Politics & Government

Environmentalists protest Gov. Jerry Brown at California Democratic Party convention

Gov. Jerry Brown, rallying Democrats ahead of this year’s elections, called on his state party Saturday to join him in a “crusade” against climate change, even as environmentalists amplified their growing frustration with the governor.

Activists protesting Brown’s permissiveness of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial form of oil extraction, held signs and chanted feet from the podium where Brown addressed the California Democratic Party’s annual convention. The demonstration provoked Brown to defend his environmental record and to accuse environmentalists, like other Californians, of driving too much.

“All you guys who like to make noise, just listen a moment,” Brown said. “Californians, and most of you included, are driving over 330 billion miles a year. Three hundred and thirty billion miles a year, and 99 percent is fossil fuel.”

The exchange overshadowed Brown’s first major speech since announcing just more than a week ago that he will seek re-election. The activists gained attention in part because of the boisterousness of their protest and in part because Brown – facing relatively safe election prospects – said little on any other subject he has not said before.

“You can be sure that everything that needs to be done to fight climate change that we can accomplish, we’ll do it,” Brown said. “And I ask all of you, every one of you in this room, to join in a crusade to protect our climate, to find other ways of mobility, and to make sure this California dream is alive and well both now and for generations to come.” 

Brown championed environmental causes when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983. But since returning to the Capitol in 2011, he has frustrated activists with his effort to relax provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act and, more recently, his approval of legislation establishing a permitting system for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The anti-fracking protesters have heckled Brown at events since last year, but Brown’s speech Saturday gave them their highest-profile appearance yet. The protesters fear the environmental impacts of fracking, in which water and chemicals are injected underground to break up rock formations. They applauded Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist who spoke just hours after Brown, when he called for legislation requiring approval by two-thirds of local voters before fracking can go forward in any county.

Steyer’s remarks reflect an expansion of his effort to lobby the state Legislature on oil. He previously announced a bid to push for a tax on oil extraction in California, despite such efforts failing to gain support in past years.

Steyer has refrained from criticizing Brown on his environmental policies, despite their differences. Asked after his speech if his remarks were a challenge to the Democratic governor, Steyer said, “No, we didn’t write this speech in the two hours in between then and now.”

The bill Brown signed last year requires an environmental analysis of fracking, and Brown has urged audiences to withhold judgment until that analysis is complete. The oil industry has said fracking, a decades-old practice, is safe.

On Saturday, Brown urged environmentalists to focus on a range of issues, not only hydraulic fracturing. He said the “challenge here is gigantic” and that California is “leading the way.”

At the end of his address, he said, “Thanks a lot, and keep protesting, but add a bunch of more stuff.”

Disappointment with Brown within the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party is unlikely to hurt his re-election campaign. Brown has raised more than $18 million and faces two lesser-known and underfunded Republicans, Twin Peaks Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former U.S. Treasury Department official Neel Kashkari.

The controversy surrounding fracking provided the only intrigue in a governor’s race no Democrat is contesting. Instead, delegates have been consumed this weekend with two competitive statewide primary contests lower on the ticket, for controller and secretary of state.

Democratic candidates for those offices set up satellite offices and flooded the convention hotel with volunteers.

But as they circled each other at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, it was not the candidates’ own credentials that filled the air, but a question about whether the party should endorse any Democrat in these races at all.

“Party unity is the way to go,” Stephanie Ng, a volunteer for state Sen. Leland Yee, told passers-by she stopped in the hall. “So, no endorsement.”

Yee is one of three Democrats running for secretary of state. The others are former California Common Cause official Derek Cressman and state Sen. Alex Padilla, whose name was emblazoned on room keys at the hotel.

“We’re Democrats,” said Padilla, who is pushing for an endorsement. “And this is a Democratic process.”

John Burton, the party chairman, had asked the candidates for secretary of state and controller not to seek the party’s endorsement.

“I made a suggestion; they didn’t follow it,” he said. “I’m not going to go home and cry.”

Betty Yee, a candidate for controller, said she can “see it both ways.” The state Board of Equalization member, who is running for the party endorsement against Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, said she expects some activists this weekend will be “very uncomfortable” with the competition between members of the same party.

On the other hand, she said, endorsing candidates is a “primary responsibility of delegates.”