Brown Again Shows His Political Savvy

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

After his years of success in California politics, maybe it’s time for California politicians and pundits to admit that just maybe Gov. Jerry Brown knows what he’s doing.

In the past couple of weeks there have been plenty of stories –- including mine — about how Brown’s Prop. 30 tax measure was tanking. For pols on both sides of the aisle, the main question had become how to derail the billions in automatic cuts to education the initiative’s inevitable defeat would trigger.

Not going to happen, the governor said, warning that if Californians didn’t support his plan, well, elections have consequences.

As folks slammed Brown for getting a late start to his campaign and running it as a one-man show with the governor taking the starring role in every 30-second TV spot, Brown just went his way, getting out his message that the state needs more money to clean up its budget mess once and for all.

The governor has said all along that he trusted the people of California to do the right thing and on Tuesday they did, giving Brown’s plan a surprisingly easy 54 percent to 46 percent victory.

On Wednesday, instead of taking a well-deserved victory lap and maybe reminding his critics that he won and they didn’t, Brown stayed in green-eyeshade character. Even with the new Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature he would keep the budget – and the Legislature – on a tight rein, he promised, and called for the “prudence of Joseph,” he of the biblical coat of many colors, when it comes to spending in upcoming years.

But if Brown was the winner Tuesday night, California Republicans were the big losers.

Republicans couldn’t stop Democrats from winning two-thirds majorities in both the state Senate, which was expected, and the Assembly, which was not. They didn’t block Brown’s tax hike initiative or push through the Prop. 32 “paycheck protection” measure that would have financially hamstrung labor’s “Democrats only” political efforts by cutting off money from union dues.

Republicans also apparently managed to lose four congressional seats.

To top things off, voter registration figures released last week showed that GOP registration in the state had slipped to 29.4 percent, the lowest number in, oh, forever.

Two years ago, Republicans lost every statewide race. The California Republican Party is beyond broke and state chairman Tom Del Beccaro announced last week that he was going to “take a pause from Party politics” and not run for a new term.

And by the way, the 2014 governor’s race really isn’t that far in the future.

Last July, Steve Schmidt, a GOP consultant who has worked in California, had harsh words for the state party, saying that it has become a small ideological club that “doesn’t do any of the things a political party should do. It doesn’t register voters. It doesn’t recruit candidates. It doesn’t raise money.”

Tuesday’s election reinforced that message in spades.

There were some other winners and losers in the election.

California voters were big winners, thanks to ballot initiatives they backed that put reapportionment in the hands of a multi-partisan commission and gave the state a “top two” primary pitting the two leading finishers against each other in November, even if it matched two Democrats or two Republicans.

Without that top two primary, Democratic Rep. Pete Stark of Fremont would be ready to begin his 41st year in Congress. Instead, the 80-year-old Stark was involuntarily retired Tuesday by 31-year-old Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor Eric Swalwell in a district where GOP candidates need not apply.

Stark won the June primary, which in that East Bay congressional district used to mean an autopilot victory in November. But Swalwell, who took 36 percent of the primary vote to Stark’s 42 percent, found himself in a November election that allowed voters to choose between two very different Democrats. And they did.

As for whether the citizens’ redistricting commission made a difference, does anyone really believe the Democratic legislators who ran redistricting in past years would have allowed two of their own party’s veteran congressmen to be pitted against each other, like Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in a San Fernando Valley donnybrook?

And if you’re looking for other losers, you don’t have to go much farther than the family Munger, who spent some $66 million supporting the Prop. 38 tax measure (the liberal Molly Munger) and opposing Brown’s Prop. 30 and backing the anti-union Prop. 32 (the conservative Charles Munger).

In each case, they backed – expensively — the wrong horse.

Finally, California labor was both a winner and a loser Tuesday.

First, the unions not only beat back the challenge to their political activity from Prop. 32, but they also provided both cash and foot soldiers to carry Brown’s Prop. 30 over the top.

But at the same time, unions spent well over $60 million to fight Prop. 32. Add that to the $44 million-plus they had to raise to torpedo a similar measure in 2005.

You see a pattern developing? Union opponents can keep putting these measures on the ballot every few years and labor will have to spend big to defeat them, draining money that could be spent on other, Democrat friendly, political activity.

It’s the next best thing to actually winning one of those elections.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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