It was not until Thursday night’s debate in Sacramento between Gov. Jerry Brown and his GOP rival Neel Kashkari that I realized what a gift the challenger has given the Republican Party. Up until then, he hadn’t impressed me much. Had Assemblyman Tim Donnelly won the runoff, he likely would have delivered some bon mots on illegal immigrants that would have dominated debate coverage and sent the rest of the party into a defensive crouch.
If Kashkari had amassed the type of country-sized fortune as 2010 GOP nominee Meg Whitman, he likely would have waged a big-money campaign that would have invited cynicism and resentment among the state’s dwindling political press corps. Instead, he’s a modest millionaire — his net worth may be that of a two-story home in the Oakland hills — who can’t stop talking about poverty and his immigrant family.
Kashkari’s new Republicanism so flummoxed the wily Jerry Brown — a political prince suckled by the ample breast of Sacramento, skilled in the ways of campaign groundwork and fundraising — was reduced to linking the former head of the Troubled Asset Relief Program to “bonuses for your buddies at Goldman Sachs” — where Brown’s sister Kathleen was a big shot. And Kashkari, 41, was ready to remind Brown that while he earned his way to Wall Street, he is no son of privilege: “My dad wasn’t governor. I grew up mowing lawns and bagging groceries.”
Thursday night should be Brown’s last candidate debate — at age 76, he’s term-limited out of the top seat — which affords him the opportunity to exit smiling. Crowing even. Four years ago, the state was “in a shambles and we were being called a failed state just like Greece,” quoth Dao Gov. “That’s not the case anymore.” In his return term to the state’s top office, Brown convinced voters to raise taxes, which allowed Sacramento to present the Capitol’s version of a balanced budget. The state’s Affordable Care Act rollout had fewer glitches than other states. When the overwhelmingly liberal Legislature started banging the bars for big spending hikes, Brown kept the zoo animals in their cages. Good times.
Yet here was this Republican novice presenting a view of state politicians very much in harmony with voters’ scorn at Sacramento’s self-serving ways.
When Brown reluctantly admitted that he probably will sign a bill to ban retailer give-aways of single-use plastic bags, Kashkari volleyed, “No chance will I sign that.” Then he threw the bag ban in the heap with other new nanny-state laws. “Look at what the Legislature and Gov. Brown have been working on for the last month. Banning plastic bags. Regulating football practice because apparently the families of California can’t decide for themselves how much football practice is enough. And the one that I love last week — fortunately, Governor, I can now bring my dogs to restaurants. I’m a dog lover. I’m grateful for that. What they’re not working on is rebuilding the middle class.” Sacramento should be working on improving schools and job creation.
In an act of deft jujitsu, the Republican hit Brown for supporting measures that squeeze the middle class to bankroll elite pursuits. Brown’s support for cap-and-trade pollution credits effectively raises “the cost of electricity for working families,” Kashkari charged; those dollars then will be siphoned into high speed rail, Brown’s “vanity” project.
Kashkari praised Brown as well. He supported Brown’s decision not to appeal a federal ruling to overturn Proposition 8, California’s 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage. “I wish he could just use the same discretion in fighting for” minority kids, Kashkari continued, instead of choosing to appeal a court decision that found the state’s teacher tenure system unconstitutional.
Kashkari’s strongest issue is that the state’s economy has failed to produce the solid full-time jobs needed to sustain a middle class. Brown has fought environmental regulations that threaten high profile interests like the Sacramento Kings, but he has not delivered for smaller businesses that need relief as well. Don’t just do environmental review reform for well-placed concerns, Kashkari pushed. “Why don’t we actually adopt that new standard and make it available to everyone?”
This is where Brown was able to cuff the new kid. Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger “had some big plans,” Brown intoned. “But you know it does take some inside knowledge” to get things done. You don’t implement institutional change with a press release and well-worded soundbite. At that moment, the debate morphed into a swatting by the seasoned dog of the eager whelp.
Outsiders often think of Capitol Republicans as lemmings who would stampede off a cliff just to mess with a successful Democrat. Not true. Savvy Sacto Repubs appreciate Brown as probably the best governor they can get in this most blue of states. They know Brown did a better job than Schwarzenegger controlling spend-happy Democrats. They know he has kept fellow Democrats in line to an extent probably unattainable by his likely Democratic successor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom or Attorney General Kamala Harris. Brown knows how the institutions work, and he knows how to finalize a deal.
Send a GOP novice into the Capitol coliseum and it could be a bloodbath.