Bill Whalen

California has never had a female governor. It will not happen this year, either

Delaine Eastin on education, economic inequality and other key campaign issues

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin talks about higher education, climate change and other key issues in the 2018 governor's race.
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Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin talks about higher education, climate change and other key issues in the 2018 governor's race.

Political progress in this election cycle equals a record-high 78 women running for governor across America, including four here in California. But those four women are likely to exit the California race once votes are counted next week.

It’s an oddity of Golden State politics. Only California can claim not one but two female U.S. senators serving continuously since 1993. But no woman has ever been elected governor.

That won’t change this year. One reason why: California special interests that aren’t so much chauvinist as they are shrewd in their candidate choices.

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Bill Whalen

Delaine Eastin, a former assemblywoman and state superintendent of public instruction, is one of four past or present Democratic officeholders vying to replace Jerry Brown. On paper, she’s a progressive’s dream. Eastin supports mandatory all-day kindergarten, a living wage and universal health care.

The California Nurses Association, whose 100,000 members presumably include more than a few women with a distaste for glass ceilings, supports universal health care, too. But it’s backing Lt. Gavin Newsom.


Women can just as easily test the prevailing political winds. Newsom leads in the polls, has the most money in the bank and says what CNA wants to hear on health care reform.

The California Teachers Association also favors Newsom over Eastin despite her long list of education credentials, including an elementary school named after her in Union City.

Throughout this primary campaign, I’ve waited for Eastin to have her “moment.” But despite some favorable debate reviews, she hasn’t broken through the cluttered field of candidates. Last week’s USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll had Eastin a distant sixth.

You can argue that Eastin might be the wrong woman at the right time. According to a survey conducted by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, 78 percent of Californians think that electing a woman to office is “important.” However, Eastin hasn’t been a player in Sacramento in more than 15 years.

Besides, the times may be more complicated than we assume. The Lane Center survey also found that only 21 percent of women believe the #MeToo movement has reduced gender inequality. Only one in five women surveyed said they’ve marched in protest, volunteered for a campaign, or voted for a candidate because of women’s issues.

Eastin didn’t make #MeToo a cornerstone of her campaign, tempting as it might be in this age of Hollywood moguls and politicians behaving badly. To the extent she’s lit into Newsom, it’s been over campaign tactics and not his past indiscretions.

Eastin’s campaign has gone to great lengths to mimic Sen. Bernie Sanders, but she seldom fashions herself after Hillary Clinton, other than a shared fondness for scarves. Eastin’s website lists “women’s rights” as part of the candidate’s vision, along with a dozen other topics.

It won’t be a lost year for women in California politics. Sen. Dianne Feinstein likely will be re-elected, and three other women may win a statewide constitutional office. Nationally, primaries so far have produced 72 female U.S. House nominees, a female-only U.S. Senate runoff in Nebraska and four female gubernatorial nominees.

California likely won’t make that five. Better candidates and a more principled system might change that – just not anytime soon.

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