Brown Only Democrat Left Standing … Really?

by Paul Hogarth on November 16, 2009

Seven months ago, California had four Democrats running for Governor. Now, we only have one – who has yet to formally declare. John Garamendi’s ego dropped out to run for Congress in the wrong district (which he won anyway), Antonio Villaraigosa stepped aside to focus on his day job as Mayor of Los Angeles, and Gavin Newsom appears to have withdrawn from both the Governor’s race and his day job. Unless someone jumps in (or back into) the race, June 2010 will be the coronation of Jerry Brown – a 72-year-old ex-Governor who quit the Democratic Party 11 years ago, and whose record after quietly re-joining has been a nightmare for progressives. Faced with only Republican opponents next year, Brown is moving further to the right – and will be pressured to do so down the road. Even though the Golden State, where the G.O.P. is in deep trouble, deserves a lot better.

As Beyond Chron has written on a number of occasions this year, California has led the progressive charge on the national level – but our state is in dire need of that kind of energy to fix Sacramento. And yet, progressives have failed to recruit a candidate of their own to be California’s next Barack Obama – leaving Jerry Brown as the only viable Democratic candidate to lead the largest state in the union.

How bad is Jerry Brown? Consider his recent campaign stop in Orange County – where he articulated his stance on several issues. Brown refused to endorse any changes to Prop 13, saying he did not think it was “needed” and that “we’ve got to downsize government to the maximum degree.” He also voiced support for the three-strikes law, and would not take a stance on a “public option” for health care. He did support scrapping the “two-thirds” rule for passing a state budget (but not taxes), and endorsed a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants – but with no candidate running to his left, this was the best that progressives can hope from Jerry Brown.

Given California’s mammoth problems that need immediate attention, that’s depressing. The only Democratic candidate for Governor wants to lock more people into our prison-industrial complex – the #1 growth factor in our state budget. Meanwhile, he does not want to make it easier to raise revenue – while we try to pass a budget with the most right-wing Republicans in the country, hell-bent on abusing their power to shrink the size of government and drown it in a bathtub. Basic fiscal math tells you that in a Brown Administration, we’ll see even more budget cuts in health care and education.

Not to mention Jerry Brown’s anti-tenant record. As Mayor of Oakland, he strongly opposed “just cause” for evictions – and vetoed an inclusionary housing ordinance. At a time when the affordable housing agenda has been stalled for years by a hostile Schwarzenegger Administration – no Ellis Act reform, a repealed renters’ tax credit – we need a Governor who will sign good legislation. And the awful Palmer decision that just came down on inclusionary zoning makes it even more urgent.

It’s not like Jerry Brown didn’t have a progressive past, which makes his positions today that much more baffling. In 1992, he ran for President in the Democratic primaries – waging a Naderite campaign against Bill Clinton, where he railed against the role of money in politics. After losing, he launched a radio talk show in Oakland on KPFA – where he hung out with guests Barbara Ehrenreich and Noam Chomsky. In a June 1996 interview Brown lamented Democrats and Republicans as the “evil of two lessers.” In March 1998, he quit the Democratic Party in disgust – as he prepared to run for Mayor of Oakland.

But something strange happened the moment he became Mayor of Oakland – morphing him into the kind of moderate Democrat he once railed against.

Any trace of the Jerry Brown who sounded like Dennis Kucinich when he ran for President is gone. At this weekend’s California Democratic Party E-Board meeting, Brown got into an argument with Party Chair John Burton about single-payer health care. Brown insisted single payer “will not happen” – even though the state legislature passed it twice, only to have Arnold Schwarzenegger veto it. The only thing stopping single payer in California from happening is a Republican Governor – yet the only Democratic candidate left in the race has insisted that it will not happen.

Today, Brown subscribes to a canoe theory of government: “you paddle a little bit on the left, then you paddle a little bit on the right and you keep going straight down the middle.” That’s the Bill Clinton theory of triangulation that worked so well in the 1990’s to alienate progressives and keep Republican control of Congress. Brown spoke out against that ten years ago, when it was in vogue. Today, when even Clinton has acknowledged that we’re in a progressive era and it’s time for bolder ideas – Jerry’s living in the past.

In 2006, the San Francisco Bay Guardian endorsed Brown for Attorney General in the Democratic primary – because his opponent was a more explicit “law-and-order” candidate. But it wasn’t very enthusiastic. “Brown is constantly reinventing himself,” they wrote, “and endorsing him for anything is always a gamble … But given [Rocky] Delgadillo’s drawbacks, we’ll hold our noses, pray for mercy, and roll the dice on Jerry Brown.” Given Attorney General Brown’s record – where he worked with the prison guard to defeat Prop 5 and refuses to settle any death row appeals – it was a bad gamble for progressives.

Now, with no other Democratic alternative for Governor, progressives are left with two choices: (a) recruit a candidate to face nearly insurmountable odds to defeat Brown, or (b) organize on issues to the point that Jerry somehow feels compelled to respond. The former isn’t likely to happen, because the only Democrats with the stature to run a viable campaign are in Congress – and who would want to risk a safe seat when your party is in power in Washington? The latter is practically our only choice, and it remains to be seen how much Brown will bend in to public pressure. If 2010 is a wake-up call to California progressives that we need to focus more on state issues, it may be a good thing long-term.

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