Dan Morain

Opinion: Jerry Brown is stingy with his endorsements

While Gov. Jerry Brown stays on the sidelines, former President Bill Clinton stumped Wednesday in California for Democratic congressional candidates, including Reps. Ami Bera, left, and John Garamendi at UC Davis.
While Gov. Jerry Brown stays on the sidelines, former President Bill Clinton stumped Wednesday in California for Democratic congressional candidates, including Reps. Ami Bera, left, and John Garamendi at UC Davis. rbyer@sacbee.com

For an hour on Wednesday, we Californians almost had a campaign.

Bill Clinton bounded into the UC Davis gymnasium and proceeded to get the crowd hooting for Democratic candidates Ami Bera, John Garamendi, Alex Padilla, Tom Torlakson and Betty Yee, who had served as warm-up acts.

Some big-time politician needed to do it. Gov. Jerry Brown, the one top-of-the-California ticket draw who’s actually on Tuesday’s ballot, has been especially stingy with appearances.

Brown, leading in the latest poll by 21 percentage points, needs little from lesser Democrats. He has been especially tight with endorsements, giving his blessings to only a select few Democrats running for office.

Ask people who admire the governor and people who don’t, and the answer is the same: That’s Jerry. He’s aloof, always has been, and selfish. He doesn’t commit until he must. He won’t so much as tip his hand where he is going to dinner until the last minute.

In his third term, he worked at keeping his focus, limiting his trips and skipping conventions that a politician with an eye on higher office would attend. As he sees it, an endorsement is a seal of approval and makes him responsible for that politician’s actions.

It’s perfectly understandable why Brown won’t say nice things about Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Newsom considered running against him four years ago and has gotten under his skin since. Attorney General Kamala Harris has nothing to fear from her challenger.

Brown did offer a few nice written words for Padilla, the state senator who is running against academic Pete Peterson for secretary of state. But the governor didn’t take the plunge by actually endorsing the Los Angeles-area Democrat, who seeks the office Brown once held.

“Our understanding is he is not endorsing in statewide races,” said Rose Kapolcznski, Padilla’s consultant.

Brown’s approving nod wouldn’t hurt Board of Equalization member Yee, who is running for state controller against Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a formidable candidate.

Perhaps he hasn’t endorsed Yee as tribute to Swearengin’s failure to endorse Brown’s opponent, Neel Kashkari. Swearengin is also the most prominent Republican supporter of Brown’s proposal to build a high-speed rail system, which will run through Fresno. Or maybe there is no particular reason.

Then there is the race for state superintendent of public instruction, a nonpartisan office but one in which two Democrats are running against one another.

The California Teachers Association and California Democratic Party have endorsed Tom Torlakson, the incumbent. Torlakson’s challenger is fellow Democrat Marshall Tuck, whose campaign is being funded by advocates of charter public schools, which the teachers union sees as a threat.

Brown has crossed the teachers union before. But that may not be why he is staying out of the Torlakson-Tuck race. Torlakson annoyed Team Brown by endorsing a 2012 initiative that competed with Brown’s tax-hike initiative, Proposition 30. Brown remembers.

If Tuck ekes out a victory on Tuesday, Brown could find himself in the enviable position of being a bridge between the teachers union, the Legislature, where the union has considerable clout, and the superintendent of public instruction, who will be seeking to upset the status quo in public schools. It is Brown’s Capitol, after all.

There are realities, even for Brown. He has endorsed a few Democrats seeking legislative seats, the priorities of legislative leaders. Brown will need the leaders’ help in his next term.

He has endorsed some congressional Democrats, including Bera in the Elk Grove-Folsom-area seat, and Rep. Mike Honda’s re-election to a San Jose seat. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can be persuasive.

In this election, the governor is focusing on what he sees as important for the next term and beyond, Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond, and Proposition 2, the measure to fund a budget reserve.

Whoever is the next controller or superintendent of public instruction doesn’t rise to that level, in his view. That may be smart. It’s certainly selfish. He has little use for them, but they need him.

Voters have no clue what the Board of Equalization equalizes, let alone who Yee is. So they look for cues, such as who supports candidates running for down-ballot races.

Endorsements matter. Clinton told the 5,000 or so students Wednesday that Garamendi, whose congressional district includes the Davis campus, was one of his early backers. That was in 1991, when, Clinton said, only his mother thought he could win, and “Hillary and Chelsea were undecided.”

Thirteen years after leaving office, Clinton still can draw thousands of students to a gymnasium.

Brown can be a draw, too. But in 2014, Yee, Padilla, Torlakson and the others are left to gather up what fairy dust might sprinkle down on them by being in the same college gym with Clinton.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.