Two days shy of his 79th birthday, Jerry Brown was out politicking on Wednesday, leading a rally of hard-hatted workers on the Capitol’s east steps, touting a 10-year, $52 billion transportation bill, not at all certain of success.
Brown came to office in the 1970s skeptical of freeways. His chief transportation aide was vilified for daring to set aside a lane for carpools. But six-plus years into his final time in office, Brown understands certain realities:
Our freeways are in a dismal state of repair, we are wedded to our cars, and our economy depends on the ability to truck goods from the ports to the rest of the nation. All the wishful thinking of environmentalists won’t change that soon. And so Brown is employing the art of the possible he has learned over a lifetime, realizing that failure would be embarrassing to Democrats, as it was for Republicans when the House failed to repeal Obamacare last month.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“They’re writing stories about how divided America is. Well, California is united and we’re united together to build a great state,” he said with a flourish intended to elicit cheers from the construction section. “You build a great state by investing in your roads.”
Having imposed a Thursday deadline for the vote, Brown, Senate President Tem Kevin de León and Speaker Anthony Rendon, and lobbyists for labor and many businesses, are trying to line up the requisite two-thirds majorities in the Senate and Assembly for the $5 billion a year increase in taxes and fees, for the good of the state. As happens when politicians face tough votes, particularly on taxes, there’s angst, brinkmanship, wheeling and dealing. No one knows better than Brown how to make those deals that happen.
Rendon can lose one of the 55 Democrats in his house and still gain a 54-vote super-majority. In the 40-seat Senate, de León needs all 27 Democrats, or a Republican. Perhaps one or two would vote for it, but not any who intend to run again. Even in its weakened state, the California GOP is capable of chewing up Republicans who stray from the anti-tax fold.
In a shady spot off to the side of the rally, Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes offered a running commentary on the Democrats’ rhetoric, not buying any of it.
“They haven’t had a conversation with Republicans. At all. At all,” Mayes said.
Not all Democrats are readily falling in line. Not coincidentally, Sen. Steve Glazer’s office is on the east side of the Capitol, above the steps where Brown spoke and workers cheered, though Glazer wasn’t around to hear it. He was speaking to a class at UC Berkeley, and tweeted a selfie as if to prove he missed the show.
No legislator has deeper ties to Brown than Glazer. Glazer organized college campuses for Brown’s first gubernatorial reelection campaign in 1978, was deputy campaign manager for Brown’s U.S. senate run in 1982, managed Brown’s third run for governor in 2010, and served as a senior adviser in the administration until he left to run for the state senate in 2014.
Though not speaking publicly about the transportation bill, he has made it clear that he’s a hold-out. Unlike some others who can be persuaded by promises of extra spending in their districts, Glazer has a different ask. He won his senate seat by campaigning against BART transit strikes, a popular stand in a district where commuters depend on the service. Transit workers, he contends, provide a vital service, and should forgo the right to strike.
It’s a wedge issue for Democrats who depend on labor support. Hard hats covet the work that would come from $52 billion in transportation spending. But the right to strike is fundamental for labor, and the building trades unions won’t readily agree to legislation that would toss another union under the proverbial bus.
“We work with each member in a democratic way,” de León said a week ago, when I asked him how he intends to persuade Glazer to vote aye. In a democratic way the following day, Brown traveled to Concord, the heart of Glazer’s district, and held a rally. It was not a friendly gesture.
As he has campaigned for the bill, the governor has been ever so slightly wistful. Unlike candidates running to replace him in 2018, he no longer harbors presidential ambitions, and so is free to push for a tax increase. He has no future, only a past.
He also has talked about serving in the same office as Earl Warren and his father, and the important work that a governor can do. Before he steps into that history, however, Brown has a few more battles to fight. In this instance, a victory would last for years to come.