California Gov. Jerry Brown's State of the State address Wednesday was refreshingly brief. With a potential reelection looming this November, he's letting his record do the talking.
Governor Brown is popular, with his approval rating at 55 percent. He's also credited with helping to reboot what was long one of the nation's most dysfunctional states, turning chronic budget deficits in the tens of billions of dollars into budget surpluses today.
He has not yet declared himself a candidate for this fall, but Wednesday left little doubt about what his campaign slogan might be if he does.
“He departed from his prepared script to say: ‘My message: There is no substitute for experience,’ ” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “He meant it in a light-hearted way, but it will also be at the core of his reelection message,”
“He is the most experienced governor in California history, and he will run as the wise old man standing between Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives,” Professor Pitney adds. “He will cast himself as the leader who can serve progressive social ends without busting the budget.”
His success has made Brown into a nationally relevant figure and left the long-in-decline state Republican Party scrambling for someone to oppose an incumbent many political experts consider a shoo-in. Having persuaded Californians to raise taxes on themselves to balance the budget, Brown has positioned himself as a practical progressive whose no-nonsense approach appeals across the political spectrum.
“The ability of Democrats to govern well the nation's largest state is important for the Democratic Party nationally and for Democrats' electoral fortunes in California,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Jerry Brown's agenda can have a big influence upon future Democratic policy plans in the state and nation. To the extent Brown's policies and politics succeed, he provides a conspicuous example for Democrats in other states and in Washington, D.C.”
Brown did not shy away from holding up the Golden State as an example.
“Critics who have long recited our state’s decline perhaps have nothing to say in the face of California’s comeback – except, 'Please, don’t report it,' ” Brown said. "Well, I’m going to report it, and what a comeback it is: A million new jobs since 2010, a budgetary surplus in the billions, and a minimum wage rising to $10 an hour!"
Yet it is on financial matters that the GOP apparently is going to challenge Brown.
Former Goldman Sachs banker Neel Kashkari, who led the Troubled Asset Relief Program under George Bush, announced his candidacy for governor on Tuesday.
"I am running for governor of California to strengthen California families so that every kid in California gets a good education and to create a lot of good jobs. That is my platform: jobs and education, jobs and education," the candidate said before a packed hall of business representatives in Sacramento.
“He’s very smart, very moderate, and it is a mystery to me why he announced for governor rather than controller or treasurer, where his credentials lie,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.
While any challenger will have a tough time toppling Brown, there are some chinks in the governor's armor, some say.
“While there has been growth in jobs, they are not necessarily high-wage jobs,” says Michael Shires, professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, adding that the number of Californians working has actually plateaued during the past year.
“Republicans will also define him by his close relationship with public employee unions and the massive obligations and costs that these organizations raise for California,” says Professor Shires. “His continued support of the high speed train is also an area of potential vulnerability.”