There’s a case to be made that Jerry Brown is the most successful high-profile Democrat in America today. And there is simply no debating that, after four decades in the national limelight, he stands out as an intellectually dynamic and politically untethered leader in a time of gridlock, frustration and dysfunction. If these were the only variables on the question of political viability, he would in all likelihood be a high-flying presidential prospect for 2016. Yet because he is 76, conventional wisdom says that Brown will finish an epic electoral career at the helm of the state where his father once served as governor, where he first claimed the position from 1975 to 1983, and where he now seeks re-election. But be careful with any calculus that diminishes or dismisses a governor who friends and foes say has a greater capacity to rewrite the rules than anyone in American politics. No prominent player in either party is less bound by convention than Jerry Brown, whose ability to defy expectations is virtually unrivaled in modern American politics.
Brown, who is all but certain to win California’s June 3 open primary and to claim an easy victory in the November general election, could well emerge from this election season as far more than just a Democratic victor in a tough year for Democrats. He could come to be seen as what his supporters suggest Democrats desperately need: a nationally known politician who recognizes the power and possibility of engaged, solutions-oriented government.
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The point here is not to suggest that Brown is an iconic liberal, nor that he is necessarily as progressive as Democratic governors like Vermont’s Peter Shumlin or Maryland’s Martin O’Malley. Brown is more complicated than that. He’s both further to the right and further to the left than other Democrats, depending on the issue of the moment. He frustrates allies by rejecting what are rapidly becoming accepted premises among progressives: the logic of legalizing marijuana, the need to rethink mass incarceration and the foolishness of fracking. Tom Hayden says there are certainly issues on which Brown is “poorly advised,” and some on which the governor is simply wrong. Yet, notes the radical activist and thinker (and Nation editorial board member) who served in the California legislature from 1982 to 2000, “The difference between Jerry Brown and his critics is that he wins elections and they don’t.”
Winning big this year could position Brown as a Democrat with the authority to rework the party’s national narrative around a simple premise: government should be considered not part of the problem but part of the solution. In some senses, he’s already done that.
Headlines in recent years have been dominated by the austerity agendas of Republican governors that make Paul Ryan’s schemes sound moderate. Now, however, as Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and others seek re-election, they are having a hard time defending policies that have delivered neither prosperity nor fiscal stability. Polls suggest that many GOP “stars” will have to fight to keep their jobs in November.
By contrast, there is Jerry Brown. Elected in the Republican-wave year of 2010, over a free-spending billionaire The New York Times suggested was on her way to becoming “a natural contender for president,” Brown assumed the governorship of what The Economist called “the ungovernable state.” He took office facing a $25 billion deficit that had overwhelmed leaders of both parties. Vital programs were being cut, employees were being furloughed, and Mitt Romney was comparing California to austerity-ravaged Greece. Brown responded to the challenge by embracing fiscal responsibility while rejecting the reactionary economics of Romney and Ryan. Brown took an enormous risk in 2012: he bet that Californians were so tired of cuts and dysfunction that they would vote for a big tax increase. Brown bet right, securing overwhelming support for tax hikes on the rich—including a 29 percent increase for Californians with taxable income over $1 million—and a slight increase in the sales tax. That vote, along with solid Democratic majorities in the legislature, gave Brown flexibility. But he still took hits from all sides. Only as revenues began to fill state coffers did the tenor of the state debate shift, and with it the national impression of California and Jerry Brown.
By this past January, Brown was looking at a $4.2 billion budget surplus, and The Economist was announcing “California’s comeback.” By May, the numbers were pointing to an even greater surplus. As GOP stalwarts like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie whined about revenue shortfalls, Brown announced plans to increase spending on higher education by almost 10 percent and on K–12 education by 4.3 percent. He allocated $2.4 billion in additional funding to cover 1.4 million more people under the Medi-Cal insurance program for the poor. He proposed increased funding of the CalFresh food stamp program so that 134,000 additional households could join, and he directed $250 million in proceeds from greenhouse gas emission fees to a high-speed rail project that’s part of a broad response to climate change. In addition, Brown’s latest budget plan pays off debts run up by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, reimburses local governments for deferred state mandates and directs more money toward paying down unfunded liabilities for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System.
Toss in Brown’s signing of legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016, his strong support for a California version of the Dream Act and immigrants’ rights, and his focus on expanding local democracy and control, and you’ve got a governor who is blazing a distinct path—and who is doing so with considerable success. Standard & Poor’s just upgraded California’s economic outlook to “positive.” Unemployment has dropped more than four points since Brown was elected.
That’s a track record Brown could stack up against any governor, says Bill Press, who served in Brown’s first administration in the 1970s, chaired the state Democratic Party and is now a popular liberal talk-radio host. “He’s managing the largest state in the union; he took it over when it was flat on its back, and it is thriving now,” Press adds. “He’s done all this without declaring war on public employees, without mass layoffs of teachers, without any of the John Kasich/Scott Walker draconian talk that says the only way you can balance a budget is by making cuts and breaking the backs of public employees. He’s proved that that’s bullshit.”
National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, one of the state’s most powerful labor leaders, acknowledges that Brown frustrates her at times. “As an administrator, a coalition builder and a consensus builder, he’s been a success. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s been right on every issue,” she says. Yet DeMoro argues that as a politician who has made government work, Brown “stands out in radical opposition, in radical contrast, to the right wing.” That contrast is politically potent. “I have no doubt that if he was ten years younger, Jerry Brown would be the most sought-after governor in the country to run for president,” says Press. “He would be the nominee, and he would win.”
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Political veterans who know Brown’s history of wrangling with the Clintons during his 1992 presidential bid and in the ensuing years can imagine that the governor might relish taking on presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton. And those close to Brown say he does not see age as an impediment to continued public service. But the governor routinely dismisses talk of another presidential run, responding to a press inquiry about 2016: “No, that’s not in the cards. Unfortunately.”
It is telling that Brown added the word “unfortunately.” No one doubts that he ran for the presidency in 1976, 1980 and 1992 because he thought he could do a better job of running the country than anyone else. And you do not have to talk long with friends, political associates and observers of Brown to hear claims that, whatever he says in public, he’s positioning himself for the presidency. “Every move he’s making is the move of a presidential candidate. It’s almost a blueprint,” says Ralph Nader, who has ripped Brown for failing to rescind the medical-malpractice damages cap, but who likes the idea of a strong contender stepping up to thwart what he decries as a Clinton “coronation.”
For now, Brown is focusing on re-election. Under California’s open primary system, where candidates from all parties compete in a single June primary and then the top two finishers proceed to the November election, the governor is likely to face a Republican challenger this fall. The GOP establishment likes Neel Kashkari, a former Bush administration Treasury aide whose role in drafting unpopular bank-bailout schemes has left him with baggage. Kashkari could lose out to State Representative Tim Donnelly, who, the Associated Press notes, “is on probation for carrying a loaded gun into an airport, is accused of race-baiting and is best known for his opposition to gun control and any relaxation of immigration laws.” Neither Republican poses a challenge like the one Brown faced in 2010, when he squared off against former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman’s big name and gigantic bankroll.
Brown’s more thought-provoking challenges this year come from his left. California’s venerable Peace and Freedom Party is backing antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, who criticizes Brown for failing to spend his political capital and budget surpluses to achieve dramatic reductions in homelessness and long-term unemployment—and who counters his big spending on mass incarceration by outlining a plan to begin dismantling the prison-industrial complex. Brown should be pressured on those issues, as he should on concerns raised by Green candidate Luis Rodriguez, whose detailed platform includes a call for a complete ban on fracking and a sharp critique of the governor for his inadequate response to the plight of farmworkers.
Unlike many politicians, Brown responds well to challenges. He hit the skids after losing the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Popular culture ridiculed him—not as the “Governor Moonbeam” caricature of the 1970s, but as such a has-been that the 1995 film Jade featured a fictional California governor warning a prosecutor that if he didn’t drop a case “you’ll have as much of a future here as Jerry Brown.” (The prosecutor’s reply: “Who’s Jerry Brown?”) Brown went back to basics, plotting a comeback that began with eight years as mayor of Oakland, a tenure that continues to inform his enthusiasm for local control. In 2006, he was elected as California’s attorney general, and in 2010 he reclaimed the governorship. DeMoro thinks that after a big 2014 re-election, Brown could be recognized as the Democrat best prepared for 2016. “He’s positioned better than anyone in the country to run for president, aside from [Hillary] Clinton,” she argued. “And with Clinton it’s all this expectation. Brown has actually earned it. Who better than Jerry Brown?”
Hayden is skeptical. He has real doubts that Brown, having lost three presidential bids, would give up a strong position in California to mount an uphill challenge. “He has to recognize that he can do big things in California and leverage things to influence the nation and the world,” the longtime champion of state-based innovation adds, noting that Brown could make California a global leader in responding to the daunting threat of climate change. Having forged relationships with foreign governments, and fully conscious of the consumer power and economic influence of a state that is the world’s eighth-largest economy (bigger than Italy’s or Russia’s), Brown has already suggested that he sees the governorship as a position with as much potential as the presidency to reframe global debates. “Climate change is the great unifier. California is the great pivot. And Jerry is the great leader,” says Hayden. “So plan your next four years accordingly.”
Hayden’s counsel is well advised. In four years, Brown has adroitly positioned himself as a successful alternative to the politics of fear peddled by Republicans. But he has never been satisfied simply to be better than his opponents. Jerry Brown points out that “we live in unprecedented times,” and no one should doubt his determination to continue playing an unprecedented role in shaping them.