Before California’s last competitive gubernatorial race, in 2010, Micah Weinberg, then a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Sacramento, looked closely at the speeches of 97 governors over six years from all 50 states.
His seemingly straightforward conclusion, published in State Politics & Policy Quarterly, was that governors do best in public opinion when they load up on partisan language that appeals to their party’s base.
Which is why, six years later, Weinberg isn’t sure what to make of Gov. Jerry Brown.
The fourth-term Democrat, like many of his predecessors, embodies a more moderate reflection of his party’s activist ideal.
But unlike Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republicans who fell out of favor with their party’s rank and file, or Gray Davis, a Democrat who was recalled, Brown’s popularity has taken no hit.
His public approval rating stood at 56 percent in January, according to the Field Poll, about where it has hovered since 2013. It is far higher among Democrats, at 77 percent.
“It’s extremely interesting,” said Weinberg, now president of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute. “And it’s a puzzle that I can’t tell you I have the precise solution to.”
The platform that the California Democratic Party adopted at its annual convention over the weekend presses a more aspirational agenda than Brown on issues ranging from gun control and education spending to recreational marijuana and taxation.
It also calls for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial form of oil extraction that Brown has refused to ban. At the state party’s convention two years ago, activists interrupted Brown during a speech to thousands of delegates, waving signs and chanting several feet from his lectern.
Brown has not addressed a general session of the party since, appearing more recently with less advance notice – or none at all – and in smaller venues around the convention halls.
In San Jose for this year’s convention, Brown spoke for about 10 minutes at a dinner on Saturday night and left through a side door. An environmentalist opposed to hydraulic fracturing muttered and clicked his fingers during the speech. He followed Brown to the exit, but the governor left unmolested.
In a hallway, a woman shouted, “I love you, Jerry Brown!”
Brown’s low profile at the party’s largest annual event served as a reminder of the uneasiness of his relationship with the rank and file.
“I think a number of people are fairly unhappy with the governor’s lack of visibility,” said Barbara Leary, a Sierra Club member who was staffing the organization’s booth at the convention. “I think that’s a common sentiment, and it signals a little bit of distance from the party activists.”
Despite Brown’s longstanding record championing environmental causes, Leary and many other environmentalists fault Brown for one of his priorities in his final term, a $15.5 billion plan to build two tunnels to divert water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south.
Still, Leary said she holds a “split opinion” about Brown. Standing beside her was a fellow member of the Sierra Club, Mike Bullock, who said, “The biggest issue of our time is climate change, and I think he’s been a powerful force on that issue.”
In the 1990s, Wilson infuriated fellow Republicans by raising taxes and supporting abortion rights. Schwarzenegger’s willingness to negotiate with Democrats alienated Republicans, as did his admonition to the GOP that it was “dying at the box office.”
In an interview, Brown attributed his ability to maintain the support of Democrats, despite their differences, to an improving economy that has lifted moods. His public approval rating stood below 50 percent when he first took office and inherited a multibillion-dollar deficit.
“I’m well positioned with the business cycle to continue rising with the jobs,” Brown said. “Were the business cycle to be going in the other direction, some of these contradictions would become more painful.”
Yet the latitude that Brown enjoys appears at times more personal than an economic index would suggest.
Last year, when Brown called efforts to change California’s landmark property-tax-limiting measure a “tar baby” – a controversial term that politicians from Mitt Romney to John Kerry have taken criticism for using – hardly anyone expressed offense. Nor was there any outrage when, after taking a brief vacation out of state in 2012, Brown acknowledged the public had a “legitimate interest” in his whereabouts but refused to divulge them.
“We’ve got a Teflon governor,” said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova.
Cooley said Brown connects with party activists and lawmakers because he is “centered in himself” and unafraid to exert executive authority.
When Brown issued what was believed to be an unprecedented budget veto in 2011, Cooley said, “I think that shell-shocked a lot of people.”
He said, “I think we’ll get tougher with the next governor.”
Compared to other governors, Weinberg said, Brown is “a bit of an outlier.” The governor’s State of the State address this year, in which Brown warned of a future economic downturn and urged lawmakers to restrain spending, was “very much a fiscally conservative, very explicitly so, speech,” Weinberg said.
For other Democrats Weinberg studied, that brand of rhetoric could displease party voters, resulting in a dip in public approval.
The difference, he suggested, is “Jerry Brown just isn’t some guy, right? He’s obviously someone who was governor himself in the ’70s, ran for president himself several times and just has political acumen, a political network and a track record that is pretty unmatchable.”
For most governors, Weinberg said, “The assumption is that they’re not this titan that Jerry Brown really is.”
Democratic activists at the convention voted to support Brown’s ballot initiative to make certain nonviolent felons eligible for early parole. But they also endorsed a gun control measure that Brown has expressed reservations about and a tax extension on which he has remained neutral.
When Matthew Rothschild, a delegate from San Francisco, was stopped by a signature gatherer for the tax initiative outside a convention meeting room, Rothschild asked what Brown’s position was.
The signature gatherer could say only that he was hopeful for the governor’s support. Brown championed the Proposition 30 tax measure in 2012 but has said repeatedly that taxes authorized that year should remain temporary.
Rothschild, who volunteered for Brown when he first ran for governor, in 1974, said he is “for progressive taxation” but wants to know what Brown thinks.
“I support the governor,” Rothschild said. “I think he’s doing a good job.”