Why California's governor may emerge as top defender of liberal values

Four-time Gov. Jerry Brown, who has a history of political independence, may be the Democrat most likely to chart a path that not only defends liberal values but also finds some practical middle ground with Washington.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo
California Gov. Jerry Brown is greeted by lawmakers as he enters the Assembly to deliver his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the state Legislature Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Sacramento, Calif.

As California gears up for four years under a Republican White House and Congress, Gov. Jerry Brown is emerging as uniquely suited to playing a key role for blue states inclined toward political rebellion.

Since the tea party wave of 2010, the picture has been reversed: Red states barraging the Obama administration with lawsuit after lawsuit. The question now is whether blue states will respond in kind.

Governor Brown, who has a history of political independence and no elections left to campaign for, may be the Democrat most likely to chart a path that not only defends liberal values but also finds some practical middle ground with Washington, when possible.

The four-term governor of the country’s biggest state brings a mixture of experience, personal prudence, and pragmatism. And at a time when California is holding itself up as a big blue target for the new administration’s deeply conservative agenda, experts say, Brown may provide what the state – and the Democratic Party – needs to see.

“Knowing how to navigate this is going to take a lot of political sophistication – picking and choosing when to fight and when to not fight,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “That’s what a lot of the top leaders are wrestling with.”

Blue-state battle cry

Take his State of the State address this week, which encompassed both sides of the governor: the Democratic leader sounding the blue-state battle cry, and the pragmatic politician acknowledging the limits of his power.

Brown made it clear that on issues closest to liberal hearts – health care, immigration, and climate change – he would stand firm with his Democratic Legislature and constituency against Washington’s conservative agenda.

“California’s never turning back,” he said, eliciting a standing ovation. “Not now, not ever.”

“That is as hard, as tough, as I have ever heard him,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California. “He drew that line in the sand with that speech.”

Yet even as he urged the defense of California’s immigrant communities, Brown recognized the supremacy of federal law over state. As he called for the defense of liberal values, he reminded lawmakers from both parties of their shared victories. And he gave an approving ad lib – “Amen to that, brother!” – to the president’s commitment to invest in public works.

The tone of his State of the State, observers say, reinforced his stature as a true-blue liberal and established his place at the helm of what is looking like a blue state rebellion. At the same time, Brown’s reputation for pragmatism – an attribute that helped him pull California from the brink of bankruptcy in 2010 – gives him room to defy party orthodoxy in the name of getting things done.

“He’s positioned himself as the unchallenged leader of the state’s Democratic majority, but also the unpredictable person who doesn’t always follow the party line and reaches across the aisle to Republicans,” Professor Sonenshein says. “His role seems both to fight the new administration, and to be aware of the dynamics swirling around California and Washington.”

California as Ground Zero

Clearly, California will play a crucial role during the next four years.

“California is going to be ground zero,” Sonenshein says. “As we focus on how [the president’s] decisions will be implemented, a lot of eyes are going to turn here to see whether or not [they] can be slowed down, modified, or successfully resisted.”

That puts Brown in a central role.

“Everything that he will have learned in politics will be put into play by this,” Jeffe says.

Brown began those lessons in the 1970s as a young governor who drove a Plymouth instead of a limousine and lived in an almost austere apartment, rather than a governor’s mansion.

Pragmatism came later, after several failed campaigns for the presidency.

When he returned to politics in 1998, running for mayor of Oakland, it was for a term that was to be transformative, as much – if not more – for him as for the city.

In the process of reviving Oakland’s downtown, The New York Times reported, Brown “cut generous deals with developers, streamlined the approval process and pushed aside city officials who stood in the way.” His efforts, the Times noted, were “an exercise in hard-nosed big-city politics.”

When Brown returned to the governorship for a third term in 2010, California, reeling from the Great Recession, was $27 billion in debt. He unapologetically raised taxes and cut spending, angering lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “You’ve got to be able to say, ‘No,’ ” Brown told CBS News in 2015. “[T]his government is not something you just milk forever.”

In November, the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts’ Office projected a $2.8 billion budget surplus for 2017 – a figure that would allow California to “weather a mild recession” without major tax increases or budget cuts for four years.

Paddling to the left

Brown’s State of the State speech, Jeffe says, placed the governor firmly to the left of his own “canoe theory of politics”: “You paddle a little on the left and little on the right and you paddle a straight course.”

“If the Legislature wants to fight Trump I think Brown will support it,” says Thad Kousser, chair of the political science department at the University of California, San Diego.

There’s reason, however, to think that Brown will want to keep lanes to the White House open. Part of it has to do with his legacy – both as governor himself and as son of California’s most famous governor, Edmund “Pat” Brown, who is seen as the architect of modern-day California.

“He has this Brown DNA coursing through him, to build something big and grand,” says Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Edmund Brown, Sr., built highways, universities, water systems. For Jerry, it’s water tunnels, a high-speed rail.

“That’s what money from Washington will help with,” he says.

As such, Brown stands apart from younger officials in Sacramento like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, newly appointed attorney general Xavier Becerra, and Senate president pro-tempore Kevin de León.

“Other major players have their eyes on the political scorecard, and on making the political gains from fighting the Trump administration even if they lose,” Professor Kousser says. “Jerry Brown is more focused on winning.”

Keeping the federal government from abusing his state is also part of his job, adds Robert Smith, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. That, along with the prudence that has characterized his career, could serve California well in what many project to be four long, litigious years. 

“That was a good reminder to the Legislature that you don’t want to go back to the days where the governor is standing at the schoolhouse door to defy federal authority,” Professor Smith says, referring to Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who bodily resisted federal efforts to desegregate the state university.

“In this role [Brown] has played in California – being broadly progressive but not always predictable, and being willing to say no – maybe he’s been preparing for this, maybe without planning it,” Sonenshein adds. “Maybe it’ll work.”

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