Of all the compelling images spilling out of the near-calamity at the Oroville Dam – raging waters, gridlocked highways packed with evacuees – the picture that stands out is the one never taken: Gov. Jerry Brown touring the troubled spillway.
That’s because Brown didn’t make the trip 75 miles north from Sacramento when the crisis first emerged, just as he rarely ventures to such scenes of California distress.
Two decades ago, I worked for a different California governor with a different approach to these perilous moments. Pete Wilson was usually on the scene in a public display of leadership from the top of government. So regular were his disaster sojourns – California, back in the 1990s, was a series of misery straight out of the Book of Exodus – that we kept a set of casual clothes for the governor on ready reserve.
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This is not meant as a slight to Brown, or to second-guess his judgment. He has every right to avoid a hot spot like Oroville if he believes he’s getting in the way.
Besides, it’s not like the governor wasn’t busy. He declared a state of emergency and asked for a presidential major disaster declaration as well as direct federal assistance for 10,000 evacuees.
But the fact that Brown’s first instinct was to stay away from the scene raises this question: If our governor doesn’t like to leave the Sacramento bubble, how will he play California’s decidedly weak political hand back in the nation’s capital?
For all the antipathy between the Trump and Brown administrations (not to mention aspiring California Democrats taking a swing at the piñata that is El Presidente), the reality is a nation-state and a national government on unequal footings. California’s underclass and Obamacare-insured rely upon federal funding to keep Medi-Cal afloat. The only way the state makes a dent in its myriad infrastructural needs is with an army of shovels purchased by the federal government.
For Brown, this means lifting a different weight than the one to which he’s grown accustomed. Like his predecessors, the governor should consider making more frequent pilgrimages east – working the halls of Congress and making his case to the new administration in person rather than by tweets or press releases.
And that would be an enormous adjustment at this late point in his career.
Brown is a unicorn in that his office allows him to easily generate national news on topics like climate change and immigration. Yet for the past six years, Brown and his scaled-down media operation have eschewed the limelight. Rarely does Brown take part in Sunday morning talk shows; there’s been no “California is a national model” speech at the National Press Club.
On the one hand, this has worked to California’s benefit. Absent the distraction of national politics, Brown has stuck to his promise of addressing the state’s finances and reining in the state Legislature. There’s been none of the wanderlust that sullied his first turn in charge. Will the system work as well if a Gov. Gavin Newsom is dividing his time between the Golden State and early primary states?
With the clock running down on his days as California’s chief executive and lead ambassador, it’s time for Brown to shake up the routine. If he wants to protect California’s Medi-Cal population, sit down with fellow Californian and House Leader Kevin McCarthy. If Brown wants to score big on infrastructure money, then lead a governors’ march on Washington and (gulp!) seek face time with President Donald Trump.
For Brown, such travel may be more of a carbon footprint than he’d like. But it beats staying away from D.C. and getting big-footed in a town where California is at a disadvantage.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be contacted at email@example.com.