Like every 365-day span, 2014 was filled with the usual news headlines of death, disease and destruction. But this year had more than its share of groundbreaking and precedent-setting events that will have ramifications long past Dec. 31. Here are a few of them:
Mexicans stand up
Our neighbors in Mexico have been suffering the depredations of drug cartels and the corrupt officials who aid them for years now. Thousands have been executed, and many people have simply vanished.
But Mexicans collectively hit the breaking point in 2014 when 43 student teachers were kidnapped in Iguala in the state of Guerrero, allegedly by local police at the request of the city’s mayor, then handed over to a local drug cartel. Concern for the missing students turned to outrage when searchers turned up several mass graves — for other people. Authorities suspect the bodies of the students were burned and dumped in a river.
The disappearance of the 43 students has become a call to action, launching mass demonstrations and demands for President Enrique Peña Nieto and his cabinet to take action now.
Cuba opens up
Cuban cigars for sale at Walmart and Big Macs in Havana? Those things seem inevitable now that President Barack Obama announced in December the normalization of relations with this sad, island relic of the 20th century’s Cold War. The news must have made North Koreans feel even lonelier.
Predictably, Obama critics blasted the move as handing a victory to Fidel and Raúl Castro. Opening Cuba’s doors to capitalist influence, though, is not a win for communism. Not once Cubans get a taste of those two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, etc.
Race debate explodes
The shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American man in Ferguson, Missouri., by a white police officer this summer set off a wave of protests, rioting and public discussion about race in America the scale of which we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
By year’s end, the public debate still hadn’t cooled off, especially after the murder of two New York police officers by a sick man bent on killing cops. Some uncomfortable truths about persistent and systemic discrimination have ripped off the scales of the nation’s eyes. The process is painful, but we hope that it will help the nation move forward to a more just and equal society.
Ebola tests U.S.
And the U.S. passes. The largest Ebola outbreak in recorded history is still unfolding in West Africa, but its brief though dramatic emergence on our soil was short-lived as the nation’s public health community jumped into action. Some thought the U.S. quarantines for health care workers were overreaction; others thought the U.S. approach was not extreme enough and suggested we cut off air travel. In the end, the U.S. response was exactly right to break the zoonotic pathogen’s back before it got going here.
Republicans won control of the Senate and expanded their hold on the House. Now, incoming Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and his No. 2, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, have an opportunity to show the nation they can lead on such issues as immigration. If they don’t, they risk losing control in 2016.
They ought to seek common ground with President Barack Obama. Although Obama could continue to bypass Congress by issuing executive orders, actual legislative compromise would be much more preferable.
In California, the Legislature didn’t flip, but it did lose its Democratic supermajority — and credibility. Three sitting senators were charged with criminal wrongdoing in 2014, and there was a shake-up of the top Senate staff. In the election, Republicans made some gains, as did moderate Democrats backed by business interests. That suggests policy change will be incremental, which might be for the best. But does California truly need 1,000 new laws year in and year out?
Jerry Brown persists
With his easy re-election, Jerry Brown will serve an unprecedented fourth term and work to cement his legacy. It will be enigmatic.
He is, for example, an environmentalist who advocates the complex cap-and-trade system as a means of combating global warming. But he is critical of the California Environmental Quality Act and its many rules and restrictions.
Brown portrays himself as frugal when he blocks spending on programs for which he sees little point. He also is trying to build big projects, such as the $68 billion high-speed rail and the $25 billion tunnels that would move water past the delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
He also will focus on implementing changes he made in his prior term. Criminal justice realignment is, for example, reducing prison populations and shifting responsibility for lower level criminals to counties. It’s a massive change, one that could go wrong if criminals who otherwise would be in prison start committing horrendous crimes.
Water gets a fix
California began 2014 choking on the third year of severe drought. State agencies and lawmakers were forced to take extraordinary measures to reshape how California deals with water that will affect the state’s health for decades to come.
The drought is so dire that it prompted the legislation that will, for the first time ever, regulate the extraction of the state’s groundwater. California is the last state in the West to do so. And, in a near-unanimous vote, the Legislature approved a $7.5 billion water bond for the November ballot. Voters saw the necessity of improving the state’s water system and passed the bond by more than 67 percent.
Most Californians responded to the drought by cutting water use, but the State Water Resources Control Board took the unprecedented step of making it a crime to waste water, giving water agencies the ability to fine wasters up to $500 a day. It all adds up to a brighter water future for California.
Plastic bags take a hit
After two failed attempts, the California Legislature in 2014 passed the first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in the nation. Although about one-third of Californians already live in a city or county with such a ban, it’s a landmark action. The plastic industry is spending millions to fight the California ban, but at best it can only delay an inevitable move toward reversing our trashy ways.