When California’s budget was awash in red ink, Republican governors and their allies in other states repeatedly cast themselves as foils to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, using his famously liberal state as a piñata to elevate their profiles and emphasize the superiority of conservative political philosophy.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, the hard-charging executive of a blue state, portrayed the septuagenarian as an “old retread” and questioned how California voters could elect him again.
“Jerry Brown?” Christie asked, perplexed by Brown’s 2010 win over Meg Whitman. “I mean, he won the New Jersey presidential primary over Jimmy Carter when I was 14 years old.”
Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas conducted a “real live experiment” by dramatically curtailing taxes, moves supporters contrasted with the approach being taken in California, which hiked taxes under Brown.
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Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and perhaps Brown’s biggest detractor, declared himself a hunter of jobs, running radio ads driving around Sacramento in a rented Tesla.
California was said to be ungovernable. But more than five years later, Brown, once the state’s youngest and now oldest governor, is the one in the driver’s seat.
Presiding over the world’s sixth-largest economy, the fourth-term Democrat is enjoying record-high approval ratings. On Monday, Brown convinced enough Republican lawmakers to help him secure two-thirds passage for cap-and-trade legislation favored by powerful business and environmental organizations, a climate change-fighting bill the globe-trotting governor believes will help the state maintain its worldwide environmental leadership. That vote came just three months after he persuaded the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass a $52 billion increase in gas taxes and vehicle fees to repair the state’s aging roads and transportation infrastructure.
“What you are dealing with here is karma,” said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. “They picked on Jerry and California, and they fell on their faces. Maybe what we are looking at is there’s a curse for trying to put a hex on Jerry Brown.”
It’s not as though Brown has solved poverty or lowered housing costs dramatically in California. The state still carries a sizable liability for all the pensions it has promised public workers.
But in New Jersey, Christie is trying his hand hosting sports-talk radio, as a new Monmouth University poll found his approval rating at an all-time low of 15 percent. Aerial photos of him relaxing at a state beach park while the public amenity was closed because of a statewide budget shutdown went viral and sparked outrage across much of New Jersey.
Brownback’s “march to zero” took a detour when Kansas retreated from his tax cuts last month. What the Republican former senator promised would be a “shot of adrenaline” to the state’s economy has become a cautionary tale for governors staking their reputations on one piece of legislation.
Perry, the swaggering Texan who had never lost an election in the Lone Star State, limped though two failed presidential bids and took a turn on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” before being named President Donald Trump’s energy secretary.
Brown and California were easy targets when he took office amid a massive budget deficit. The state at the time faced a nearly $27 billion budget gap and estimated annual shortfalls of roughly $20 billion.
He tamed the budget morass though billions in cuts, an improving economy and passage of the sales and income tax increase, a version of which voters re-authorized last year. That allowed Brown and Legislative Democrats to focus on other priorities rather than something that had sucked up all of the oxygen at the Capitol.
“Instead of spending his time ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or lounging on the beach, our governor puts California issues first and continues to show what a real governor looks like,” said Shawnda Westly, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento. “He’s been leading the state and the nation since he got elected in 2010 and I, for one, find it laughable these other governors tried to pick that fight.”
In recent sessions, Democrats and Brown became the first state in the nation to gradually hike the minimum wage to $15 per hour. They approved a series of gun-control and tobacco measures, including raising the smoking age to 21 and regulating popular e-cigarettes. They expanded the rights of immigrants in the country illegally by granting them drivers licenses. They extended overtime pay protections to farmworkers after 75 years of them going without. They renewed the state’s ambitious goals for greenhouse gas reduction. And they mustered the two-thirds vote for the $52 billion road-fix program.
Yet even as the budget picture brightened, Brown molded himself into a check on Democrats’ profligate spending desires, creating a rainy day fund and forcing legislative leaders from his own party to choose their highest-priority spending requests. The approach appealed to statewide voters who wanted a “adult in the room,” Westly said.
“This isn’t about him. He’s going to be dead, as he said the other day,” she said. “As a mom of a 4-year-old, that’s what I am going to miss when he’s no longer governor.”
Gil Duran, a Democratic consultant and spokesman for Brown during his verbal jousting with other governors, said if his old boss were “a few years younger, he probably would be running for president again.”
A Berkeley IGS Poll in June found voter opinions of Brown’s performance remaining quite positive, with 59 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving. Brown, the governor before from 1975 to 1983, returned to the office with a 13-point victory over Whitman. In 2014, he beat Neel Kashkari by 20 points.
Now seemingly without another office to aspire to, Brown is breaking with most leading Democrats by taking a more nuanced approach in responding to Trump. Brown criticized the president for his health care repeal push, immigration policies, including the planned boarder wall, and his withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accords, calling it “insane” and “deviant.” But he’s left the door cracked to working with Trump on spending for infrastructure improvements and has received several disaster funding requests coming off heavy winter storms.
Conservative Assemblyman Travis Allen, one of three Republicans running for governor, credited Brown with “intelligently” noting that a universally “antagonist posture” to Trump is undesirable. However, the financial planner from Huntington Beach tore into Brown for “bribing” lawmakers to vote for the gas tax hike by offering nearly $1 billion in local projects.
Brown’s penchant for moving on was on display during a recent brush with Perry, which came last month when the two were in Beijing for the Clean Energy Ministerial with international energy experts. In 2013, Perry took a multi-day “business recruitment trip” to California, hoping to capitalize on the state’s taxes, which were among the highest in the nation. Brown, at the time, wasn’t impressed.
“It’s not a serious story, guys,” he said in a memorable exchange with reporters. “It’s not a burp. It’s barely a fart.”
But in China, Brown and Perry shook hands while traveling in opposite directions on an escalator. “He’s here talking about clean energy,” a seemingly appreciative Brown told E&E News.
Perhaps the only governor in recent years to take on Brown and see their own electoral prospects improve is Rick Scott of Florida. Scott followed Perry in a similar business-poaching plan. Within months of Perry leaving office, he announced a trip to Los Angeles to encourage shipping companies to relocate to ports in his “low-tax, business friendly” state.
Scott especially criticized California phasing in the $15 minimum wage, saying “job creators will face a crippling, new challenge on top of California’s already high taxes and burdensome regulations.”
Scott is thought to be a leading contender for U.S. Senate, as Morning Consult’s latest survey Tuesday found his popularity remaining high. Fifty-two percent approved of his performance while just 37 disapproved.
Whalen pointed to Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also in fierce competition for jobs, as state leaders who have largely avoided making it personal with California. Part of what made Brown – at a national level seen as personifying the quirks of his liberal state – such an attractive target for Republican governors was their own presidential ambitions.
“Jerry Brown is not beloved among Republican primary voters and conservatives,” is how Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist and former longtime Christie adviser, put it in a recent interview.
After Christie ripped Brown and characterized his 2012 tax increase as cowardly, Brown tried to provoke him into a series of physical challenges – a footrace, push-ups and a chin-up contest.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a feud,” Brown said on CNN. “He basically just was warming up, you know, throwing some red meat to the Republicans from California.”
Christie never took up Brown’s invitation, suggesting he “have that contest with himself.” Despite Christie’s latest setbacks, DuHaime said the comparisons between California, Kansas and New Jersey are not apt because Christie had to work with a Democratic legislature, whereas Brown and Brownback had large majorities of their own parties.
“Christie has the hardest path to walk,” DuHaime said. “One that called for a lot of compromise.”
Though Christie’s approval rating surged to 77 percent after Hurricane Sandy, when he embraced President Barack Obama in the heat of the 2012 presidential election, the Republican would later be punished by GOP presidential primary voters, particularly those outside the Northeast. Christie was never popular with groups like the teachers union. Other events, such as his office’s role in the bridge lane-closing scandal and his early endorsement of Trump, helped further erode what good will may have still existed for him in Democratic New Jersey.
Meantime, Brown’s remaining months as governor are only partially sketched. He plans another trip abroad this fall for climate talks. Next year, he wants to host world leaders for a climate summit in San Francisco.