Bill Whalen

A triumvirate who can lead California

California gubernatorial candidates from left, John Chiang, Delaine Eastin, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa participate in a forum in Anaheim, Calif on Oct. 22.
California gubernatorial candidates from left, John Chiang, Delaine Eastin, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa participate in a forum in Anaheim, Calif on Oct. 22. The Orange County Register via AP

A year from now, we’ll be preparing to say a last political farewell to Gov. Jerry Brown and his ratio studiorum (plan of studies) for putting California on an even keel.

I’ll miss the governor’s penchant for Latin. But that doesn’t mean California should abandon the classics. If anything, the coming gubernatorial election is an argument in favor of the way of the Romans, specifically a triumvirate government.


History buffs know that Rome tried two triumvirates – alliances between three political leaders. Neither lasted for more than a decade and they didn’t lack for drama. Julius Caesar married Pompey the Great’s daughter. Octavian and Mark Antony settled their differences in an epic naval battle.

As flawed as that system was, it makes sense for California, which is looking at three or more Democrats who want to succeed Brown. All have a strong skill set – and at least one reason for voters to be concerned. Individually, the winner may struggle to govern. But collectively, a triumvirate of John Chiang, Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa works.

Newsom is the visionary – years ahead of other elected officials on same-sex marriage, for example. But he’s also the darling of the California Teachers Association, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the California Nurses Association and the California sect of the Laborers International Union of North America. Unions already run roughshod over the state Legislature. Would Newsom fare any better?

Villaraigosa, on the other hand, went from union organizer in his youth to union nemesis as mayor of Los Angeles (he once called the city’s teachers’ union “the largest obstacle to creating quality schools”). But before that, Villaraigosa was a creature of the Legislature, and though term limits have cleansed the chamber of his former colleagues, perhaps he’s too much of a legislative romantic.

That can’t be said of Chiang. Six years ago as state controller, Chiang froze lawmakers’ pay under the terms of Proposition 25, claiming that the Legislature hadn’t passed a legitimate budget on time. Legislators begged to differ – and took Chiang to court. So no love lost there. However, Chiang isn’t as flashy as Newsom or Villaraigosa – and voters may be looking for a new governor with some Arnold celebrity.

Of course, there’s no way three leaders of any party would voluntarily divide their official duties. It didn’t work for the Romans. It likely wouldn’t pan out in a nation-state that likes to fashion itself as a breakaway West Coast republic.

But in the California of 2019 and beyond, can any one man (or woman) singlehandedly govern a land of 40 million residents and seemingly 40 million problems?

Brown has climate change, wildfires and a budget surplus on his plate. And that’s just December’s menu. January could bring more climate misery (if winter rains turn scorched earth into mudslides), plus lawmakers returning to town with long wish lists that may not complement how Brown plans to finish his last year in office.

Let’s suppose Brown gives his usual truncated State of the State next month that is as notable for what is neglected as what is emphasized. But if the triumvirate were running the show, Newsom could talk about a brave new world of legal pot and single-payer health care, Villaraigosa could reflect on Latinos and economic inequality and Chiang could outline how he’d spend billions on low-income housing and where he’d build in fire-plagued California.

That’s three pretty good speeches – and collectively, an ambitious agenda for any governor.

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