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Just hours after news that a ballot measure to raise California’s minimum wage to $15 is now eligible for the statewide ballot in November, business leaders across the state vowed to fight it. But they left the door open for a  compromise on the issue in the Legislature that would cost them less.

Theresa Harvey, the president and CEO of the North Orange County Chamber of Commerce, said she knew the measure was coming and has been preparing to fight it.

“It’s going to force more and more businesses out of California,” she said. “It’s going to be impossible for employers to keep within the law and it’s going to drive more people to hire fewer employees.”

Harvey said her group has an article in the quarterly newsletter set to go out soon telling members why they should oppose the measure. The chamber also has social media and email outreach plans in place to try and build support to vote it down.

Due to a recent law change, the ballot measure’s proponents have until June 30 to withdraw the initiative from the November ballot. That could happen if the state legislature were to pass a minimum wage bill before then. Senate bill 3, which would raise California’s minimum wage to $13, has been making its way through the state legislature.

Harvey said although her group opposes the ballot measure, it might be open to a less rapid fire approach from state lawmakers.

“Were the legislature to consider a more gradual step-up as they did from the seven to eight, and then the eight to nine and ten we could certainly look at it,” she said, referring to previous minimum wage increases. “I think the devil is in the details.”

There’s also a competing ballot initiative that’s still trying to qualify for the November ballot that includes increased sick time.

Betty Jo Toccoli, president of the California Small Business Association, hopes the minimum wage issue will be resolved in the legislature. She gave the current Senate bill a 50/50 chance of passing.

“I think there are those legislators that think the easy way out is to just let the initiative go through and then they won’t be blamed for it and then I think there are also legislators that recognize that they need to work on it,” she said.

Toccoli says California businesses would like to see lawmakers carve out exemptions for students so they can work for lower wages. They also want to see exemptions for restaurant servers so they can still get tips.

One of the biggest irritants in the ballot initiative for businesses is a provision for annual cost of living increases once the $15-an-hour mark has been reached.

Hortencia Armendariz, director of healthcare outreach at SEIU-United Healthcare Workers, left room for the possibility that the sponsors could remove the ballot initiative if the legislature were to act, but said they wouldn’t do so for anything less than what their ballot initiative proposes. Their measure includes cost of living increases.

“Where we stand is nothing less than $15 as an increase,” she said. “Right now we’re very happy that it qualified.”

Nicholas Adcock, vice president and governmental affairs manager for Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce, said his group has yet to take an official position on the ballot measure but it has deep concerns about minimum wage increases.

“Economies are different from city to city,” he said, pointing out that well over half of the businesses in Riverside have fewer than 10 employees. “We’re not talking very big profit models with huge profit margins.”

Riverside, according to Adcock, doesn’t have the resources of larger cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. He fears a minimum wage increase could stifle small business growth, which is still in recovery after the housing crisis that hit the area hard during the Great Recession.

“It’s going to force them to make some very tough decisions,” he said, speaking of small business owners. “We want more jobs to be created.”

Mary Plummer

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California congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who is running for U.S. Senate, sits inside Tlaquepaque Restaurant in Placentia on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Sanchez has been visiting the restaurant, which used to be a bakery, since she was a child. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

It’s been two and a half decades since California voters last filled a U.S. Senate vacancy, but with veteran lawmaker Barbara Boxer set to step down this year, voters have a chance to pick from four major candidates competing to fill her seat.

U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez is one of two Democrats in the running. After 20 years in House of Representatives, the Orange County congresswoman aims to move up to the Senate.

She has been trailing a fellow Democrat and the front-runner in the race, state Attorney General Kamala Harris. In a January survey, The Field Poll showed among likely voters who stated a preference, Harris led by 27 percent to Sanchez’ 15 percent.

Two Republicans, Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, trailed behind them at 3 percent each. A third Republican, Rocky Chavez, drew support from 7 percent of the respondents, but he has since withdrawn from the race.

Significantly, a large segment of those polled, 44 percent, were undecided. It’s the voters in that group who Sanchez hopes to sway to her side. Even if she comes in second in California’s June 7 primary election, she can survive to the general election under the state’s open primary contest in which the top two vote-getters move on to the November ballot regardless of their party affiliation.

The Senate race is the biggest political competition since California adopted top-two primary in 2011, and it likely will force a faceoff between the two well-known Democrats.

On the campaign trail

During a February evening in the city of Pico Rivera in Los Angeles County, music played in one room of a Mexican restaurant that also doubles as a nightclub.

In another room, a campaign event was about to get underway for Loretta Sanchez. The congresswoman sat down to explain why she thinks California voters should elect her to the Senate.

“I know how to work with Democrats and with Republicans. So I think I will take that knowledge over to the Senate with me,” she said.

She has been a member of the House since 1996, when she narrowly beat Orange County Republican Bob Dornan.

Her rankings among special interest and labor groups as compiled by the elections site VoterSmart.org are aligned with her politics as a moderate Democrat: high among groups like Planned Parenthood and lower as rated by the National Rifle Association.

Sanchez points out that she is the only candidate running who has a track record in Congress. She is proud of her role in the passage of revised sexual assault provisions in the military justice code and sits on the House armed services and homeland security committees.

When asked how she differs from Harris, Sanchez turned not to the issues that separate them, but to her upbringing.

“My parents are Mexican immigrants, came here with nothing, settled in Anaheim, had seven children,” she said.

If Sanchez wins, she would be the first Latina senator. Should Harris prevail, her win would also be notable. Harris’ mother is from India and her father grew up in Jamaica.

Loretta Sanchez’ younger sister, Linda Sanchez, is also a congresswoman, representing the 38th district covering Montebello, Pico Rivera, Norwalk and Artesia. At her sister’s political event, Linda Sanchez rallied the audience.

“She’s the number two Democrat on both the homeland security committee and the armed services committee and, let me tell you, she knows her s—,” Linda Sanchez said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd.

Trailing in support

More than 20 Los Angeles County officials at the event endorsed Loretta Sanchez for the Senate race. But Sanchez found less enthusiasm at the California Democrats State Convention in February, landing the endorsement of just 19 percent of the delegates to Harris’ 78 percent.

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who is running for U.S. Senate, sits inside Tlaquepaque Restaurant in Placentia on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Sanchez has been going to the restaurant since she was a child.
Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who is running for U.S. Senate, sits inside Tlaquepaque Restaurant in Placentia on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Sanchez has been going to the restaurant since she was a child. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

When it comes to issues like immigration, job creation and the environment, Sanchez and Harris are not far apart. One difference between them has emerged on the issue of Apple Inc.’s resistance to the FBI’s request to crack into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists: Sanchez is backing Apple and Harris is not taking sides.

Sanchez speaks of banning gun shows and limiting gun magazines to 10-round capacities. She’s endorsed a ballot measure that would raise the minimum wage in California to $15 an hour and backs healthcare coverage through the Affordable Care Act.

Los Angeles County Congresswoman Janice Hahn, who is running for a Los Angeles County supervisor seat, is among those who is supporting Sanchez.

“I think she’s effective in a way of communicating to the American people some of the issues, particularly as it relates to homeland security,” Hahn said.

Sanchez’ communication style has landed Sanchez in trouble in the past. She has taken heat for making a Native American war cry gesture after a mixup in referring to a person from India and a Native American. She apologized for the gaffe, but it continues to haunt her politically.

Then she drew criticism for stating on Larry King’s show that up to 20 percent of Muslims want an Islamic caliphate. In that case, she did not apologize, but stood by her statement.

“I have spoken to those comments and the reality is that there’s no one who has done more for the Muslim American community than I have, ” she told KPCC.

Bill Whalen of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution said there’s a clear difference in the way Sanchez and Harris speak.

“Harris is quiet, reserved,” he said. “Loretta Sanchez is a little more earthy, and a little more out there. And she has shall we say a checkered record when it comes to comments she has made that are sometimes politically incorrect and then sometimes just some tone-deaf political judgments,” he said.

Whalen points to one moment in 2000 when Sanchez tried to organize a political fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion during the Democratic National Convention. Under political pressure, she later relocated it to Universal Studios CityWalk.

Asked what she learned from the reaction to her fundraiser, Sanchez suggested sexism was behind the kerfuffle.

“I learned that people are harder on women than men,” she said. Sanchez maintains that male politicians have held fundraisers at the Playboy Mansion and did not receive the flak she attracted.

Theresa Hennessey, Playboy Enterprises spokeswoman, said fundraisers have been held at the mansion for politicians like former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and ex-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

Bradley served from 1973 to 1993 while Washington held office in the 1980s.

Voter turnout may be key

Sanchez met up with KPCC recently in Orange County in the city of Placentia, about a mile north from where she grew up. In high school, she worked cleaning houses with her mom on weekends and scooped ice cream at a local Save On.

During the visit, Sanchez ducked inside a shop called Mexico Supermarket, where pinatas hung from the ceiling. In the back, a cook chopped beef for carne asada tacos.

While Sanchez visited the store, Placentia resident Brian Richards grabbed her attention.

“I wish we had more like you,” Richards said, assuring Sanchez that he’d vote for her.

But Sanchez also met someone who may represent her biggest challenge: people who see no reason to vote.

Recent college grad Taylor Chun, the store manager, worked behind the cash register. She told Sanchez she hoped someday to become a wedding planner.

After the congresswoman left, Chun said she does not plan to vote. She would like to see things change in her neighborhood, such as more jobs. But Chun said she doesn’t think a new senator will make a difference.

“I feel like nobody really is going to help us,” the young cashier said. “They get the votes, they win and then after that, it’s like nothing is really changing.”

Therein lies a problem: voter turnout could have a major impact on Sanchez’ campaign.

Although Southern California has a larger population, voters in Northern California where Harris has her base cast their ballots at higher rates.

Political analysts point out Sanchez will need Southern Californians like Chun to vote if the congresswoman is to have a better chance at defeating Harris. Also key to her success are Latino voters, a group that historically records low voter turnout rates.

“If you’re Sanchez … you have to do two things right now,” Whalen said. Appeal to “Latino voters, primarily in Southern California, and then secondly, Southern California Democrats writ large.”

Copyright 2016 KPCC. To see more election coverage, visit http://www.kpcc.org.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what’s important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.

Mary Plummer
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Poll clerk Barbara Rotelli helps look up voter information at Canyon Springs School’s library on Tuesday evening, June 3, 2015, in Santa Clarita during a Los Angeles County primary election. Santa Clarita is one of the only about 15 cities in Los Angeles County with more registered Republicans than Democrats. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

California is dismissed or embraced across the country as a liberal stronghold, but in Los Angeles County, Republicans outnumber Democrats in several locations, among them: Santa Clarita.

Increasingly, though, Santa Clarita is transforming into a blue city as population growth and its annexation of unincorporated areas change the character of this majority white, well-off community.

For some residents, like those in Santa Clarita Republican Women Federated, the largest GOP women’s club in the city, these days of transition come with worries.

At a recent monthly meeting in a Marie Callender’s restaurant outside the city’s Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park, some club members recently discussed their top concerns — growing homelessness, more liberal gun laws and a loss of traditional American values.

“All we can do as an individual is do our best and then turn the rest over to God. Let him do the rest of the work,” said Maggie Aquaro, 73, a Santa Clarita resident for over a decade.

Located about 35 miles north of Los Angeles, the city is one of about 15 out of 88 in Los Angeles County with more registered Republicans than Democrats.

But there’s a political shift underway as the area’s population expands. Santa Clarita has been in a growth spurt since the city’s 1987 incorporation. With the unincorporated areas it absorbed in recent decades, Santa Clarita has a population of about 213,000, nearly double the city’s size in 1990.

“We’ve watched the community really expand, kind of in two ways,” said Lena Smyth, a political science professor at Santa Clarita’s College of the Canyons and a longtime resident.

“We have people who are moving here with their families who want, you know, the more affordable house, the better schools. And then you also have just the city itself has grown and has expanded its borders and annexed other unincorporated areas of L.A. County.”

Lena Smyth is a political science professor at College of the Canyons and a longtime resident of Santa Clarita.
Lena Smyth is a political science professor at College of the Canyons and a longtime resident of Santa Clarita. Mary Plummer/KPCC

As the city has grown, so too have the ranks of Democrats.

Republicans here outnumber Democrats 43,774 to 37,273, according to a recent Secretary of State report on voter registrations released last week. But the Democrats’ general election registrations are up 52 percent between 2000 and 2014, well over the 21 percent growth for the Republican Party for the same period.

If the trend holds, registered Democrats could soon overtake Republicans in their size.

And here’s another change that could pose a challenge to both parties: a growing number of registered voters are declaring that they have no party preference.

About 25,000 fall into this category in Santa Clarita based on the latest voter registration report, and that is more than triple the number two decades ago.

Voters voice concerns

Lilian Bonilla, a community college student who lives and goes to school in Santa Clarita, said she’s definitely voting for president. She’s just doesn’t know who that will be yet, or even if it’ll be a Democrat or Republican.

Her family bounced around Los Angeles County looking for an ideal place to live before they landed here after moving from Palmdale about eight years ago. They now reside in a gated community.

“You vote for somebody because they’re either going to help, you know, the category you’re in, or they’re gonna better you,” she said. “I’m just listening to see what everybody has to offer.”

Education is one of her top issues in this year’s election. She’d like to see K-12 schools in the area improved.

“I feel like I would vote for whoever is meeting my needs,” she said.

We hear a different story when we meet April Young outside Santa Clarita Lanes bowling alley, where she had just finished up a game and pizza with her grandkids.

The economy and jobs are the issues that Young said are concerning her the most. By that she means “being able to get a job that pays enough to pay the rent or pay the house payment or get the car insurance or whatever, feed your family,” she said.

Young is also a Republican and an active voter. But unlike many of the GOP women in the Republican club, Young is still working. She’s an aide at a local school district, and said Santa Clarita isn’t producing enough well-paying jobs.

“You can work at Foster’s Freeze or you can work at the bowling alley, but that’s obviously not enough to survive on,” she said.

The median household income here is about $81,500, far higher than California’s average. Still, earnings haven’t recovered enough to reach pre-recession levels.

That’s a particular concern for young people just entering the job market, but also for Santa Clarita’s growing minority population, a majority of them Latinos.

Lawsuit brings key change

This November, when Santa Clarita voters participate in the presidential election, they’ll also have other key choices to make.

Santa Clarita voters will get to vote on City Council races in November as a result of a Voter Rights Act lawsuit settlement.
Santa Clarita voters will get to vote on City Council races in November as a result of a Voter Rights Act lawsuit settlement. Mary Plummer/KPCC

Due to a recent Voting Rights Act lawsuit claiming the votes of Latinos were being diluted in the city’s election, a legal settlement in the case is moving Santa Clarita’s City Council balloting from April to November.

The change is expected to drastically impact the dynamics of the City Council race by drawing in many more voters. In the general presidential election in November 2012, the turnout was 78 percent. During the most recent city election in April 2014, just 14 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

Smyth said the date change will diminish the power of a small group of city voters who have been active in City Hall elections. Even her husband, a former Santa Clarita mayor and councilman, is considering a run for council again.

“You’re going to have a massive increase in voter turnout for a local election, which we’ve never seen in Santa Clarita before,” she said.  “Typically a City Council member has been able to get elected with anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 votes. So now we have a whole different ballgame.”

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what’s important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.

This story has been updated.

Copyright 2016 KPCC. To see more election coverage, visit http://kpcc.org.

Mary Plummer
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