When individuals are elected to office, they envision themselves as leaders, that the people will follow in the direction they, as leaders, lay out. But that is not always the case and the latest test for many California elected officials comes on Election Day. 

On the statewide ballot, voters will decide four measures put before them by legislators and an additional measure that serves as a referendum on legislative action. An additional test will occur in the hotly contested Los Angeles District Attorney race in which a number of officials previously in incumbent Jackie Lacey’s corner have jumped ship.

On the statewide ballot, Proposition 16 thru 19 were put on the ballot by the legislature. The most attention-getting measure, and probably the truest test of leadership and sensing the public mood is Proposition 16, the effort to remove the affirmative action ban from the state constitution.

During an intense period of protests over racial injustice this summer, the California Legislature decided the time is ripe to get rid of the ban passed by voters in 1996. Exceeding the required two-thirds vote to get the measure on the ballot, the Senate voted 30 to 10 and the Assembly passed the measure 60 to 14. But whether the legislators are leading voters on this issue appears questionable given the results of two independent statewide polls. The Public Policy Institute of California found Proposition 16 trailing 37% to 50%; the UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies had Prop 16 on the short end, 38% to 49%.

Voters may want reforms to achieve social justice, but affirmative action repeal may not be the formula they agree with. Legislators jumped on what they saw as an opportunity at the right time. They could be wrong.

Legislators also put on the ballot two measures that have received less attention: the right to vote for those on parole; and allowing a 17-year-old the right to vote in primaries or special elections if their 18th birthday occurs before the next general election. Yet again the political mood presented an opportunity for the legislature to advance proposals that have not moved previously and capture a public sentiment for reform. However, one poll showed the 17-year-old vote struggling. Again, the legislators felt voters would be with them. Too early to tell.

Proposition 19 perhaps does not belong in this test category. Yes, it was placed on the ballot by the legislature, but that was to have influence on the proposed law change that was first circulated as an initiative. Prop 19 would allow seniors to carry their property tax payments to new residences, eliminate the ability to keep low property taxes on inherited property for those who inherit but do not live on the property, and build a firefighting fund. 

The referendum on the ballot as Proposition 25 is asking the public to express its feelings about the legislature’s decision to eliminate cash bail in the state of California. Legislative leadership said poor people are treated unfairly by the bail system and reform is called for. But opposition arose that the legislature acted rashly in this judgment and that the public’s safety is threatened. The voters have been called upon via the referendum process to confirm the legislature’s action or wipe away the law.

The other real test of elected officials and leadership comes from that Los Angeles District Attorney race. A number of LA County politicians such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Congressman Adam Schiff originally endorsed two-term incumbent DA Jackie Lacey. Then along came a challenge to Lacey from the progressive left and the marches for racial equality, police reform and social justice. Time to change bandwagons these local officials decided. If the voters are so passionate about progressive changes for police reform, it is best to support someone who speaks the progressives’ language in former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón rather than sticking with Lacey who was identified as being too close with the police.

Leadership or political survival?

As leaders, perhaps they want to march in the direction where they think the people are going—jump in front of the parade, so to speak, and say they are leading it.

But did they really read the public correctly? The voters might have a different feeling about public safety and police.

Those leadership questions for Los Angeles elected officials and state legislators will be answered next Tuesday.