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Year-in-Review: Our 10 best political articles of 2021

Foremost, 2021 will be remembered as the second year of the Covid-19 Pandemic, but it was also an extremely busy year in politics – nationally, in Sacramento and statewide. Throughout it all, Sacto Politico (S/P) has stayed in the thick of it. This included from the Jan. 6 Capitol Riot and Sacramento area extremism to covering the Recall election and statewide redistricting to continued coverage of our corrupted campaign finance system.

Over the course of 26 issues this year, S/P published nearly 90 original news articles, Q&A interviews and guest essays. Picking favorites is always difficult, but based on exclusivity, import and public benefit, here are our top 10 for 2021:

1.) Calif. GOP chair, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley rally with extremists

As the shrinking California GOP backs ever more unusual figures, many reporters are numb to each new downward milestone. But mark them we must. This included a new low on March 7 at the state capitol. Both state GOP Chair Jessica Patterson and the soon-to-be recall candidate Asm. Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) knowingly spoke at a rally co-organized by an extremist who two months earlier called for Americans to arm for civil war. Other speakers that day also had militia, hate group and QAnon connections. Though other media attended the rally, S/P was alone in covering this new low for a major state party.

2.) The Great Debate Subpoena Mystery: Sacramento Press Club hides role by one of its members

Some scoops fall in your lap from a tipster, but more satisfying are the ones that come from your own curiosity and digging. Such was the case after a viral video showed GOP Recall candidate John Cox being served a subpoena during a debate hosted by the Sacramento Press Club. While others merely laughed at the video, I asked the press club how did a process server get into their close-door event in the first place? I then discovered 1.) the ticket shockingly originated from a (still) undisclosed Press Club member, and 2.) the Sacramento Press Club was as nontransparent and evasive as a political figure caught in embarrassing circumstances.

3.) Recall Replacement Candidate Q&As No. 3 refers to not just one Q&A but to S/P’s four Q&As with most of the top recall replacement candidates (except Larry Elder, who declined). Gavin Newsom would ultimately defeat the recall effort by nearly 24 points, but polls in the final months suggested uncertainty. Thus these Q&As offered voters the most extensive questioning of the replacement choices until the ad hoc debates began. Also importantly, these Q&As got all on the record regarding Covid vaccines, the Jan. 6 Capitol Riot and Trump’s big lie about election fraud.

4.) Guest essay: SEIU Local 1000’s anti-democratic cabal In 2021, the far right worked hard to reverse the last presidential election. But in California, a klatch of SEIU 1000 board members tried to out-do Trump by attempting to nullify their fellow union members’ choice of reformer Richard Louis Brown to lead the state’s largest union of state employees. So disturbed by this, fellow board member Jack Dean penned the year’s most viewed S/P article. Plus the outcome of this attempted overthrow has not fully played out.

5.) Fine(d) Bedfellows: California pols take big donations from worst corporations This deeply researched two-part investigation examined just how much the most heavily and repeatedly fined U.S. corporations finance American politics. This included California’s 53-member House delegation taking nearly $15 million last election cycle from these worst of the worst corporations.

6.) Does California need a statewide debate commission? California debates for statewide offices have been in bad shape for some time. The recall debates underscored this with multiple frontrunners not participating and flaws marring most debates. This piece surveyed an array of political and election experts about whether the Golden State should follow a burgeoning trend in other states for an independent, nonpartisan debate commission.

7.) Dizzying by design: Rep. Valadao’s complicated fundraising In 2020, California Republican David Valadao successfully reclaimed his U.S. House seat in the Central Valley. This required a highly complex $12 million effort that literally defies words. With the help of a financial flow chart, this piece revealed the degree to which expensive modern campaigns resemble law-evading corporate shell companies and the money laundering schemes of organized crime.

8.) Opioids, extremism & Sac Bee alligator arms Like someone who continually alligator-arms a check at a restaurant, this piece explored how the Sacramento Bee regularly does the same in its reporting and opinion writing on some of the most serious local subjects.

9.) Q&A: Former U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman on history of leadership PACs It is no accident this is the third campaign-finance story on the list. The reality is the corrupt and corrupting nature of our campaign finance system underlies most problems with our political system. This Q&A provided an oral history about one of the crazier tools perverted by modern fundraising – the candidate-controlled Leadership PAC – and straight from the mouth of its originator, former 40-year Congressman Henry Waxman. (The corruption of Leadership PACs was also subject of my feature investigation in The New Republic.)

10.) Sacramento Progressives quietly sent $2.3M outside area An old journalism saying goes, “If your mom says she loves you, check it out.” Same goes for political “common wisdom.” Last year, we used 2020 primary data to statistically debunk the tired chestnut that Progressives are just a small fraction of Democrats in the state and Sacramento County. This year, we popped the long-persisting claim Sacramento Progressives lack an adequate fundraising base to ever elect one of their own to Congress.

If you missed these pieces the first time, hope you enjoy them. Happy new year! And in the spirit of the great muckraking journalists, you can look forward to Sacto Politico’s independent political journalism continuing into 2022.

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