The return of the crypto-Republican
Not since the 1950s has the California legislature been a hospitable environment for Republicans. Since the election of 1958, when the Democrats under Pat Brown surged into power, the GOP has seldom commanded a majority of the seats in either house of the Golden State's legislature. The only significant exception is a pair of years, 1969 and 1970, when Republican Bob Monagan held the gavel as Speaker of the Assembly and Howard Way and Jack Schrade took turns presiding over the State Senate as presidents pro tempore. In addition, there was a comical interlude in the State Assembly in parts of 1995 and 1996, when three different Republicans served as Speaker of the Assembly; two of those were GOP renegades installed with Democratic votes and the third utterly failed to consolidate his power before the Democrats regained their majority.
During one point in the 1970s, when Republican legislative fortunes were at a particularly low ebb, the Democrats enjoyed a two-thirds majority in the assembly. Even the arrival of the so-called “Proposition 13 babies” in 1978 merely trimmed rather than toppled the Democratic majorities. In the early 70s, therefore, it was an amusing but trivial game to identify the political affiliation of legislative candidates by examining their signs and posters. Democratic candidates simply said “Democrat for Assembly” or “Democrat for State Senate” on their placards. If no party affiliation was given, however, you could be certain it was a Republican hoping to sneak into the legislature. Being a member of the GOP wasn't exactly poison, but it wasn't any big help outside of Orange County. Not in those days.
Have those days returned? Greg Aghazarian is an incumbent assemblyman and the Republican nominee for a state senate seat. His campaign website, however, is stripped clean of any sign that Aghazarian is a proud member of the Republican Party. His campaign bio does not mention the GOP at all. His latest campaign spot, a television ad being broadcast across a big chunk of northern California, not only neglects to mention he is the Republican candidate, the ad itself is a pitch to formally remove partisan labels from legislative elections.
Is that even a good idea? Aghazarian argues that legislative races should be like those for county boards of supervisors or city councils—officially nonpartisan. I suspect it wouldn't work. In the big cities, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the candidates are well-known by party affiliation, even if their party's name is absent from the ballot. Nonpartisan legislative races would not be any more neutral than that. Perhaps Aghazarian just wants the potential advantage of not being labeled a Republican. Under current law in California, his party affiliation will appear next to his name on the election ballot.
It's true, of course, that the rising numbers of independent voters make party affiliation less valuable than it used to be for the Democrats. I checked out the campaign website of Aghazarian's opponent, Democratic assemblywoman Lois Wolk. It's fairly easy to detect that she is a Democrat by virtue of blurbs like “Wolk easily wins Democratic nod for 5th District Senate Race,” quoted on her endorsement page. Nevertheless, Wolk does not go out of her way to highlight her partisan bent, the way a Democratic candidate would have done in the days when it was literally the majority party in California (and not just the plurality party).
Perhaps we are moving into a post-partisan political environment. Perhaps Aghazarian is on to something. More likely, though, he's trying for a political upset in a senate district that contains a big liberal Democratic community clustered around the Davis campus of the University of California. I think he's a duck-and-cover Republican in the mold of those stealth GOP candidates of the 1970s. The election returns next month will indicate whether his move was a wise one.
If you live in the 5th Senate District in California, don't forget to vote for Wolk.