When Jim Cooper squared off against a fellow Democrat in last fall’s race to represent part of Sacramento and its southern suburbs in the state Assembly, it wasn’t clear at first who would win. Fewer than 1,000 votes separated them in the June primary.
But several weeks before Election Day, campaign committees — primarily funded by San Ramon-based Chevron and out-of-state oil companies — sealed Cooper’s victory by pouring more than $1 million into ads, consultants and polling that helped him beat his more liberal opponent by 11 points.
Cooper is one of a growing band of moderate Assembly Democrats who enjoyed generous support from big business as candidates and helped the oil and tobacco industries get their way in the final days of the legislative session that ended Sept. 11. The 20 or so moderates now make up about a quarter of the lower house.
Known around the Capitol as “the mods,” they forced Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders to abandon a key provision of a bill that sought to combat global warming by dramatically reducing the state’s reliance on oil. The group also blocked efforts to regulate electronic cigarettes and increase the legal smoking age to 21.
It wasn’t until the end of the session that the true power of the Mod Squad came into focus — and by then it was too late for liberal Democrats to stave them off.
Experts say the growth of the moderate bloc is a testament to the success of electoral reform efforts — a new redistricting process, longer term limits and the “top-two” primary system chief among them — aimed at eroding the influence of extreme liberals and conservatives who have dominated the state’s political discourse for decades. However, it has also given an unexpected advantage to deep-pocketed corporations who have figured out that moderate Democrats can be their best allies in a state where Republicans are often an irrelevant minority.
“Sophisticated, well-funded special interests are playing a long game,” said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance expert and Loyola Law School professor. “It makes a lot of sense to invest early in people who are attuned to your needs and are in position to vote your way when the time comes.”