It's obvious that the Golden State isn’t golden anymore. As a new transplant here, the first state political event I watched up close was a May 2009 special election, featuring six ballot initiatives designed to avert a titanic budget crisis. California’s voters responded with what can best be described as snarling apathy. Turnout was 20 percent, which beat the previous California record for low turnout in a statewide election. The five initiatives that dealt with spending and revenue—which needed to pass in order to implement a major fiscal comprom ise—all went down, hard. (Most of them lost by two-to-one margins; a sixth initiative, denying legislators pay raises when the budget’s not balanced, passed.) Californians weren't just experiencing a momentary fit of pique, either: In 2005, a similar package of eight budget deal-related ballot initiatives met the same fate.
As of March 21, the approval rating for Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stood at 23 percent, which was where his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, was when he was recalled and booted out of office in 2003. But that level of support looks robust compared to that of the state legislature (controlled, if that’s not too strong a word, by Democrats), which stands at nine percent, not far from statistical zero.
California's bad case of political self-loathing goes beyond a terrible economy, the state’s chronic monstrous state budget deficits, and the endless gridlock over virtually all major decisions in Sacramento. On the structural level, California’s permissive ballot initiative system has inserted voters—or, to be cynical about it, the special interests backing initiatives—into matters normally left to governors and legislators, resulting in constitutional limits on property taxes; excessive reliance on recession-sensitive income taxes; a crippling two-thirds vote requirement for legislative enactment of a state budget or for increasing taxes at any level of government; and a variety of spending mandates. Polls consistently show that a majority of citizens oppose tax increases and most spending cuts (they do favor cutting spending on prisons, which are operating under court rules and stuffed with inmates who have run afoul of the state’s many mandatory sentencing laws, some imposed by initiative). “Waste” is where Californians seem to want lawmakers to look for the massive savings necessary to balance the budget. Too bad
The obvious question is why anyone would want to be the next governor of California. But three viable candidates—two Republicans and one Democrat—are defying logic by offering themselves for this post. One Republican, state insurance commissioner and former tech executive Steve Poizner, is running on a systematic right-wing platform of massive spending cuts, new personal and business tax cuts, and, for dessert, another effort to ban access to public benefits for undocumented workers and their families. The second GOP candidate, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, is running far ahead of Poizner, floating her campaign on an extraordinary sea of early money. Three months before the June primary, and eight months before the general election, Whitman (or eMeg, as local political journalists often call her) has already spent $46 million, mostly from personal funds on her campaign, and has threatened to spend up to $150 million if necessary. She has launched an astoundingly early series of saturation media ads, becoming ubiquitous on the California airwaves, as recently explained by David Crane of the influential political blog Calbuzz:
The campaign’s Gross Rating Point report, measuring total delivery of the current week’s broadcast ad schedule in 11 markets in California, shows that eMeg’s buy is comparable to what a fully-loaded campaign might ordinarily deliver in the closing weeks of a heated race—not three months before a primary that she’s prohibitively leading.
“These are some big fuckin’ numbers,” said Bill Carrick, the veteran Democratic media consultant after reviewing the report. “She’s buying the whole shebang.”
Whitman’s ads mainly convey, with numbing repetition, her claim to offer a fresh start for the state, delivered by a rock-star business executive committed to cuts in spending, tax cuts, and education reform. But she recently launched another batch aimed at primary opponent Poizner—whom she leads in the most recent Field Poll by 49 points—depicting the hyper-conservative as, believe it or not, a liberal who thinks just like Nancy Pelosi. (Poizner is reportedly planning to fire back using $19 million of his own Silicon Valley fortune, which may force Whitman to tack in a conservative direction on issues that she’d just as soon avoid, such as immigration.)
These assaults have raised some old concerns about her reputation in corporate circles for being ruthless in the pursuit of her goals, and a bit deranged—exhibiting an “evil Meg” alongside the “good Meg” of her press clippings—if denied her wishes. She’s also bought herself grief by refusing, until very recently, to answer press questions or elaborate beyond the happy talk of her biographical ads about her positions on various issues. All in all, she’s in danger of earning the reputation of being something of a robo-pol like her political mentor, Mitt Romney.
Indeed, Whitman’s overall strategy appears to be to clear the primary field by bludgeoning Poizner out of the picture with attack ads, and then to run as a can-do moderate conservative who's worth a gamble for the relatively few voters who bother to show up at the polls. And she is reportedly spending hundreds of thousands of dollars building a library of negative information to use against her general election opponent, a guy named Jerry Brown.
That's right, Edmund Gerald "Jerry" Brown Jr., who is, on paper, the least likely person imaginable to become the frontrunner for governor of a state that is so passionately disillusioned with politicians. The son of an old-style liberal Democratic governor who served two terms before being bounced from office by Ronald Reagan, Brown was first elected to statewide office 40—yes, 40—years ago. After a term as secretary of state, he was governor for eight years, and later state party chair, mayor of Oakland, and currently attorney general of California. He also ran unsuccessfully, and somewhat fecklessly, for the U.S. Senate once and for president three times. (Coming second to Bill Clinton in 1992.) Not many Californians can remember a time when Brown or his father wasn’t in office or pursuing office, and most can remember more than one occasion when Brown Jr. did something quirky, embarrassing, or controversial. Indeed, Whitman may be wasting her money reminding them.
But that's the funny thing about Jerry Brown's candidacy. Instead of being the fattest target in America for a Republican opponent, Brown is even with or slightly trailing Whitman in recent polls, despite her massive unopposed spending on TV ads—and, given California’s Democratic registration advantage, he's a good bet to win unless the effectiveness of Whitman’s spending significantly outstrips the likely backlash against it.
You see, Jerry Brown is a tough challenger because he is hard to confine to the standard political and ideological boxes. His long political career may be a handicap in some respects, but it has also helped him defy typecasting and create unusual coalitions. Long an ally of Democratic liberals—in the 1990s, he had a show on the lefty Pacifica radio network—Brown governed California as a fiscal hawk in the wake of the property tax-slashing Proposition 13 (which he had opposed) in 1978. Similarly, as mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007, he became known for a strong law-enforcement record, and for his championship of charter public schools, including one controversial military school. He can be broadly characterized as a social liberal and fiscal conservative, which is a good fit for his state. But his leitmotif as a politician has always been unpredictability and a knack for anticipating and sometimes embodying the zeitgeist.
What's more, his unique form of personal charisma makes him freakishly appropriate for the contemporary madness of California politics. For instance, here’s a characteristic snippet from an interview that Brown conducted with The New York Times, just after he was elected attorney general in 2006:
Over the years, you have moved from being a fabled liberal to a centrist position.
I don’t know. I don’t use that spatial metaphor.
Then how would you describe yourself politically?
I’m very independent. There’s a great line from Friedrich Nietzsche: A thinking man can never be a party man.
Charming. Yet, despite his willingness to name-check Nietzsche, Jerry Brown prefers the idea that politicians should tamp down their own passions, in a way the philosopher might have abhorred. He seriously studied Zen Buddhism in the 1980s, underwent training for the Jesuit priesthood, and worked with Mother Teresa in
Indeed, over four decades of engagement in public life, Jerry Brown has developed a remarkable knack for displaying a sense of his own—and government’s—limits. He began his gubernatorial first term in 1975 with an off-the-cuff “address” that ran seven minutes; replaced the traditional inaugural ball with an informal dinner at a Chinese restaurant; traded in his gubernatorial limo for a 1974 Plymouth from the state car pool; rented a small apartment instead of living in the governor’s mansion; and reportedly slept on a mattress on the floor. (As governor, Brown was far more fiscally conservative than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who raised taxes and spending several times. His austerity, which created vast budget surpluses, prompted one Reagan aide to joke that the Gipper “thinks Jerry Brown has gone too far to the right.”) Appropriately, one of Brown's publicly identified gurus was Small Is Beautiful author E.F. Schumacher, and he once described his governing style, using a strikingly Zen phrase, as “creative inaction.” That could be very handy if he gets the job he is running for, where limits have been placed on virtually everything a governor can do, and it also provides a strong contrast to Whitman, whose campaign screams hubris.
Short of having their own grossly rich and relentless attack dog in the race, Democrats are probably blessed to have Brown, who can be expected to shrug off Whitman’s certain assault on his record and land a few coolly delivered blows of his own. He’s already reminding voters that California hasn’t had a particularly good recent experience with “outsider” governors promising to come in and clean up Sacramento by sheer force of will. And, without a doubt, Whitman's campaign will bring back bad memories of another California candidate who boasted of vast executive experience and spent money like water on unconscionable attack ads: Al Checchi, whose over-the-top 1998 campaign eventually elevated the most boring candidate in the field, Gray Davis, to the governorship.
Meanwhile, Brown will have the luxury of leaving the anti-Whitman dirty work to surrogates and supporters who are planning a half-million ad assault on the Republican. And it's not exactly a bad time to run as something of an anti-corporate populist, as Brown is doing, talking up "the people who work for the people, the firefighters, the nurses, the hospital workers, the janitors." I don’t have to spell out which billionaire CEO-politician might be caught in that rhetorical net.
And Brown’s other ace in the hole could well be the Latino vote. Dating back to his close association with pioneer farm-labor organizer Cesar Chavez—who backed Brown's 1975 candidacy in hopes of finding a political solution to the United Farm Workers' problems—Brown has longstanding ties to California’s Latino community. Even in polls showing Whitman in the lead, he is beating her badly among Latinos. If Poizner gains traction in the primary, she will be under heavy pressure to move closer to his harsh positions on denying state aid to undocumented workers. And it hasn’t escaped notice that one of Whitman’s closest advisors is former governor Pete Wilson, whose sponsorship of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 back in 1994 decisively alienated Latino voters from the GOP and materially contributed to the state’s current Democratic majority.
It's a long time until November. The Brown-Whitman tilt will have to share media attention and airtime with a Republican challenge to Senator Barbara Boxer and, before that, with a close and entertaining Senate primary battle between Carly Fiorina and Tom Campbell. At the state GOP convention two weeks ago, Fiorina, like Whitman an “outsider” business executive, was the star of the show. Her quirky web ads going after Campbell (the “demon sheep” ad, already a cult classic) and Boxer (a new ad unveiled at the GOP gathering that showed the senator morphing into a hot-air balloon.) are as imaginative and attention-grabbing as Whitman’s TV spots are shrill and heavy-handed. The high point of Meg's appearance was a press conference where she finally answered press questions. Her leaden convention speech and an over-produced Mitt Romney endorsement provided a glimpse of how poorly her act could wear on Californians over the long haul.
And it’s not as though Jerry Brown is likely to present Whitman with an unmoving target. As protean as California itself and as wily as any other 40-year veteran of political wars, Brown nicely defined himself in an interview with Calbuzz just after officially announcing his candidacy: “Adaptation is the essence of evolution,” he explained. “And those who don’t adapt go extinct.”
Indeed, such adaptivity may be the only thing that can serve California's needs right now. With the state no longer in its political golden age, the harsh reality of running—and governing—in a place with such baleful political realities will require a truly kaleidescopic ability to make the best of a hostile environment. And, in a contest with a Republican who seems determined to prove that she and her checkbook can win it her way or no way, I wouldn’t place any bets against Jerry Brown becoming California’s right-man-in-the-right-place, one last time.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He is also managing editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.