TULARE -- Gov. Jerry Brown came to this town halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield on Wednesday to briefly tour the World Ag Expo and continue his unofficial reelection bid in the heart of Republican California.
The visit marked the governor's second public swing through the Central Valley this year, and on Friday, he will join President Obama in Fresno to meet with agriculture leaders and discuss the state's drought, which has become the latest source of partisan tension in Washington.
Water is increasingly dominating state politics too, as Brown, who is widely expected to seek a fourth and final term as governor this year, wrestles with the political fallout from the lack of rain and must decide how to move forward with plans for the state's water future.
"When God doesn't provide the water, it's not here," Brown said in brief remarks to reporters. Though he offered no new details, he expressed confidence in his political skill to deal with the situation: "If anybody can get it done, I can get it done and I'm working night and day to achieve it."
The public portion of Brown's visit was cut short by a traffic jam that had him running about an hour behind schedule. The expo attracted thousands of visitors from around the Central Valley.
At last, the governor appeared, but he was visibly hurried. After taking a few questions from reporters, Brown made a U-turn and moved on, offering no new specifics about his plans to ease the state's water woes.
Brown has said he wants to build two massive tunnels to move billions of gallons of water from the northern half of the state to farmers in the center and cities in the south, but he's been noncommittal about whether he'd like to see a bond measure on the November ballot to build more reservoirs and aquifers and help clean the state's drinking water.
Asking voters to put billions of dollars more on the state credit card doesn't square with Brown's oft-repeated message of fiscal discipline, but as California faces some of the driest conditions in recorded history, it may be a better political alternative for the governor than being seen as turning a blind eye to the water woes in an election year.
After agreeing to a bipartisan $11-billion bond proposal in 2009, state lawmakers have twice opted to delay a statewide vote on the water bond, fearing it would be rejected by voters as the state grappled with multibillion-dollar deficits. Many Sacramento politicians say they now want to renegotiate a pared-down version of the proposal to put before voters, but divisions remain over whether to do it this year or wait until 2016.
Regional and partisan divisions have further divided lawmakers, making a new water deal elusive. A reworked proposal would require a two-thirds vote in the Assembly and state Senate, and the governor's public silence has added to the Capitol gridlock.
Without delving into specifics, Brown said his experience could help bridge the divide.
"We have to come to terms with the fact that ... people think very differently. There are lots of different conflicting ideas," he said. "So as governor, I try to bring everybody together, and at this stage in my life, I think I'm going to be able to do that."
Here in the agricultural heart of California, farmers are clamoring for help. Electronic billboards above the highway urge residents to conserve water. Homemade signs urging political leaders to help are nestled amid the thirsty nut and stone-fruit orchards, which are just beginning to show the first pink, white and purple blossoms of spring.
With Brown scheduled to join Obama in Fresno on Friday, he said he will urge Democrats and Republicans to provide the state some short-term relief.
"Washington is made up of two political parties and two houses. ...They like to fight and now they're fighting," he said, noting the conflicting drought proposals circulating in Congress. "But that doesn't help farmers, and it doesn't help California. It doesn't help the country. So what I'm going to try to do is to find the middle path, and we'll get the most done that is feasible under the Constitution and under the politics we have."