Is Jerry Brown all there is?

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist at the Washington Post.

With San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s announcement last month that he was withdrawing from next year’s gubernatorial contest, the Democratic field in the race has dwindled to one: Jerry Brown. Whatever one thinks of Brown’s merits as a once-and-future governor, that’s a pretty thin field to choose from.

It’s not as if the Democrats are a small or embattled party in California, after all. Barack Obama carried the state by 24% last November. Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats, most statewide offices and have lopsided majorities in the Legislature and the congressional delegation. Is Brown really the only candidate the Democrats can produce? It’s not as if he has blown away state voters with his current performance as attorney general or his stint before that as mayor of Oakland -- episodes in Brown’s long public life about which most Californians know little or nothing.

Millions of Democrats do remember -- many of them fondly -- Brown’s 1975-1983 tenure as governor. But millions don’t. And some of us who were around during the Brown years can’t forget that although he was a great friend of farmworkers and environmentalists, he also became the avid enforcer of Howard Jarvis’ Proposition 13 once it passed and helped impose the fiscal straitjackets that make California ungovernable today.

When Brown sought the office the first time around, in 1974, he was one among many in a crowded and very talented Democratic field. As Republican Ronald Reagan approached the end of his second term as governor, five leading Democrats -- Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti, San Francisco state Sen. (and later Mayor) George Moscone, Bay Area Rep. Jerry Waldie, San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto and Brown, then California’s secretary of state -- vied to succeed him. Today, as Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger staggers to the end of his term, the line of Democratic hopefuls is radically shorter.


Part of the reason for Brown’s solitude in the race is the sheer cost of running for governor. It’s hard to see what Democrat would want to jump in at this point. The prospect of having to first run against Brown, who has already raised more than $8 million and hasn’t even formally declared his candidacy, and then against the likeliest Republican nominee, former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman, who has tens of millions of her own money to dump into the race, would be daunting to any Democrat without a substantial fortune of his or her own. Dianne Feinstein has such a fortune but has shown no indication that she’s willing to give up her comfortable Senate seat for the roller coaster of gubernatorial politics. Most other Democratic officeholders don’t have anything like the Feinstein fortune to draw on.

Money has always played a huge role in California politics, of course: In the 1974 Democratic gubernatorial primary that led to Brown’s victory, the candidates’ order of finish was in direct correlation to the amounts they had raised and spent -- a common occurrence in American elections. But with the advent of candidates such as Whitman and Schwarzenegger, who can fund their own campaigns, potential candidates who can’t raise megabucks often opt not to run.

That’s not the whole story, however. In 1974, there was also more coverage of major governmental leaders, particularly at the state level, than there is today. Local television stations and newspapers maintained Sacramento bureaus. Many Californians actually knew the identity of the Assembly speaker. Today the TV bureaus and most of the newspaper reporters are long gone. (This newspaper is one of the few that still maintains a significant presence in the capital.) Coverage of Sacramento is a sometime thing at best -- and that’s with one of the world’s best-known celebrities serving as governor. It’s more difficult for an experienced and able statewide official -- Treasurer (and former Atty. Gen.) Bill Lockyer, say -- to achieve the visibility needed to wage viable campaigns for governor. Brown, who entered politics when Sacramento still got news coverage, was more visible as secretary of state in the early ‘70s than he is in the more important position of attorney general today.

Even when Newsom was in the race, Brown assiduously avoided saying anything about where he wanted to take the state. His newly solitary status can only encourage him to clam up even more. More Californians are jobless than at any time since the Depression; the great public universities and colleges that his father, Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, built are withering away; state government is paralyzed -- yet Brown maintains a strategic, steadfast silence. Because he is in some sense a known quantity, he can also be a tabula rasa. He was already governor, some might conclude; he knows what he’s doing -- even though he has given no idea of what he actually might do.

California Democrats deserve a primary, a choice; a creative, cacophonous discussion of the possible futures for their once-golden state. Instead, their one candidate is running on silence and nostalgia. If he goes unchallenged, that’s one more black mark against California’s political system.