass­ing this.

Theo: But every­one in the par­ty sup­ports it except the gov­er­nor? I mean, in word.

Karen: Yeah, in word, but cer­tain­ly not in action. The prob­lem we have in pol­i­tics here in Cal­i­for­nia is that so much of it turns on mon­ey. And, you know, I’m sure that the car­rot from the gov­er­nor’s office was mon­ey going to the elec­tion com­mit­tees of the var­i­ous leg­is­la­tors to sweet­en the pot. And in oth­er places, threat­en­ing to block their own pieces of leg­is­la­tion that they would like to see advanced. And that’s the stick. They can come in and say, We’ll make sure that won’t live to see the light of day. That it’ll be killed in committee.” 

So those are the kinds of tac­tics being used here: threats and mon­ey. We knew months ago that the gov­er­nor was lob­by­ing leg­is­la­tors against it. So that’s not a huge sur­prise. Brown said from the begin­ning that he was against it. We have to under­stand that, in a sys­tem where mon­ey deter­mines the struc­ture and the lead­er­ship, that’s what turns things. 

Theo: It’s not a secret that mon­ey plays a big role in our pol­i­tics and shapes things. But even so, this lev­el of cor­rup­tion seems pret­ty brazen.

Karen: Oh, it’s ter­ri­ble! It’s ter­ri­ble. It’s the open secret that every­one here knows about, espe­cial­ly those of us in pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics. And we’re always con­stant­ly amazed how it is that Cal­i­for­nia seems to have such a lib­er­al and pro­gres­sive rep­u­ta­tion around the rest of the coun­try. Because, I mean, we know so many dirty open secrets like that. We have frack­ing. We do drilling. We can’t get sin­gle-pay­er passed even though there’s a supermajority.

Theo: For a lot of pro­gres­sives, this kind of cor­rup­tion makes them want to wash their hands of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and say, you know, Elec­toral pol­i­tics is hope­less.” What is your per­spec­tive is on that, espe­cial­ly after this real­ly dis­ap­point­ing result with the sin­gle-pay­er fight?

Karen: I think you’re right on that. This has a pro­found­ly neg­a­tive impact on the elec­torate and the base that the Democ­rats should count on as the future of their par­ty. The only thing that affect­ed it was the infu­sion of ener­gy from the Bernie Sanders cam­paign. It’s going to have a real­ly bad effect on that. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, they’re caught up in what I would call a down­ward death spi­ral here, where they can’t seem to do pol­i­tics with­out this mas­sive influ­ence of cor­po­rate mon­ey in the party.

And it’s not as though these politi­cians, by the way, go out seek­ing it. It’s that, espe­cial­ly in poor dis­tricts, for instance, these inter­ests come to them, and say, Well, here’s how we can help fix your prob­lems. We have what it takes to fix those prob­lems and pro­vide fund­ing and so on.” Even peo­ple who mean well, when they first come in, end up find­ing them­selves trapped in a sys­tem where, if they want to get any­thing done, they have to raise all this mon­ey for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus. You know, the speak­er of the assem­bly isn’t the speak­er of the assem­bly just because he’s a great guy. It’s because he can bring in a lot of mon­ey. And the same with the com­mit­tee: They bring in mon­ey. It’s a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion. So, I can under­stand how peo­ple would feel that way.

We know these were the things that pushed peo­ple like Bernie Sanders to the brink of vic­to­ry. It was because of those out­side pres­sures. But then you’re see­ing on the inside, this is what hap­pens. It kind of sends a mes­sage to peo­ple that there’s noth­ing for them in the par­ty. And they’re going to stay on the outside.

Theo: Could it also have the effect of gal­va­niz­ing more push­back, though? I know it’s dis­ap­point­ing, but since the cor­rup­tion is so obvi­ous, it could also inspire peo­ple to fight against it?

Karen: Oh yeah, it is def­i­nite­ly doing that. And it has to hap­pen from the grass­roots and the base, which is way more pro­gres­sive than the lead­er­ship. We have to send a mes­sage, espe­cial­ly to the gov­er­nor. And this is an impor­tant thing to hap­pen, because there will be a gov­er­nor’s race com­ing up, you know, in the next elec­tion cycle. It’s impor­tant that we send the mes­sage to any new gov­er­nor that this is not going to be tol­er­at­ed — that we’ve got their num­ber and we know where the pow­er the pow­er resides.

Theo: I won­der whether the con­ven­tion fight set the stage for some of the push­back you’ve talked about. Sin­gle-pay­er was such a cen­tral issue in the con­ven­tion cam­paign — in Kim­ber­ly’s cam­paign for chair. It got peo­ple galvanized.

Karen: To be fair about this, there are many peo­ple who sup­port­ed Bau­man who sup­port sin­gle pay­er. And Bau­man him­self has said that he sup­ports sin­gle-pay­er. And he did put out a mes­sage say­ing that he was, as he said, unam­bigu­ous­ly dis­ap­point­ed.” I find that a curi­ous choice of words. He had to, uh, reas­sure us somehow?

I think the proof is going to be what he does next as a fol­low up, in terms of action. Cer­tain­ly, on the Kim­ber­ly side, there is com­plete uni­ty. We have to gal­va­nize forces, and I think that you’re going to see [that ener­gy trans­lat­ed] into action.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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