The Jerry Primary

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Will Gov. Jerry Brown get to name his successor?

California may have abolished primaries with its top two system, but within the 2018 gubernatorial contest there is still one primary: The Jerry Brown primary.

The current governor isn’t wildly popular, but he is clearly the most respected politician in the state. And he is the longest serving governor in state history, so he knows the job. So his endorsement is clearly the best endorsement to have if you’re running for governor. And there’s already a behind-the-scenes contest for it.

That contest is one that the frontrunner, Gavin Newsom, needs to win. Newsom has longstanding ties that go back to childhood. He’s been Brown’s lieutenant governor for seven years. There’s overlap between Brown’s political team and Newsom’s, and they share many allies—both on the left (like with the California Nurses Association) and in the business community.

But, there are reasons for Newsom supporters to be nervous. Brown is unpredictable and has enjoyed tweaking Newsom. And the lieutenant governor and former San Francisco mayor has been an opponent of the high-speed rail project that Brown has made his own. There’s also daylight between Brown and Newsom on the Delta tunnels.

But who could swing the endorsement? Brown has worked productively throughout his term with State Treasurer John Chiang. And Chiang profiles as the closest to Brown – fiscal prudence, lower profile, less drama than Newsom, and close to the public employee unions who really run things.

It’s hard to imagine Brown endorsing any of the Republicans in the race. And former Assembly Speaker and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is running against some of the Brown legacy, particularly on education reform. It will be interesting to see how much Villaraigosa continues criticism of the governor in the first round, or whether he makes a more mixed assessment.

If the Democratic part of the contest turns on Brown, then the governor may have a choice to make between Newsom and Chiang in the contest-within-a-contest over who is the top pro-Brown candidate vs. Villaraigosa.

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