California, wiser and centered, is the outlier again

Gov. Jerry Brown with first lady Anne Gust Brown on election night outside the historic Governor’s Mansion. Brown has emerged as a credible voice of experience.
Gov. Jerry Brown with first lady Anne Gust Brown on election night outside the historic Governor’s Mansion. Brown has emerged as a credible voice of experience. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

After the midterms, the Field Poll’s Mark DiCamillo compared the mood of the California electorate with that of voters nationally. Beyond abysmally low turnout, the two groups had almost nothing in common.

Obamacare? The nation was split, we were for it. Ebola? We thought the government had handled it well, they didn’t.

Our direction, Legislature and governor? Three cheers for California. The nation, on the other hand, was respectively disappointed, disgusted and dissatisfied with America’s direction, Congress and president.

By just about every measure, in other words, California was, as ever, the great exception. That disparity is unlikely to end.

As Gov. Jerry Brown cuts cap-and-trade deals and ramps up renewable energy projects and green transportation, congressional Republicans have vowed to double down on an anti-environmentalist agenda. They want to push through the Keystone XL pipeline. The incoming chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is an Oklahoma Republican who claims climate change is a hoax.

As conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court take up another effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, California is pulling out all the stops for open enrollment. This year, one-on-one helpers will be deployed in 200 storefronts to get more Californians insured.

Meanwhile, as Washington, D.C., braces for more gridlock and polarization, Sacramento is preparing for yet another legislative session of civility.

This is not just because of one-party rule. Though the governor and legislative majority are Democrats, their bases and ideologies run the gamut, and legislative Republicans made a bit of a comeback in this election.

The difference is that California has found its way back from its own fringes while the rest of the nation continues to be manipulated by partisan extremes.

How did we get here? The old-fashioned way: voters. Much extremism has been wrung out of California’s political process by recent ballot initiatives.

Unlike Texas, for example, where the GOP-controlled Legislature has carved up the liberal city of Austin so that Republicans make up four-fifths of its congressional delegation, legislative incumbents here can no longer shamelessly gerrymander their own districts. In California, an independent citizens commission draws congressional and legislative boundaries.

Likewise the state’s “top two” open primary has forced candidates to court voters outside their bases – more push-back against polarization. Then there’s the 2010 ballot measure that lowered the threshold for passing a budget, effectively short-circuiting the state’s annual, partisan and corrosive budget wars.

And, of course, there is Brown. Following a voice of experience they believe in, voters have made more adult choices, from a rainy day fund to temporary tax increases to shore up education. The governor’s approval ratings remain so solid, despite the state’s problems, that some pundits say voter satisfaction may be a cause for this year’s record low turnout.

That’s why it’s OK if California is back to being an outlier, even if it’s no fun to be estranged. We may travel to the beat of a different drum, as an old friend of the governor’s once put it, but our path has taught us something: Whether you lean left or right, finding your authentic center can be exceptionally productive.

So keep in touch, America. We’ll be here when you’re tired of the extremes.