Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jerry Brown, presumed Democratic nominee for CA Governor in 2010

In addition to focusing more on comprehensive immigration reform, I also want to start paying closer attention to Jerry Brown's (officially undeclared) 2010 gubernatorial race. With his main presumed Democratic opponent for the Party nomination, Gavin Stevens Newsom, out of the running, Brown is the presumptive nominee.

I certainly haven't been making a secret of my general admiration for Jerry Brown, though I also generally think it's at least as important to be critical-minded about politicians you support as those you don't. And, yes, the rumors are true. I was once caught hanging out at his old commune in Oakland with Jerry, homeschoolers and Berkeley nudists. I can't deny it.

From following his career and from the limited in-person contact I've had with him, I would say that he's basically a pro-labor, pro-immigrant Democrat. He spent four years in a Jesuit seminary as a novitiate (studying for the priesthood), and the Jesuit approach to Catholic Christianity is a major influence in his thinking. I've sometimes said that one way to understand Jerry's sometimes challenging approaches is that he's a Jesuit who went into politics. That influence shows up in his work with Mother Teresa in India and in his friendship and intellectual engagement with the late Austrian Christian theologian-philosopher Ivan Illich (1926-2002). (Illich is commonly described as an anarchist but that's a very inadequate description.)

Jerry has also seriously studied Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes concepts such as living in the moment and playing the role appropriate to your life and your situation in the moment. He's also very ecologically minded, and his aggressive approach to environmental protection is the most important of his legacies from his first stint as California Governor in 1975-83. Along with more traditional influences like being part of a major political dynasty and his training in law, all this gives him a complex set of lenses through which to view politics. The results are sometimes surprising and even contradictory, though rarely if ever incoherent.

Jerry is currently viewed with suspicion by many Democratic activists who perceive him as insufficiently liberal, or not liberal at all. I can't say this is entirely surprising to me, but I also can't say I really understand why that is. Digby, one of my favorite bloggers, just posted a spirited defense of Jerry against some airhead Beltway Village idiocy (Moonbeams and Starshine Hullabaloo 11/18/09). But she also writes, "There are plenty of criticisms to be made about Brown, who in many respects is no longer even close to being a liberal."

That perception does puzzle me. I would say that Jerry in general is much more of a solid liberal/progressive than Barack Obama. As Attorney General, he's been aggressive in pursuing corporate misdeeds, companies who scammed consumers and investment frauds, a solid pro-consumer record. Brown has been articulating as much of a full-throated criticism of the arrogant financial elite as any Democrat I can think of. Just this week, he announced a $1.4 billion settlement against Wells Fargo: Wells Fargo to Pay $1.4 Billion in Auction-Rate Securities Settlement by Cheryl Miller The Recorder 11/19/09. Aren't these kinds of aggressive, pro-consumer actions what liberal Democratic activists would want a Democratic Attorney General to pursue?

Part of the concern may be more factional, i.e., Gavin Stevens until recently was expected to be Jerry's opponent in the 2010 Democratic primary. Gavin won the admiration of liberal activists by his aggressive stand on same-sex marriage. He also had made an effort to cultivate the netroots in a way that Brown seems not to have done. Gavin was a featured speaker at the 2008 Netroots Nation convention in Austin, for example.

But Jerry has a decent record on same-sex marriage, as well. As Attorney General, he took the very unusual step of opposing the state law against same-sex marriage established by Proposition 8 (aka, Proposition Hate). He was unsuccessful in his challenge to the law. But in making the case, he even relied on an unconventional Constitutional theory arguing that same-sex marriage should be considered a right guaranteed by the US Constitution that no state had the right to deny. That's a more pro-same-sex marriage position than any President Obama has taken.

This article gives a good overview of Jerry's current political situation: Why It’s Nuts for Dems to Want a Primary Fight Calbuzz 11/09/09.

I had a dialogue with David Dayen in the comments to his Roundup post of 10/30/09 FDL News Desk post, over Jerry's progressive politics or lack thereof. The folks at the Calitics blog, which included David until a couple of months ago, have been very skeptical of Jerry's candidacy for Governor.

Steven Harmon of the Contra Costa Times gives his take on why Liberals worry about Brown's move to 'center' 11/18/2009. This report by Martin Wisckol of the Orange County Register provides some items for concern, Jerry Brown shows O.C. his moderate, populist side 10/30/09. The article also uses the term "moderate populist", which I'm not sure I've ever seen before. It's a reflection of how near-meaningless the word "populist" has become in the American usage. (In Europe, it is used to mean rightwing demagogue, which is also a corruption of its meaning for the original Populist Party in the US.)

Reading the Brown Transcripts by Joe Mathews of the New America Foundation Fox & Hounds 11/11/09 provides a more nuanced view of Jerry than the Contra Costa Times and Orange County Register pieces might suggest. Matthews is also the author of the recent American Prospect's skeptical cover story on Jerry, See Jerry Run. Again. 09/24/09. That one is not a very good analysis of Jerry's career. Matthews almost seems to think that he was responsible for the property-tax-cutting initiate Proposition 13, writing, "As it happens, the only thing worse than Prop. 13 itself was its implementation." He doesn't even mention that Brown had earlier proposed a much more sensible property tax reform that the legislature foolishly rejected. Or that he very actively supported a competing and also sensible tax reform intiative in 1978 that unfortunately was defeating by Prop 13.

Yes, he had to implement it as Governor. And he did a good job of minimizing the damage. In fact, it was Prop 13 that created the situation that we still have today, in which the state government is forced to run chronically on the verge of bankruptcy. That's the conservative and Republican vision of government. And that's not the view of government that Jerry Brown represents. He does take government efficiency seriously, as distinct from Republicans for whom "eliminating waste, fraud and inefficiency" is nothing but a magical incantation. As Jerry once famously said before Prop 13, "I'm not conservative, I'm just cheap."

Jerry recently fired his spokesperson, who was revealed to have secretly taped interviews reporters had with Jerry. Secret taping of that kind is illegal in California. But it has produced this compilation of documents, most of which are transcripts from those interviews. This report describes them: Secrets of Secret Jerry Brown Tapes Revealed Calbuzz 11/10/09. Here is the 93-page PDF of the document itself, which give the reader an unusual chance to look at how Jerry processes information in that context. On page 5 of the PDF, he puts environmental concerns front and center when AP reporter Beth Fouhy asks him why he wants to run for Governor again:

That's the question. That is the question. I would say in response, that the state has lurched from crisis to crisis. The creativity that I saw in state government 25 years ago is not there and I do believe that I have the experience and the ability to attract very skilled and creative people that could make a major contribution both in education and renewable energy, prison reform and in dealing with the water crisis. These key challenges that the state has been facing since the time that I was governor are still continuing. For example, they haven't built a water project since my father was governor. [Pat Brown was Governor from 1959-1967.] The only one that's ever been proposed was blocked in a referendum. The high speed rail authority? I signed it 1982. The bonds were just passed in the last election and they're talking another 10 years. There are a lot of things I did as governor. For example, California introduced to [sic] the state energy commission which I started. It didn't have one employee when I was governor and we built it up to the major state energy authority of the country. California became the world leader in wind and other renewable energy sources. By the way, California now uses less electricity per person than the other states. We haven't even grown. Not only because of the renewable energy but the efficiency, the building codes, the appliances. I'm continuing that as attorney general[.] I'm pushing each of the local governments, of which they're hundreds, to adopt land use plans to reduce vehicles miles traveled and require energy efficient building materials. [my emphasis]

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