Gov. Jerry Brown is a hard act to follow. No California governor has served longer, or more consequentially.
In the past eight years alone – his second stint in the office – the state has gone from a $27 billion budget deficit to a $6 billion surplus. Unemployment has fallen from 12.2 percent to 4.3 percent, a record. Along the way, Brown has realigned the state’s criminal justice system, overhauled public school finance, licensed more than a million undocumented drivers, put the state at the forefront of addressing climate change and taught Californians a little Latin.
Whoever succeeds him will not only have to pick up where he left off on those issues, but also maintain his defense of California against Trump administration assaults on our environment, trade, diversity and tolerant values. Not to mention our many in-state challenges – affordable housing, health care, underfunded public employee pensions, higher education, water policy and so on. Oh, and the near-term likelihood of a downturn in the state economy.
So voters have their work cut out on June 5 in culling two candidates from a field of more than two dozen contenders. A few prospects are prepared, but let us stipulate: None are Jerry Brown.
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The best-equipped candidate for the economy to come – state Treasurer John Chiang – is running an anemic campaign and is probably terminally underfunded. The best-financed and most experienced candidates – former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – have, in their personal lives, made unnerving and public errors in judgment.
More immediately, there are the great gobs of money from billionaire charter school advocates going to independent expenditure campaigns backing Villaraigosa. Though Newsom, too, has his billionaires – hello, Silicon Valley – the charter movement has direct implications for public schools in California.
It is largely because of this latter development that our top two endorsements go to Newsom and Chiang.
Newsom, the 50-year-old frontrunner in the polls, has been running for governor for so long, and has put so much thought into the matter, that when he speaks, his positions manage to sound both glib and over-detailed. That’s too bad: His principles, hedged though they often seem, generally channel the liberal majority of this blue state.
Like Brown, he’s for strong climate policy, locally focused school finance and aggressive use of the courts to beat back the overreaches of the Trump administration. But he departs from the governor on some other popular but expensive points. He says higher education should get more state funding, as should universal preschool, and he advocates – rashly, given the cost – single-payer health care, a position that has endeared him to California progressives.
If he gets elected and the state economy dips, as experts expect, he will surely disappoint them.
Chiang, 55, may not have Newsom’s San Francisco charisma, but he does know economics. Call him a wonk, but so is Brown, and like Brown, he knows the value of deliberation and frugality.
Since his 1997 appointment to the state Board of Equalization, Chiang, a child of Taiwanese immigrants and a graduate of Georgetown law school, has served in a series of statewide offices with, as he puts it, “no drama.”
That hasn’t meant no guts: As controller, he withheld legislators’ paychecks after they blew a voter-approved deadline for passing the budget; some still haven’t forgiven him. During the recession, he also refused an order from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to slash state workers’ pay.
He downplays his personal story, though it is compelling; his sister was brutally murdered when he was a young man, and his family encountered blistering racism during his childhood in suburban Chicago. Like Newsom, he champions public schools, and his ideas to address the state housing crisis with a big housing bond have been both sensible and aggressive. It’s too bad his campaign is such a dud; he’s the best choice for fiscally conscious Californians – and for Republicans who might want to vote strategically and try to get a moderate in the November general election in this heavily Democratic state.
Villaraigosa, 65, would give Newsom the toughest runoff in November. He was Assembly Speaker and ran California’s largest and most complicated city during the worst of the recession; once an up-from-the-streets labor organizer, he has become more pragmatic with age.
But his alliance with rich charter school advocates in Los Angeles could backfire at the state level. Privately operated public charter schools have been an important alternative in low-income districts, but they also have pulled students – and enrollment-based state and federal funds – out of the regular school system.
In the L.A. schools, where the charter billionaires and Villaraigosa worked together with the best intentions, that trend, combined with soaring pension obligations, has spawned a financial disaster. Now comes a $12.5 million independent expenditure for Villaraigosa from charter philanthropists Eli Broad, Reed Hastings of Netflix and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The charter school issue is as important to get right as it is divisive. California has challenges enough without letting its factions hijack the governor’s race.
The leading Republican in the polls, John Cox, is a deep-pocketed San Diego area businessman who has run in vain for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and Cook County, Ill., recorder of deeds. He canceled an interview with the editorial board and did not reschedule. But he has said publicly that he wants to abolish the state income tax, encourage home schools and divide the state into 12,000 neighborhood-sized districts. He also wants to repeal the new gas tax; we think politicians should fill potholes, at least.
The best known of the other Republicans running, Orange County Assemblyman Travis Allen, is a nativist provocateur who wants to institutionalize homeless people and insists that California is such a mess that it is driving out its best people. He may speak for a small segment of Californians, but unfortunately for him, most appear to have left the state.
The two leading female candidates, former Hillary Clinton campaign aide Amanda Renteria and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, are too far down in the pack to be true contenders. Renteria, while articulate and promising, has never held public office. Eastin, while experienced, comes too much from progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
On the up side, whoever succeeds Brown will inherit a stable California. Or terra firma, as the governor might say.
To see the Sacramento Bee editorial board’s endorsements for state treasurer, state controller and state Board of Equalization, go to sacbee.com/endorsements at 5 a.m. Monday.