California Forum

It’s on Jerry Brown to challenge California with bold ideas

Now that Gov. Jerry Brown has been re-elected, the ball is in his court to put something on the ballot that turns the nation’s attention to California. He’s suggested as much in recent days.
Now that Gov. Jerry Brown has been re-elected, the ball is in his court to put something on the ballot that turns the nation’s attention to California. He’s suggested as much in recent days. The New York Times

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Something funny happened on Tuesday night in California – in truth, what afflicts network television most every night: Viewers struggled to find a compelling story.

California Republicans know the drill: The polls close at 8 p.m.; statewide races are called at 8:01; GOP honor bars are dishonored commencing at 8:02.

Tuesday night was no different. Democrats ran the table in statewide elections. Special interests proved brutally effective at killing ballot measures (Propositions 45, 46 and 48) and high-profile candidacies (Marshall Tuck, the outsider candidate for superintendent of public instruction). Same old, same old.

Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to such power plays. But far more disturbing is the thought of California losing its luster as a land of curiosity and imagination.

When Brittany Maynard left the Golden State earlier this year to end her life, she left behind a California that last put death-with-dignity to a vote 22 years ago. In Oregon, she made use of a law that’s been on the books in that state for two decades.

In other states, on election night, voters approved laws that similarly prove to be a historic benchmark. Oregon and Alaska, for example, signed off on legalized recreational marijuana – an idea yanked from the California ballot earlier this year.

Other states departed from their ideological character. Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – all of which elected conservative Republican senators on Tuesday – also agreed to minimum-wage increases.

Colorado, America’s most schizophrenic blue-red state, flirted for the third time with a “personhood” amendment that would have afforded legal rights to unborn fetuses – not outright banning abortion, but giving anti-abortion activists another avenue for mounting a legal attack. Again, an idea that’s been talked about in California but never put to an actual test.

California did take some progressive strikes last week. Yes, Proposition 47 is a serious change in California prison policy. We’re also following Texas’ lead. Berkeley voters passed the nation’s first soda tax – a year after then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sparked a national debate with his Sugary Drinks Portion Cap Rule (since struck down by the courts).

Ironically, this is not the California that’s paralleled Jerry Brown’s political career. From 1978’s Proposition 13 to 1990’s “Big Green” measure, Propositions 187 and 209 in the 1990s and most recently Propositions 8 and 23 (it would have overturned the state’s climate-change law), California has produced policy debates that not only galvanized the state’s electorate (in ways both good and bad) but captured the nation’s attention.

But not so in 2014.

Sadly, this may be the pattern for the remainder of Jerry Brown’s final go-round in Sacramento, as he insists on the persona of a stodgy minimalist. In this election, Brown didn’t spark a dialogue other than the housekeeping matters of Propositions 1 and 2. He also didn’t do much heavy lifting to bring Democratic legislators to Sacramento.

The key adjective missing here: “like-minded.” A Democratic Legislature with a supermajority would have had a pent-up appetite for expansive government and social engineering – not the fancy of a “paddle left, paddle right” governor. What better political existence for Brown: having enough legislative Democrats to pass a budget, but not so many as to complicate his life with overly ambitious notions?

The watered-down Democratic majority pretty much guarantees that Brown will have fewer political headaches. It also means that Californians are at the governor’s mercy in terms of anything bold or transformative coming out of Sacramento in the near future.

Now re-elected, Brown is free to dream and dare as he sees fit. He also has millions of unused campaign dollars in his war chest, just waiting to be spent on something big.

The ball’s in Brown’s court to think outside the box and put something on the ballot that turns the nation’s attention to California. He’s suggested as much in recent days, without going into detail.

No more lecturing us on doing more with less.

Give us something great and grand.

More or less.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at