Gov. Jerry Brown was an intriguing early choice to command the national resistance to President Donald Trump.
In his fourth term, and with a national profile, Brown is unencumbered by re-election concerns. The Democratic governor has never been more popular in California, a state that overwhelmingly rejected Trump’s candidacy, and where just a third of its residents approve of his performance.
Brown has showed rhetorical flashes, defending Obamacare health insurance this week in Washington and urging the president to “come down from Trump Tower and walk among the people.” Late in December, he was defiant on protecting the environment, vowing that if Trump withdrew from climate change research, “California will launch its own damn satellite.”
But as Brown’s trip to the nation’s capital this week laid bare, all of the factors that would have made him an ideal adversary to Trump could also be used to, as the Democratic governor put it repeatedly, work to “find common ground.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
I am not going to say, ‘Oh, no, we don’t talk to the president,’ or ‘We don’t talk to Republicans.’
Gov. Jerry Brown
Pure partisan resistance never accurately described Brown, who in a speech last year said that while “ideology and politics stand in the way ... one way or another the roads must be fixed.”
“I am not going to say, ‘Oh, no, we don’t talk to the president,’ or ‘We don’t talk to Republicans,’ ” Brown told reporters Tuesday after appealing to House Republicans and the Trump administration.
The meetings, on Capitol Hill and with heads of the Department of Transportation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, follow a request for nearly $540 million in federal disaster relief for winter storm damage, and for reconsideration of a nearly $650 million grant to electrify Caltrain, a stalled rail project to shuttle riders between Silicon Valley and San Francisco.
Brown identified infrastructure as an area where “we can all work together” in his State of the State address in January, in which he also pledged to protect the state’s interests on immigration, health care and climate change. Last month, his administration submitted an initial list of infrastructure projects for Trump’s consideration representing more than $100 billion in spending.
Among the governor’s priorities, including several with their own revenue streams, are creating an express lane network he says will relieve Bay Area congestion, extending BART to San Jose, raising Folsom Dam to improve flood protection, building a hydroelectric energy storage facility in Riverside County and purifying Los Angeles water now being discharged to the ocean in order to recharge groundwater basins.
Even as other governors harbor doubts, Brown on several occasions cited Trump’s calls for a separate infrastructure program totaling $1 trillion, with some coming from tax credits and public-private partnerships. Brown said he continues to refine his list based on the feedback he’s been receiving, including from his meetings in Washington with the administration and the state’s Democratic and Republican delegations.
I just hope that California doesn’t turn (Trump) off.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from Costa Mesa, said in a hallway conversation after leaving the meeting with Brown that if ever there was a time for California to be looking for infrastructure help, “this is the right time given Trump’s statements.” Still, the congressman said he’s concerned about negative consequences resulting from Democratic leaders’ unremitting criticisms of the president.
“I just hope that California doesn’t turn (Trump) off,” Rohrabacher said.
“If the political leaders in California are using their authority and their efforts to block President Trump’s efforts to control the illegal flow of immigrants into our country, then they can’t expect to get preferential treatment when it comes to other issues of government,” he added.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, was circumspect. Asked if GOP member can find common ground with Brown, Nunes replied, “You never know.”
Brown also met with Democratic leaders from the House and Senate. Yet it was only during his brief remarks critiquing the GOP health care plan, where Brown was joined by former Vice President Joe Biden and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, that he occupied something approaching a national presence, despite his proximity to the action.
Biden, following the nearly 79-year-old Brown, whom he called the best governor in the country, said he was so fired up “I was about to take my tie off.”
On infrastructure collaboration, Brown was more pragmatic than political.
What’s emerged so far from Trump is a budget blueprint that slashes billions from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Brown’s aides confirmed that their requests to streamline federal environmental reviews for several key infrastructure projects remain unanswered.
And outside of the Department of Transportation’s headquarters, Brown wondered aloud how the infrastructure funding might come together, and whether it will even add up to $1 trillion.
With all of the money Trump is proposing to spend on defense, and the billions he wants to set aside to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, “how do we then take care of our roads, our bridges, our dams and all the other things we have to deal with?” Brown asked.
We have this trillion-dollar promise, and we have some very sketchy outline of how it might be financed.
Randall Eberts, president of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research
Randall Eberts, president of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Michigan and an expert on public workforce development, agreed it’s difficult to assess the politics of the situation without a concrete plan: “The first question is what is the infrastructure package?” he asked.
“We have this trillion-dollar promise, and we have some very sketchy outline of how it might be financed,” Eberts said.
He suggested that an added layer of complication comes from Trump’s big loss in California, and his deep unpopularity in the state.
“I don’t know how he’ll react to that. I am sure he is not throwing out any olive branch at this point,” Eberts said. “But, you can imagine hearing that, ‘It’s the wealthiest and largest state, so we can’t ignore it, and we need to provide funding for some very important infrastructure investments.’ ”
The California governor’s opening on transportation gives Trump a chance to demonstrate to suburban voters he can work with somebody like Brown, said Bill Burton, a Democratic strategist who worked for former President Barack Obama. For Trump, that could help open the door on issues like technology, transit, agriculture and and homelessness.
“He has room to do better with Californians,” Burton said. “But I think he’s decided to make California an enemy as opposed to a symbol. And I think Californians would be better off if Donald Trump saw this as a place of opportunity.”
Brown stressed there is reason for hope. He said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy outlined possibilities for the Caltrain project, which is being viewed as a barometer of sorts for bipartisan cooperation between state Democratic officials and GOP leaders in Washington.
Pressure also has continued to intensify from the region’s influential business interests.
We have a bit of a track record in Silicon Valley on transportation improvements that when the door is locked.
Carl Guardino, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group
Carl Guardino, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, recently returned from meetings in Washington where the organization briefed congressional members on the benefits of an electrified Caltrain. He said Brown’s advocacy gives the project a persistent ally.
“We have a bit of a track record in Silicon Valley on transportation improvements that when the door is locked, you check the windows, or you build a new door,” Guardino said. “But right now, we’re going to try to pick the lock, because the first door – meaning funds from the federal government – should be unlocked, and the governor stepping in directly is good for our mutual effort.”
Added Brown: “On the logic, if we can just get by the politics, we can find a way to get it financed.”