Pot politics could inhale controller’s race

Pot politics could inhale controller’s race

swearenginThe California Republican party has a lot riding on Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

She’s the only prominent Republican who carried a strong lead into the recent “jungle” primary elections for statewide office, under which the top two candidates, regardless of party (or no party), advance to a November runoff. Swearengin sat atop the field of candidates for state controller.

While she cruised to a first place finish, her Democratic opponents fought tooth and nail for second place, with Board of Equalization Member Betty Yee besting Assemblyman John Perez, D-Los Angeles, after a brief recount.

The positioning helped fuel an impression throughout the state GOP that Swearengin was a strong party asset. In addition to attributes typically associated with “electable” Republicans, Swearengin seemed capable of actually notching electoral victories — unlike most recent GOP statewide candidates.

Now, however, Swearengin’s fortunes have become more uncertain. And, remarkably, marijuana may play a quietly decisive role in the outcome of her campaign.

The background

It all comes down to Swearengin’s matchup with Yee. Although Swearengin, a popular two-time Fresno mayor and ex-CEO, is well qualified to serve as controller, Yee’s own resume could neutralize that advantage in the minds of many undecided voters. Yee became chief deputy director for budget for California’s Department of Finance after serving on staff for Assembly and Senate fiscal and policy committees.

Politicos reading the tea leaves believe that lays the groundwork for an uphill battle for Swearengin. Had she faced off against Perez, Swearengin’s gender and business background could have made her relatively more competitive.

One additional primary-season detail, however, points to a possibly more substantial challenge for Swearengin. Notably, Perez lost to Yee despite topping the list of candidates statewide with Sacramento-area television ad buys. Beating out even Neel Kashkari, Perez spent some $220,000 in airtime, only to see Yee best him by a scant 481 votes.

That’s where things get interesting for Swearengin.

The marijuana factor

An unusual theory has started circulating about those 481 votes. Analysts are interested in understanding which constituency of otherwise undecided voters gave Yee the critical support necessary to put her over the top. According to the East Bay Express, Yee’s very strong endorsement of medical marijuana could have played a decisive role.

Dale Gieringer is the California director of the National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws. As he put it, “In an election settled by 500 votes, anything would have made the difference. I’m certain the cannabis community delivered more than that number of votes for Betty. She courted us aggressively with her forthright support for legally taxed and regulated cannabis, and we all plugged her in our election guides.”

If that sounds a bit speculative, Yee’s own response to the idea was anything but. “I support medical cannabis and believe the state regulation of it should be strengthened,” she told the Express. “I also support adult use laws for legally taxed and regulated cannabis. California needs a strong state-level regulatory framework for medical cannabis from which adult use laws may be considered. All eyes in California should be on the experiences and lessons learned from adult use laws in Colorado and Washington.”

In Swearengin’s Fresno, meanwhile, marijuana is on the outs. City officials have effectively banned all cultivation of the plant, leading to frustration and outrage among citizens who say they now can’t access medical marijuana. Two years ago Swearengin signed into law a city ban on growing marijuana outdoors.

That tees up a controller’s race, where pot could become an issue that swings an electorally significant number of votes. As is well known, California Republicans are currently on the hunt for almost any issue that can help them make inroads against Democrats — without sacrificing any GOP votes.

Republicans for pot reform

Especially over the course of the past several years, marijuana reform has become one of those issues. Republican officeholders inside and outside of California, from the local to the federal level, have found new audiences and new interest as a result of siding with reform.

For example, conservative California Republican Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Tom McClintock co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to prevent the federal government from interfering with state medical-marijuana laws. House Amendment 272 passed the Republican-controlled House in May.

In the Swearengin-Yee race, that tactic is likely off the table unless Swearengin makes a major policy shift.

In fact, Yee’s strong advocacy for medical marijuana, and the support from pot activists that it has cemented, could make Swearengin less competitive on drug policy — another disadvantage she would not have faced had Perez succeeded in overcoming Yee’s support among pro-pot voters.

That makes the California controller’s race one to watch for Republicans curious about the electoral value of a reformist approach to marijuana regulation.


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