Conventional wisdom—and all polls—suggests that California Governor Jerry Brown, who is sitting atop nearly $24 million, will cruise to re-election next month against Republican Neel Kashkari, whose knowledge of California’s governing structure appears to approximate my command of particle physics.
California leans dramatically toward the Democratic Party, and the California Democratic Party is comparatively progressive. Their efforts have been hamstrung for the past several decades by undemocratic supermajority rules laid down by Prop 13 in 1978. These rules effectively require a two-thirds vote in the legislature to raise any revenue and a mere 51% of the same bodies to pass tax cuts. Although Democrats dominate the Senate and Assembly, their inability to secure supermajorities for more than fleeing periods means that in a state growing demographically and growing in demographic complexity, so long as Republicans retain one-third plus one seats of one house we are on autopilot towards a crippling austerity program.
Given his popularity and his commanding poll lead, you might think that a Democratic governor would be interested in campaigning for his party to help them secure a supermajority. Such a supermajority could be used to raise much needed revenues to halt the decline of California’s schools and the privatization of its universities. It could be used to shore up the crumbling edifices that comprise the state’s public sphere, social welfare system, and physical infrastructure. It could be used to pursue a reform agenda that would roll back the inequities written into the constitution by Prop 13 and rationalize California’s governing structure.
An ambitious progressive Governor could capitalize on conditions in California this year which could conceivably buck the national trend right-ward and make 2014 a turning point for a state long plagued by undemocratic reactionary rule.
But the Los Angeles Times is reporting that far from attempting to create “coattails” in this election season, Jerry Brown is spurning overtures from his party to help its candidates in critical Senate and Assembly elections. Could this just be “Jerry being Jerry”? It is a commonplace that California’s Governor marches not just to a different drummer, in his narcissistic, lazy fashion, but a whole different orchestra.
I suspect it’s something more than that. Brown’s road to cheap popularity in California was to promise progressives a new era and then run on a program of austerity that would have done the Republican Party proud. To Brown, budgets are an end rather than a tool to achieve some social end, and he has made “fiscal responsibility”—and moral and social irresponsibility—his watchword.
He has no visible long-term social agenda for the state. He has no interesting in addressing California’s democratic deficit and mangled political structure. And he appears unmoved by the plight of students and the poor.
If he was reelected and had to work with Democratic supermajorities, Brown might be faced with an uncomfortable situation (like that which he faced briefly after the 2012 election), wherein his own party was pressuring him to grow a spine and tackle the state’s underlying structural problems and crippling inequality.
I think that the real reason Jerry Brown won’t campaign for a Democratic supermajority is that their activism would throw his own reactionary inaction into stark relief. He’s perfectly happy to work with a legislature incapable of addressing serious problems, in which he can count on Democrats to support increasingly popular (and rightly so) measures on civil rights, and Republicans to support his insistence that Californians limit their ambitions, at great cost to the state’s youth, elderly, and poor. Deadlock, and all the social and economic ills associated with it, suits our irresponsible governor.