BAKERSFIELD -- Ricocheting across the state in recent days, Gov. Jerry Brown laid out a case for his reelection in a tour that had all the hallmarks of a campaign rollout.
Brown visited the inland heart of California, stopping in Fresno, Kern and Riverside counties to talk about his controversial plans for a costly high-speed train network and massive water tunnels that would move billions of gallons from the northern half of the state to the south.
Last week, the Democratic governor unveiled his proposed budget in Sacramento, San Diego and Los Angeles, touting a projected surplus, a push for a rainy-day fund and more money for schools after years of cuts.
He hit media markets home to the bulk of California’s population, highlighted the state’s improved finances and took hours of questions from reporters. He continued to be coy about his reelection intentions, saying politics did not interest him — a man who has spent 29 years of his life as an elected official and ran for president three times.
“We have time,” Brown told reporters in Riverside, when asked about his reelection campaign. “I’m not running yet.”
Brown was exercising one of the perks of incumbency. Without officially campaigning, he has a megaphone with which to trumpet his achievements and tell Californians why they should keep him in office. In San Francisco on Friday, he declared a statewide drought, giving farmers and ranchers the rights to millions of gallons of water and government aid, and giving himself a chance to offer relief to struggling Californians.
Clearly the tour was “the informal launch of his reelection effort,” said veteran Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. Brown and his advisors may recognize that “he needs to be seen more by California voters, to take credit for the good things he’s done,” Sragow added, “and to address any concerns some voters may have.”
Some inland areas voted overwhelmingly against Brown four years ago, and Brown confronted issues that could pose a problem for him there. One was prison realignment, his effort to comply with a court decree to reduce inmate crowding.
For the past two years, most low-level felons have been kept in county custody rather than sent to state prisons, swelling jail populations and shortening time behind bars for some offenders.
Near Bakersfield, Brown toured a jail. Throughout his travels, he met with sheriffs, prosecutors and probation officials and acknowledged the hardships they face.
“We all are in this together,” Brown told reporters in Riverside, while pressing for increased drug-treatment and education programs for criminals in addition to plans to add prison beds. “I know it’s hard.”
The interior of the state has not shared in California’s economic recovery, which has mostly occurred along the coast. Unemployment and poverty remain high, the housing market remains soft, and Brown met his share of critics.
“I’m not sure that the governor realized the magnitude of the challenge here,” said Ashley Swearengin, the Republican mayor of Fresno, who took Brown on a private tour of her city’s faded downtown Monday. “We need to make sure he understands.”
Brown said his infrastructure plans would bring prosperity to Central California.
He said his water proposal “will mean a greater availability of water and a more reliable supply of water” for Central Valley farmers, who produce about a third of the produce grown in the United States.
And “if you have a high-speed rail between Fresno, Bakersfield and Los Angeles, it is going to be economically extremely important to the growth and quality of life in the Central Valley,” he told reporters in Fresno. “It will create thousands of jobs here.”
But the inland areas are where Brown faces the most resistance to his major projects. A September 2013 USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found just 36% of those in the Central Valley support the bullet train and 59% say the project should be stopped.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) expressed skepticism that Brown’s programs would really help the Central Valley. Realignment was responsible for a surge in crime on Central Valley streets, Patterson said, and Brown has done little to push federal officials to shore up the region’s water supply.
“I think he’s sticking his head in the sand,” Patterson said. “The governor has been woefully unengaged and slow to act on issues that are most important to Central California.”
Brown is unlikely to convert Patterson and other outspoken critics, but he doesn’t necessarily have to. Brown faces no serious Democratic opposition in this year’s election and holds a wide fundraising advantage over a small field of barely known Republicans hoping to unseat him.
With a united Democratic Party behind him, Brown can work on building support in what has traditionally been the Republican core of California, both to run up the score in his own race and to help his party in other contests. The Democrats will be fighting hard this year to retain supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.
“He is in such a strong position that he has the luxury now to go into Republican areas and try to make an impact,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes state political contests.
With five months to go before the June primary, Brown announced that he plans to travel more this year, including to areas where he hasn’t spent much time since becoming governor. Most of his public events have been in Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area or in and around Los Angeles.
“I think it’s important for me to get around and meet people and hear different perspectives,” Brown told reporters in Bakersfield on Tuesday. “Things do sound and feel differently in Bakersfield than they do in Oakland.”
Before leaving the city’s school district headquarters, Brown promised, “I will be back….You will see me more often in the months ahead, because I like it here.”