Column: Jerry Brown’s legacy a major question for hopefuls looking to replace him

Gov. Jerry Brown in Rome, where he attended a climate change event at the Vatican last week.
Gov. Jerry Brown in Rome, where he attended a climate change event at the Vatican last week.
(Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

After running for elected office 12 times since 1970, Gov. Jerry Brown is about to exit the center stage of California politics, no longer the brash upstart but now a senior statesman who could be a model for the next person who will lead the state.

Every successor promises to be better, and different, than the person they replace. In 2018, one of the most wide-open races for governor in some two decades, the “Jerry question” looms large for both candidates and voters.

A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found a tepid reaction to Brown the man. His job approval rating among all Californians was just 44%, and almost one-third of those surveyed said they didn’t have any real impression of him. One possible reason is that he often flies under the radar for weeks at a time. Though he’s made news in recent days for preaching on his visit to Europe about the dangers of climate change, Brown prefers to govern behind the scenes.


When asked whether the next governor should continue Brown’s agenda, 50% of voters said yes. Among Democrats, it was 71%. In several other subsets — young voters, those with a college degree, Latino voters — a majority or even close to a supermajority wanted the next governor to carry on.

So far, the candidate most preferred among the “keep doing what Jerry Brown is doing” crowd is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, picked by 49% of the primary voters who want to extend the life of the current governor’s agenda. Twenty-six percent of that group supported former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and 14% supported Treasurer John Chiang. The USC/LAT poll finds support for all other candidates in single digits (or less) among the “Brown policies” voters.

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Newsom, whose relationship with Brown stretches back a couple of family generations and deep into San Francisco politics, has been the most effusive in his praise. Last week, he repeated one of his favorite quips about Brown’s record as California’s chief executive: “He’s proven you don’t have to be profligate to be progressive.”

But the lieutenant governor is also swinging for the fences when it comes to liberal causes — embracing the Legislature’s stalled single-payer healthcare bill, criticizing President Trump on an almost hourly basis on social media — an activist path far beyond the more cautious Brown. While softening his stance of late, Newsom has sounded at times as though he would reverse course on high-speed rail and water tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — two of the current governor’s toughest policy slogs. Villaraigosa, at this point the other leading candidate, has already tried to paint Newsom’s evolution on some parts of the Brown agenda as a flip-flop.

Then there’s Chiang, the state’s longtime fiscal watchdog, and Eastin, the former schools chief who also must navigate when to praise or pan the legacy of the man about to leave office. For Republican hopefuls Assemblyman Travis Allen and businessman John Cox, of course, the whole campaign is about a break with the status quo.

Because Brown will hand over a state budget in better condition than the one he found in 2011, as well as substantial efforts on a higher minimum wage and the criminal justice system, his fellow Democrats will tread carefully. A lot of voters may not be paying attention to the current governor, but they seem to want more of what he’s been doing.


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