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Brown Aims to Push "Historic" Shifts Further in Calif.

Brown Aims to Push "Historic" Shifts Further in Calif.

By Adam O'Neal - June 3, 2014

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The relatively few Californians expected to head to the polls on Tuesday will have plenty of choices when deciding who should be their governor next year. There’s the anti-war activist who represents the Peace and Freedom Party. A golf course operator and “psychologist/farmer” are both listed as having no party affiliation. They’re joined on the ballot by a graduate student and Democrat who refers to himself as a “Super Genius.” Several Republicans have also lined up, most notably former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari and state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. 

And though there are 15 candidates on the ballot, one of them is expected to win first place by double digits. He may even cross the 50 percent threshold, an important sign of strength in an open primary. That candidate would be incumbent Jerry Brown, the state’s 34th and 39th governor. 

(California uses a so-called "jungle" primary system, where candidates from all parties run together and the top two finishers face off in November. The state began using the approach in 2012.)

As Brown prepares for a blowout victory Tuesday -- and for what should be an easy jog toward re-election in November -- he has begun to frame his most recent term as an unusually eventful period for the Golden State. 

During a wide-ranging interview with RealClearPolitics, he discussed his opponents; a string of criminal indictments in the state legislature; his first (or third) term record; and the “historic” shifts California has undergone over the last 3½ years. 

The First Term 

Running California is a notoriously difficult exercise. The last governor left the state with a massive budget deficit and few political friendships intact. The governor before that was forced from office. And Brown ascended to the job again with California in worse shape than at any time in recent history. Among other challenges, he faced a multibillion-dollar deficit, massively overcrowded prisons, a high-speed rail project gone awry and a severe drought.

The 76-year-old chief executive argued that the nature of the problems he’s tackled has led to a fundamental shift in the way the state functions: “It’s been a very unusual and productive 3½ years, if I do say so myself.  I’ve been watching. I started running for governor 40 years ago.” 

At the heart of that unusual and productive time is the state’s budget, which went from being tens of billions of dollars in the red to producing a surplus. Through severe budget cuts, increased taxes, and a good year in the stock market, the budget was balanced. 

“That’s the overarching change from 2010 to 2014, if you look at what happened,” he explained.  

He has also overseen prison realignment. After a judge ruled that the state prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded, thousands of prisoners have been moved into local jails -- or released. 

And the spending formula for education has been altered, shifting more money to schools with more low-income students. While altering an educational spending formula may shift millions of dollars in other states, the changes in California have an enormous, multibillion-dollar impact. 

“It’s a shift in government focus and functioning to one of balance and stability and greater subsidiarity, which was my term for moving things more to the locality,” he said, describing prison realignment and changes to the spending formula. 

Brown has previously asserted that he is “not interested in a Jerry Brown legacy, whatever the hell that might be.” This may be true, but the choices he makes in what will be his fourth term overall (extending back to the 1970s and early ’80s) will of course shape his legacy. 

For Brown, the challenge of the next four years would be to see that the major projects that he has continued or started -- including the rail project, stabilizing the budget, California’s health care exchange and more -- are overhauled, maintained, or gently improved. 

“I believe that while Washington is fumbling around, California is getting its act together in a very forward-looking way. And that’s precisely why I am pushing the things that I am.” 

Critics, Left and Right 

But in order to see his most prized goals achieved, Brown first has to win re-election. While confident, he still believes that a win would be significant for Democrats in the state. 

“Since the 1890s, there were only four Democratic governors. And two of them were named Brown, and one was my former chief of staff. That’s in over 100 years. So I’d say the odds of a Republican being a governor are pretty good.”

(Statistics, however, show the Golden State as solidly, perhaps overwhelmingly, Democratic: Republican registration has sunk below 30 percent, a drop of about seven percentage points in the last 10 years; Democrats hold every statewide office and boast sizable majorities in both chambers of the state legislature; President Obama beat Mitt Romney in the state by more than 20 points; Republicans hold just 15 of the state’s 53 U.S. House seats; and voters have elected Democratic mayors in the vast majority of the state’s major cities. Brown himself was mayor of Oakland for eight years before winning a four-year term as California attorney general.) 

Brown said that despite the race being heavily tilted in his favor, he will aggressively campaign to stay in Sacramento. 

“It’d be hard to be more aggressive than I am right now. I’m doing stuff all the time,” he insisted. “To me, the best campaign is the best governing. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.” 

Brown said he has “no idea” who will prevail in the contest between Kashkari and Donnelly for second place and the chance to face the governor. As for how he handles his opponent, it will be the same regardless of who it is. 

Brown said that approach will be fairly simple: He’ll spell out “here is what I’m doing. Here is what I’ve done. Here’s what I’m going to do. And I’m doing it.” 

There are plenty of reasons for Brown to want to win big in November. He hasn’t ruled out a 2016 bid for president (he ran previously in 1976, 1980 and 1992), and a convincing victory could give him more leverage against legislative Democrats who often fall to the left of Brown on some budgetary and environmental issues (like fracking).

While he is broadly popular in the state -- with an approval rating consistently above 50 percent -- he has received criticism from both flanks. Progressives criticize him for being too conservative and cutting heavily into social services. Conservatives take an opposite approach. 

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Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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