Bill Whalen

Brown blows chance to set final agenda

Gov. Jerry Brown talks to reporters outside the Old Governors Mansion in Sacramento on June 3, 2014.
Gov. Jerry Brown talks to reporters outside the Old Governors Mansion in Sacramento on June 3, 2014. jvillegas@sacbee.com

As I bid farewell to my mail-in ballot, it dawns on me: If this election is anything like the past, some 10,000 Californians will mail their choices the same day as the actual vote, thus arriving too late to be counted.

Call them the lucky ones.

It’s not that Tuesday’s election is inconsequential. Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond, will lend some needed balance and direction to our drought-stricken state. Likewise, Proposition 2 adds sanity to the state’s fiscal outlook by instituting a rainy-day fund and paying down debt.

However, it’s the governor’s race that rankles. What should have been a treat of a serious policy debate instead turned into a trick on the voting public.

Let’s start on the Republican side. Credit Neel Kashkari for raising two issues that Gov. Jerry Brown has sloughed off: poverty and teacher tenure. But lacking resources to mount any real media effort, Kashkari is the proverbial tree falling in the forest of dubious loudness.

Consider the Hoover Institution’s Golden State Poll released earlier this week. Among Californians indicating they plan to vote for the Republican, only 29 percent said they were pro-Kashkari, while 69 percent said they were anti-Brown. And despite attempts to be more inclusive, Kashkari trailed 2-1 among women and Latinos, 5-1 among Asians and 7-1 among blacks.

Brown’s support was more passionate (87 percent pro-Brown, only 8 percent anti-Kashkari). However, voters aren’t buying into the California comeback. Respondents weren’t confident in their job prospects and reported little change in their family finances.

Maybe Brown could have bumped up those numbers had he run a campaign based on an ambitious set of final-term ideas. But we’ll never know, will we? And, in that regard, Brown owes Californians an apology for the manner in which he’s sought a historic fourth term as governor.

Assuming he doesn’t view life in Sacramento as a game of blackout bingo, this is Brown’s seventh and final statewide campaign (though one does delight in the thought of a Lt. Gov. Brown nitpicking a Gov. Gavin Newsom). Such a final hurrah should be exactly that – a celebration of four-plus decades of rewarding voters’ judgment and all that California has accomplished and can achieve under his watch.

Instead – except for this final week when he hinted at final-term priorities – all voters saw of their governor in 2014 were television spots for Props. 1 and 2, plus the occasional media availability. Some of those brought out Brown’s condescending side, such as when he snarkily dismissed the teacher-tenure issue as “ephemeral.”

The strategy will work. Barring a miracle, Brown will win Tuesday. But we deserved a more in-depth conversation regarding his final term. It’s not a dialogue to start with an election-night victory speech. In the next four years, however, Brown may not be able to avoid at least three thorny topics – each potentially a hard-fought initiative:

▪ Reinstituting race-base admissions in California’s public universities by overturning 1996’s Proposition 209.

▪ Extending Proposition 30’s tax increases, which fully expire in 2018.

▪ Rewriting Proposition 13 and the cap on property tax increases.

In the Hoover survey, only 31 percent of Californians support special preferences for admission to public universities; 47 percent wanted to keep Prop. 30 on the books, though opinion was divided whether to make it permanent; only 40 percent support a Prop. 13 “split roll” that removes the cap on business property assessments. These findings are hardly a position of strength for the governor and his party.

Maybe Brown wants to have those fights anyway, to prove there’s plenty of roar left in the lion king. How unfortunate that he chose not to honor the same voters who’ve honored him, these many years, and instead postponed the debate for another rainy day.

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

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