Archive for the ‘California Politics’ Category

Why Antonio Villaraigosa Should Run for U.S. Senate

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

antonioAll the gab and gossip among California’s cognoscenti currently focuses on one big question: Is former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio “Tony V” Villaraigosa in or out of the 2016 race for U.S. Senate?

Billionaire hedge-fund enviro-liberal Tom Steyer, after an annoying Hamlet act, bowed out last week and, thanks to the diligent John Hrabe, we also know that Treasurer John Chiang is a no-go.

Sure, there is still a clutch of Democratic members of Congress “seriously considering” the race for Barbara Boxer’s seat.

Xavier Becerra, John Garamendi, Raul Ruiz, Loretta Sanchez, Adam Schiff and Jackie Speier, among others, have all popped up in various stories. But, c’mon, they’re manikins compared to Tony V, and anyway would risk safe House seats for a decidedly far-fetched political proposition.

And with Republican registration at a paltry 28%, chances are slim and slimmer for a serious GOP contender to defeat early front-runner Attorney General Kamala Harris, despite the endearing effort by our pal, and former U.S. Representative, Ernie Konnyu to nominate himself for the fool’s errand.

So: Tony V must suck it up and answer the eternal question first propounded by Calbuzzer Emeritus V.I. Lenin: What is to be done?

Run, Tony, Run: After discussing it with about a dozen California political insiders, several of whom have spoken in detail with Antonio, (boy, do we not miss the grind of doing Actual Reporting for a living) we bet he joins the race fairly soon: “He’s more in than not in,” said one Tony V confidant.

And notwithstanding Willie Brown’s scornfully creepy attempt to keep him out, on behalf of ex-paramour Harris, Villaraigosa should run, for at least three important reasons:

kamalaharris1 – It’s a golden opportunity. By 2018, when there may be one or two more big openings (for governor and, possibly, for Senate, should ageless wonder Dianne Feinstein opt out), Tony V will have been out of office and largely invisible for five years – an eternity in political time. Even if he doesn’t triumph in 2016 – and he could – he would win by losing, in keeping his name out there, which would serve him well two years hence.

2 – California deserves a competitive race. Harris shouldn’t have the seat handed to her: that wouldn’t be good for voters – or for Harris. There hasn’t been a robust debate on national issues, like the economy, environment, education, national security, social justice and foreign policy, for starters, since Feinstein and Boxer first captured the state’s Senate seats in 1992.

3 – Calbuzz needs a story. Fair warning: If Villaraigosa doesn’t get in and stir up a real contest, we’re gonna’ have to return to the arduous task of elevating our short game.

Secret memo to Willie: it’s not 1990 anymore: Tony V and his allies ought to be especially motivated by Brown’s aforementioned, arrogant argument (as reported by the SacBee’s hard-charging Chris Cadelago) that Villaraigosa should defer to Harris:

“His loyalty and his relationship with her should be so valuable, and he should, in my opinion, see it as an opportunity to demonstrate that.”

Seriously? How pompous and presumptuous, even for the unfathomably vain ex-Speaker and S.F. Mayor, can one person be?

“Loyalty is not a one way road show and this potential US Senate campaign is bigger than Antonio,” as Fabian Nunez, another former Speaker and close ally of Villaraigosa’s, put it to Calbuzz.

“I don’t think he or Kamala needs to step aside. They are both solid leaders and provide a real choice for California and its diversity,” he added. “Antonio loves Kamala like a sister, but his commitment to public service and history of accomplishments in California makes him more than a good candidate.”

Dissing Latino Interests. One leading Latino political figure put it less diplomatically: “It’s more than insulting to suggest that the most prominent Latino in California should just step aside because the Bay Area political machine decided that we don’t really matter.”

Villaraigosa is well positioned to run as a business-friendly moderate with a Southern California base, having fought principled battles with the teachers and public employees unions as L.A. mayor, when he also buffed his credentials on the environment and managed complex political coalitions.

He’d be starting from behind, given that Harris is a statewide officeholder with two successful elections and some braggable accomplishments under her Donna Karan belt. Her handlers put stock in a couple of robo polls they’ve had done showing her well ahead. “She’s the real deal and he doesn’t have a lock on any constituency,” a non-aligned pollster told us.

Please keep in mind, however, that the election is in two years, not some special next month. And running from behind is a position Tony V is likely to relish:

“I don’t know a better retail politician,” one Democratic insider enthused to us. “In every competitive race he’s been in, he has been the underdog.”

warrenIn addition to a potential base among Latinos (if he can get them to turn out), he also might have some appeal to certain deep-pocket Democrats. Harris was immediately endorsed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren – the darling of the Democratic left and the bête noir of Wall Street bankers – whose backing could be flipped as a matter of political ju-jitsu, i.e. Tony V could say to the moneybags, “Who do you want in Washington, another Elizabeth Warren or me?”

DiFi vs Babs. Looked at another way, he could position himself as a grown-up Feinstein type and let Harris run as a Fight, Fight, Fight Boxer clone.

Of course, Harris is the attorney general and a lot of potential corporate Democrats with business before the state may be afraid of opposing her. It’s not an unreasonable fear, given that if she loses for Senate she’s still AG for two years.

But with federal limits on contributions — $2,600 per person – we’d likely see a lot of wealthy Democrats giving to both candidates, arguing that they just want to see a vigorous debate for the sake of the party (not that either camp would be happy about that).

calbuzzartAt this juncture, our Department of Leadership Assessment, King and Queen-Making Division, honestly doesn’t know who’d make a better U.S. Senator. Harris and Villaraigosa both have strengths and weaknesses. (Although the first to sit down with us would improve his or her chances of winning our sympathies, given our widely known reputation as access whores).

In the end, however, the most crucial consideration is that after Obama’s 2012 walkover vs. Romney and Neel Kashkari’s puny 2014 challenge to Governor Brown, we haven’t had a truly memorable race since eMeg v Gandalf in 2010.  Either Antonio runs or it’s back to nap time for us.

Tony V Viable in ’16? DiFi a Slam Dunk for ’18 Exit?

Monday, January 19th, 2015

antonionewyorkerCalifornia Attorney General Kamala Harris is, for now, the leading candidate to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. Environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer, by dint of his money, is her strongest potential challenger.

(Update: On Thursday, Steyer announced on Huffington Post, that he will not run for Senate in 2016 and  will instead work to elect a Democratic president and to advance the fight against climate change.)

But one other Democrat – despite plenty of personal and political baggage – has the potential to upend the dynamics of the race: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (formerly Tony Villar or Tony V in Calbuzz parlance).

If – and this is huge – he can find a way to scoop up fund-raising people who know how to pull together millions under federal limitations, Tony V could make it past the June top-two election and run a competitive race for Senate, especially if Steyer decides not to get in. For one thing, he’d be the only brand-name Latino in a state where that could matter.

Whether Harris will be a formidable candidate in the harsh light of a top-of-the-ticket campaign has yet to be determined. At least two unaligned top political consultants told Calbuzz she could turn out to be a paper tiger. “She’s very full of herself,” said one, “and voters might not like that about her.”

“What evidence is there that’s she a juggernaut? That she barely beat Steve Cooley?” said another, referring to her 2010 election rival. Her 2014 re-election can be dismissed as a walk-over: nobody even remembers who ran against her (hint: the Hobbit, Ron Gold). Moreover, this consultant said, not only is California “overdue to elect a Latino, but “nobody seems to have noticed that there are five million registered voters in L.A. County and 2.5 in the Bay Area.”

L.A. bravado, however, has to be tempered by actual voting history, as our old friend Cathy Decker of the ByGod LA Times explained so well Sunday: Angelenos, especially LA Latinos, have pathetic voter turnout compared to their counterparts in the Bay Area. Whether Tony V could capture the big bloc of L.A. voters (especially if Hillary Clinton is on the ballot for president, drawing women to the polls) is problematic at best.

cranstonBeen a Long Time Coming One thing that renders the Senate race uncertain is that the last time California had an open seat was 23 years ago, when Dianne Feinstein beat Gray Davis in the Democratic primary for the final two years of Senator-cum-Governor Pete Wilson’s seat, and then buried political pygmy John “Sell Your Boat” Seymour, while Barbara Boxer beat Democrats Mel Levine and Leo McCarthy for the open six-year seat that the late Alan Cranston had held.

Californians have not seriously considered what they want from a U.S. Senator in more than two decades, during which the political landscape, especially in terms of gender and race, has shifted substantially. By and large, the dominant Democrats are very comfortable with women, Latinos, blacks, Jews, you name it, in high office. But what kind of senator they want when given an open choice – a deal-maker, a spokesperson, a statesman (or -woman) — is unclear.

Will it matter, for example, that Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker have endorsed Harris? Will her checkered record as District Attorney in San Francisco mean anything in a Senate race? Would Steyer look like an engaged, Cincinnatus-style citizen, or the hedge-fund spawn of Al Checchi and Meg Whitman? Would voters – especially women – care that while Tony V’s wife Cornia was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, he had an affair with a friend’s wife?

And that’s just a few of the iceberg tips out there. None of these public figures have been scrutinized, op-researched, dissected and pummeled at the level that applies to a U.S. Senate (or governor’s) race. With all the talented and ruthless consultants who will be working the Senate race – many of them FOCs (Friends of Calbuzz) – this will not be a dinner party.

diannecyclops2DiFi Hates Unpleasantness Speaking of dinner parties, one pol who found running in a statewide election with serious opposition incredibly distressing and distasteful is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was so traumatized by Republican U.S. Rep. Michael Huffington’s 1994 expensive and nasty campaign against her, she has shied away from hand-to-hand combat ever since, opting out of running for governor twice, when she would have been the favorite, albeit in fiercely competitive fields.

Most folks in the political world are betting that when Feinstein’s seat comes up again in 2018 – at which time she’ll be 85 – the very senior Senator will choose not to run again, and some politicos are already plotting ahead to 2018 as an opportunity for an open Senate seat.

We don’t buy the certainty of her retirement. After all what would DiFi do all day if she weren’t in the Senate, where she’s earnestly devoted to the complexities of huge issues — and commands a queen’s court worth of policy minions, political retainers and personal purse holders?  As long as her health remains good – bum knee aside — we’ll take those long odds and bet on DiFi plugging along in pursuit of Strom Thurmond’s centenary record as the oldest-serving Senator, knowing she’d have no serious (i.e. nasty, well-funded) opposition in California.

Said one plugged-in Senate source: “I don’t think she’s spending a lot of time thinking about” 2018. “She likes working in the Senate and has important responsibilities. I would not be surprised if she ran again.”

Moreover, Democrats have a good chance of winning back the Senate in 2016 as they need defend only 10 seats while Republicans have two dozen of their own seats to hold. So the Senate could be a lot more fun for DiFi in a couple of years, especially if she takes back chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which suits her eyes-only, the-authorities-know-best personality.

All of which means that if Villaraigosa or Steyer wants to run for Senate, 2016 may be their better bet. Moreover, for either of them, running statewide even in a losing campaign is not a bad play if they want to run for governor in 2018, after Jerry Brown is termed out, or – should DiFi actually step down – for Senate.

steyercloseupSteyer Weighing Options Villaraigosa, meanwhile, is reportedly getting some polling done and consulting with California Wise Men (don’t miss Chris Cadelago’s good Sunday piece) and Steyer, according to advisers who spoke to Calbuzz and others, is considering whether a Senate race would help or hinder his No. 1 concern – combating climate change. He’s also expanded on the agenda he says he’d pursue in one, and only one, term in the Senate, outlining tax and education reforms  to his supporters (another h/t to Cadelago).

Some on the environmental left have argued that making himself a singular target, as he would be in a Senate campaign, would personalize and thus undermine his cause. He is a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton and backing her campaign for president, while continuing to invest in measures and candidates against climate change, might be a more productive way forward.

Of course, since the governor of California is vastly more powerful than any single U.S. Senator – a fact well-known to Steyer’s advisers – he likely is calculating whether seeking to become governor would be more advantageous for the fight against climate change. (This, btw, would put our friend Jason Kinney in a pickle since he’s a consultant to both Steyer and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – a sure-fire candidate for governor in 2018.)

But what about the party of Lincoln? Republicans, meanwhile, with about 29% 28%, steadily sinking statewide registration and a party platform that still opposes abortion, gay marriage and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, are hardly a factor in the 2016 Senate race. Unless an unexpected top-rank candidate should emerge — like former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (who has never been subjected to campaign-level scrutiny).

Former Sen. Jim Brulte visits the Capitol Bureau.We asked California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte if his party would have any credible candidates for Senate in 2016 and he replied “Absolutely.” But when we asked for some examples, he refused to comment, insisting he and his party are concentrating on open California Senate seats – not the 2016 election.

Doubtless, the state GOP is quivering with excitement to know that Phil Wyman of Tehachapi, a former member of the state Senate and Assembly, who won less than 12% of the vote for Attorney General in June 2014, says he’s “strongly considering a run for the U. S. Senate in 2016.” Lock up the kids, Maude.

Back in the real world, which is to say, the world that we live in, Steyer’s advisers (who say they’re really not sure  what he will do) – expect him to make a decision and announcement early this week. Whatever that decision, it will surely have impact on Villaraigosa who – without a political office as a base or vast personal wealth – has a difficult challenge.

While a known figure like Jerry Brown might be able to run a statewide race for $30 million, virtually any one else is looking at three or four times that amount – a huge sum to raise in $1,000 $2,600 federal increments.

For Steyer, this is couch change. Which is both a blessing and — as eMeg et. al. have proved — a curse.

Tom Steyer: Kamala’s Biggest Threat for Senate

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

kamalaharris2A survey of the landscape of the 2016 race to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer reveals that state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who announced on Tuesday that she’s in, is a clear and strong front-runner whose most threatening potential opponent is billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer.

True, California voters often have slapped around rich people who have tried to bully their way into the top tier of politics (see Al Checchi, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Neel Kashkari). But Steyer, who has yet to announce his intentions, for years has been a player in state and national politics.

He used some of the gazillions he made as a hedge fund manager to create NextGen Climate Action, which last year supported climate-change friendly candidates across the nation, albeit with scant success, and also has backed and opposed important California ballot propositions. He served as a delegate to the Democratic National conventions of 2004 and 2008, and has worked or raised money for Walter Mondale, Bill Bradley, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, among others.

So he’s not your run-of-the-mill political dilettante. Hello Michael Huffington.


Consultants, We Got Consultants: Steyer has the sharp-tongued Chris Lehane and the smart and prudent Jason Kinney as consultants, with wily veteran Paul Maslin as a pollster. If he decides to get in against Harris, the June 2016 open primary race will get very expensive and possibly nasty – opening the possibility for a Republican contender to make the top-two runoff in November. On the other hand, Steyer could make a more uncertain play and angle for a shot at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s seat in 2018, assuming The Great Woman steps aside, which is a big assumption.

Harris, meanwhile, has top California strategists Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Dan Newman, with the dependable David Binder as her pollster. Her kitchen cabinet includes her husband, LA attorney Douglas Emhoff; her sister, Maya Harris of the Ford Foundation and Maya’s husband Tony West, former associate U.S. AG, who now is general counsel at PepsiCo and a very impressive guy. (At least half of us met West when he ran for San Jose City Council back in 1998, but lost because he couldn’t get labor backing; we said at the time that he could be president, if only he could get elected a councilman. But we digress).

Harris has a substantial financial base and considerable electoral chops (she won 67% in LA County in the last AG’s race, fercryinoutloud). She also has some impressive accomplishments, most notably her pivotal role in the National Mortgage Settlement against five banks: AllyWells FargoBank of AmericaCiti Bank, and Chase. After rejecting the initial settlement offer (against the wishes of Dem Party leaders) because it was too low, she won $12 billion of debt reduction for California homeowners and $26 billion overall.

woman boxerWeak Sauces: What Harris didn’t display in her web site announcement, however, was a compelling message that demonstrates she has something unique and important to bring to the Senate. Rather she sounded like Boxer Lite, whose eponymous message has always been that she’s a “fighter.”

Sez Kamala:

I have worked to bring smart, innovative and effective approaches to fighting crime, fighting for consumers and fighting for equal rights for all. I want to be a voice for Californians on these issues and others that impact our state in the U.S. Senate.

I will be a fighter for the next generation on the critical issues facing our country. I will be a fighter for middle class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity,” she added. “I will be a fighter for our children who deserve a world-class education, and for students burdened by predatory lenders and skyrocketing tuition. And I will fight relentlessly to protect our coast, our immigrant communities and our seniors.

Please, wake us when it’s over. She’s gotta do better and she has to get war, peace and national security in the first few lines, too. True, it’s a transition from AG to Senate, but a more powerful opening could have won widespread respect.

Steyer for his part presents as an articulate one-trick pony (how about “a talking horse”? – ed.) To wit, on Tuesday he wrote at Huffington Post:

Washington needs to be shaken up, and we need climate champions who will fight for the next generation. California Democrats are blessed to have a deep bench of talent, and I will decide soon based on what I think is the best way to continue the hard work we’ve already started together to prevent climate disaster and preserve American prosperity.

What about Tony V?  Harris definitely looks much  stronger than – and her camp is far less worried about – former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. His ability to raise funds beyond LA County is questionable, and he left the mayor’s office as damaged goods, not least because of his widely publicized zipper problem.

As for Representative Loretta Sanchez: Oy. Best start working on next year’s Christmas card, girlfriend.

While it’s too early for any bankable public polling in the race, Harris has a private survey from December (obviously she’s been thinking about this for awhile) that her advisers believe shows her an odds-on favorite. Steyer also has polling that, according to a source in his camp, is “encouraging,” in part because his political involvement mitigates against his untested, billionaire profile.

gavin (1)Newsom-Harris Tick Tock: Harris declared her decision to enter the online, 23 hours after Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s made his Facebook announcement Monday morning that he will not run for Senate in 2016 (also: nine days after she was re-sworn as AG…ah, what the hell). The machinations around the dual decision have made for juicy political gossip and multiple incorrect news stories.

After Boxer’s announcement, Newsom was encouraged by several of his allies to run for the seat. After debate and discussions with mentors and advisers (NOT including the Smith-Newman-Clegg SNC Strategies, consultants for both him and Harris), and with three young children and a wife with her own successful career, Prince Gavin chose to stay in California as Lite Gov – most likely preparing a bid for governor in 2018.

Newsom announcing before Harris wasn’t the Machiavellian plot that some political writers have claimed (hello Politico), it was just smart communications strategy. Had he waited until Harris announced for Senate, his decision not to run for the seat would make him look weak, as if he was afraid of running against her. By announcing that he would NOT run, he left the ball in Harris’s court.

Moreover, despite reports to the contrary, Newsom and his advisers reached out to inform Harris and her camp before the announcement, including a phone call from Gavin to Kamala early Sunday evening, when he left a long voice mail.

williebrownWhatever happens, don’t blame us: For the record, Jerry Brown was our longtime pick for the Boxer seat, and there was a fair amount of rending and gnashing around world headquarters here when the governor – exclusively — told Calbuzzer Dan Morain, who labors as SacBee ed page editor and columnist in his spare time, that he wasn’t running.

It also should be noted that we were not the only ones with the blinding insight that Gandalf was the best choice for the state. Two days after we raised the notion, noted political analyst (how about “aged bagman” ?- ed.) Assembly Speaker for Life Willie Brown, whose long list of proteges includes both Newsom and Harris, nominated his cousin Brown for the Senate. In his Hearst Chron column, His Willieness wrote:

The Senate fits his broad intellect, and he’d be 78 when he took office, which wouldn’t even make him the oldest senator from California – Dianne Feinstein will be 83.

Sometimes, great minds really do think alike. Some faster than others.

Why the Governor Should Run for Boxer’s Seat

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Boxer-retireTo the surprise of no one, septuagenarian U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer confirmed Thursday (in a cheesy video) that she will not seek re-election in two years, offering California Democrats a terrific opportunity to send their best possible successor to Washington: Jerry Brown.

Sure, Governor Gandalf at 76 is even older than the retiring Babs, but his good genes (remember Aunt Connie?) plus good exercise and diet habits, would make the age issue a non-starter for him.

More importantly, his singular political skills, encyclopedic policy knowledge and commitment to the overarching importance of addressing climate change in a serious way put him bald head and shoulders above the potential field of careerist mediocrities otherwise lusting for Boxer’s seat.

Instead of just four more years of Jerry Brown, California might get another 10 or more.

While Boxer has served as a fierce advocate for women, the environment and progressive causes, Brown has actually governed – a skill that could be put to good use in Washington when the Democrats, after 2016, will most likely control the White House and have retaken the Senate.

gavinkamalaAs for Prince Gavin and Queen Kamala, here’s how the deal could go down: Two years into his term, Brown hands off the keys to the horseshoe to 47-year old Lieutenant Governor Newsom (who would get the benefit of two years of on-the-job training before seeking the post on his own) while 50-year old Attorney General Harris would be the odds-on favorite to replace (by then) 85-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Everybody’s a winner!

As for the rest of the lean and hungry crowd — ex-L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, billionaire enviro Tom Steyer, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Treasurer John Chiang, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, and any other ambitious types– would just have to stand down if Jerry goes for Senate. Key reason: they’d get creamed.

jerrygandalfIn the interest of full disclosure: Calbuzz has no, what you might call, Actual Facts, let alone Real Evidence, suggesting that Brown would even contemplate such a move.

However, key sources close to our imagination suggest he shouldn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand, for at least three reasons:

1) Having just been re-elected, he’d have a free ride to go for Senate in 2016;

2) Borrr-dom. Brown already straightened out the mess in Sacramento, as the new/old sheriff in town and, at this point, can handle his duties there with one hand affixed to his lumbar sacrum;

3) Having accomplished the Freudian karmic task of surpassing his late father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, for longevity as governor, he can now set about avenging the one and only political loss of his life, his defeat to Pete Wilson in the 1982 Senate race.

There are, to be sure, certain uncertainties with the bold Calbuzz plan.

BBonboxOthers in history who have tried tricky Governor-Senate tradeoff moves have wished they hadn’t – hello Bill Knowland! And Harris would be taking the biggest political chance in betting on Difi to exit the Capitol Hill premises four years hence, when Herself might decide she wants to break Cornelius Cole’s record as the oldest Senator in the history of the nation.

But if Brown decides to go, she wouldn’t have much choice.

Bottom line: Let’s be blunt: after 34 years in Congress, Boxer will probably be best remembered for a $600 toilet seat. Clearly, we credit her for being a passionate, consistent and voluble voice for women’s issues and the environment. And whenever a spokesperson for a progressive cause was needed, the diminutive Boxer could be counted to stand on her literal little soapbox and make an articulate case.

But she will not – despite the accomplishments she claims – be remembered like Alan Cranston as an accomplished lawmaker, any more than Pete Wilson or John Tunney.

Brown would be a different kind of advocate – controversial by dint of his argumentative skills, iconoclastic personality and over-weaning overweening intellect. What kind of grade he’d get on “plays well with others” is less certain.

But it would surely be worth the price of admission. Run Jerry Run!

6 Takeaways From Jerry Brown’s Final Inaugural

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

jerry-brown-avedon (1)The biggest difference between the hirsute Jerry Brown who first took the oath as California’s governor at 36, and the 76-year who recited it on Monday for an historic fourth time: today’s buzz-cut old guy is genuinely interested in governing.

Back in 1975, rock star visionary Brown delivered a seven-minute inaugural address that featured a smarty-pants tone (“I probably won’t come again to this rostrum for a while. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it”) and ticked off a laundry list of problems facing the state (“the rising cost of energy, the depletion of our resources, the threat to the environment, the uncertainty of our economy…the lack of faith in government, the drift in political and moral leadership”) without a hint about serious solutions.

Cue The Eagles.

By contrast, the gray fox prophet this week spoke for 23 minutes, respectfully paying homage to California’s pioneering past, his own family and even the lawmaking bodies upon which he used to heap scorn (“thanks go to the Legislature,” he said, for working with him to help balance the budget). There was plenty of self-congratulation for the accomplishments of his last term – some of it even deserved – but Brown also spent much of his 2,783 word text wading into the wonky weeds as he discussed policies for  schools, criminal justice and, especially, his signature issues of energy and environment.

Cue the “All Things Considered” jingle.

jerrynewJerry’s nut graf: For all the differences of style and substance between then and now, however, the mature Brown Monday harkened back to his father’s first inaugural speech on January 5, 1959 to highlight the most abiding truth of politics in California: the more things change the more they stay the same:

That was 56 years ago, yet the issues that my father raised at his inauguration bear eerie resemblance to those that we still grappled with today: discrimination; the quality of education and the challenge of recruiting and training teachers; the menace of air pollution, and its danger to our health; a realistic water program; economic development; consumer protection; and overcrowded prisons.

To his credit, Brown proclaimed a simple and unglamorous truth about California: good political stewardship requires, not the kind of flashy, of-the-moment proposals in which he specialized last century, but rather “solid, steady work” on exquisitely complex, intractable problems.

So you see, these problems, they never completely go away. They remain to challenge and elicit the best from us. To that end, over the next four years – and beyond – we must dedicate ourselves to making what we have done work, to seeing that the massive changes in education, health care and public safety are actually carried out and endure. The financial promises we have already made must be confronted honestly so that they are properly funded. The health of our state depends on it.

In this way, Brown’s words, while billed as a combination of a State of the State speech and an inaugural address, were more the former than the latter. Sure, he book-ended his main message with a few idealistic, if not sentimental, rhetorical flourishes, the better to shape the ephemeral media coverage of the historic occasion:

We must build on rock not sand, so that when the storm comes, our house stands. We are at a crossroads. With big and important new programs now launched, and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have and our descendants would expect.

ward-bond-da1smCue the music from “Wagon Train.”

In the end, however, what was important and lasting in Brown’s final inaugural was its call for focus on the complex slog of governance so that “slow and steady” progress can be made in improving the real lives of real people.

“We must dedicate ourselves to making what we have done work,” may not be much of a sound bite for seeking higher office; as a philosophy of governance, though, it ain’t bad.

Some other takeaways:

What will my monument look like? Those awaiting an unexpected proposal which Brown might hope to serve as his political legacy are directed to the final section of the speech, where he set forth an agenda for California to build on its standing as the most progressive state in addressing climate change.

Forty years ago, Brown became the first major politician in America to begin pushing alternative fuels, energy efficiency standards and environmental sustainability; because of this, his latest ideas may at first glance seem like more of the same old. But stop and ponder them for a moment – reducing the amount of gasoline used in the state by 50 percent in 15 years, for starters, has a Send-Man-to-the-Moon scale – to get a sense of how revolutionary they are, and how far ahead of his time Brown has always been.

(Of course, the south-to-north High Speed Rail system is the other big legacy project in Brown’s second term but, ever master of the media, he gave it short shrift in the speech so as not to step on his second day story, when he visits Fresno Tuesday for a big groundbreaking ceremony for the train).

Anne_Gust_official_portraitThe assistant governor. Speaking of big differences between Brown old and new, it was telling that the only person clearly visible in the main televised shot of the governor was First Spouse Anne Gust Brown, whose key duty is to keep him focused with hawkish nose to the grindstone; if Anne had been around terms 1 & 2, instead of leaving the task to first pal Jacques Barzaghi, the great man might be president today.

Carving stone tablets. Most of the speech read like another of those Brown composed himself, apparently on an old Underwood. We’re all for politicians writing their own stuff, but his distracting head-up, head-down delivery recalled a student council president updating the senior class on plans for the prom; hasn’t this guy ever heard of a teleprompter?

Culture of crime. Brown spent a surprising portion of his speech – about 15 percent by our count – talking about the state’s law enforcement and corrections operations. As the guy who approved many of the lock-‘em-laws of the 1970s and ’80s, it was amusing to hear him suggest that it was all too much. But with the passage of Prop. 47, which reduces sentences for many small-end drug and property crimes, California may have entered a new cultural cycle in the debate over crime and punishment, when rehabilitation will cease to be a dirty word and government finds “less expensive, more compassionate and more effective ways to deal with crime,” as he put it.

Jerry vs. Janet.  Those looking for a Brown throw down with Janet Napolitano may have been disappointed, but it was in there, if understated: Brown is spoiling for a fight with the UC president, who’s trying to extort extract more funding from the state by threatening to raise tuition five percent. “While excellence is their business, affordability and timely completion is their imperative,” Brown, referring to the UCs. “As I’ve said before, I will not make the students of California the default financiers of our colleges and universities.”

VotersWhat about the voters? It’s worth noting that in his previous three inaugural speeches, Brown cited the over-arching problem of the political system – declining citizen participation and voter turnout rates:

1975. We have all come through an election, and what have we learned? More than half the people who could have voted, refused, apparently believing that what we do here has so little impact on their lives that they need not pass judgment on it. In other words, the biggest vote of all in November was a vote of no confidence. So our first order of business is to regain the trust and confidence of the people we serve.

– 1979. Yes, the mistrust of our public institutions and mere anxiety about our future economy are more the order than the exception. Three quarters of the people do not trust their government. More than half of the eligible citizens in California again decided not to vote in the last election. Why? Why the anti-government mood?

2011. Perhaps this is the reason why the public holds the state government in such low esteem. And that’s a profound problem, not just for those of us who are elected, but for our whole system of self-government. Without the trust of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle; and democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void.

This time, not a word. Not sure why Gandalf decided to skip past this existential problem to democracy. As a political matter, it’s hard to think of many things more important.