It was the safest of political pronouncements – and a reprise of his campaign four years ago – when Gov. Jerry Brown announced Thursday he will run for re-election.
In a tweet and in a letter on his campaign website, Brown offered no sweeping agenda for a historic fourth term. Instead, the Democratic governor cheered California’s improving budget outlook and cast himself as its steward.
“Four years ago, I asked that you support my candidacy for governor based on my bringing an ‘insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s mind’ to fix the budget breakdown and overcome Sacramento’s poisonous partisanship,” Brown wrote. “Now, four years later, a $27 billion deficit has become a surplus and our credit rating and public confidence are rising. State budgets are not only balanced but they are on time and free of the rancor of past years.”
The tenor of the announcement reflects the ease with which Brown is expected to retain office in this Democratic-leaning state. But it also suggests the circumspection of a governor who faces resistance, including from members of his own party, to major infrastructure projects he has struggled to push forward since taking office.
In his announcement, Brown pledged his “full commitment to bringing all the disparate parties together and working to achieve sensible, scientific and sustainable water policies,” but he side-stepped his controversial plan to build two tunnels to divert water around the Delta.
He only briefly mentioned California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project. The rail program is beset by legal challenges, and public opinion has turned against it.
The most significant accomplishments of Brown’s third term relate to budget oversight and the passage of a ballot initiative to raise taxes, and he suggested Thursday that his campaign – if not the next four years – will emphasize a continuation of that fiscal agenda.
“This has been a caretaker governorship, whether he wants to use that word or not,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. “He ran as a guy who would fix the problem, not a guy who would take the state in a dramatically different direction.”
Still, Brown’s Republican opponents, Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly, are underfunded and little known by voters. Whalen said Brown “can coast.”
Brown has raised more than $18 million for his re-election effort, including from labor unions, oil companies and other business interests, and his announcement Thursday was widely expected.
He posted the letter online and tweeted a picture of himself at an elections counter.
“Taking out papers to run for re-election,” the tweet said.
The announcement came in Brown’s typically understated fashion. There is little political reason for a frontrunner to highlight controversies in an election year, and Brown is the beneficiary not only of his own oversight of the budget, but of the state’s improving economic condition.
“He’s referring to some actual accomplishments that you have to give him credit for,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist. “Partly it was his leadership and discipline and partly it was luck, but nevertheless, when you’re governor, the good things attach to you and the bad things attach to you. He’s got a fair amount of good things to crow about ... the budget situation, which has gone from awful to relatively good in two or three years.”
Brown, who will turn 76 in April, is California’s oldest sitting governor, and he surpassed Earl Warren as the state’s longest-serving last year. Brown’s focus on administrative experience is one he used to great advantage in 2010, in his campaign against Republican Meg Whitman, a billionaire businesswoman with no experience in elected office.
“It plays to his strength,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “He’s the most experienced governor in the history of this state.”
Pitney said of the contest between Brown and his Republican challengers, “If it’s an argument on the issues it’s not a slam dunk. If it’s an argument on experience, it is.”
Donnelly, a Twin Peaks assemblyman, and Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, have hammered Brown in recent weeks on high-speed rail and the state’s high poverty rate.
In prepared statements, Donnelly said he anticipates a “showdown between socialism and freedom,” while Kashkari criticized “a status quo that is devastating for millions of families and communities all across the state.”
California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said Brown has talked about high-speed rail and water “ad nauseam” and that he isn’t running for another four years to be a caretaker. He said Brown wants another four years “to do whatever the heck he feels like doing to improve the state.”
Brown and Warren are the only two California governors ever elected to three terms in California. If Brown wins re-election in November, he will become the only governor elected to four. His two previous terms, from 1975 to 1983, pre-dated a constitutional amendment that limits chief executives to two terms.
“If you had asked me 40 years ago – when I first ran for governor – what I would be doing in 2014, I could never have guessed,” Brown said in his letter. “Nor could anyone else. Yet, by the grace of God and habits of perseverance instilled in me by my family, the Dominican nuns and the Jesuits, I am here and ready to go.”