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Why Jerry Brown (probably) won't endorse Bernie Sanders

Why Jerry Brown (probably) won't endorse Bernie Sanders
In 2010, Jerry Brown was endorsed at a crucial point in his gubernatorial campaign by his old nemesis, former President Bill Clinton. Between Brown and Clinton is Gavin Newsom, who dropped out of the race against Brown and was elected lieutenant governor. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown has endorsed a candidate for the U.S. Senate. He has also embraced one running for Congress in Compton. And for Sacramento mayor.

But Brown still has not taken sides in the presidential race between fellow Democrats Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, even with Californians already voting in the June 7 primary.

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Does it matter?

To the outcome? Unlikely.

To the candidates' followers? Perhaps.

To the candidates themselves? You bet.

Candidates tend to take it personally when they're not endorsed.

"Politicians have thin skins," notes veteran Democratic strategist David Townsend.

"The Clintons are known to have an especially long memory," says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

But does an endorsement influence votes?

"Not for president," Townsend says. "It does if it's an endorsement for attorney general or a ballot proposition. But everyone has their own opinion on candidates for president."

Schnur: "The less people know about a candidate, the more important an endorsement is. If you're running for president and have a 99.5% name ID, endorsements don't matter nearly as much."

Yes, I'm assuming that if Brown did endorse someone before the primary, it would be Clinton.

Sanders and Brown do share one trait: They're both mavericks, unafraid to buck the establishment. At least Brown was in his more formative and ambitious years. But he has gradually learned it's best to focus on battles that are actually winnable.

In an earlier era, Brown might have backed Sanders. But the Vermont senator, I suspect, is way too big a spender — Medicare for all, free college tuition — for a fiscal centrist who has made budget prudence the legacy of his second governorship.

Anyway, high-profile political endorsements are almost always about the business of politics, not personal likes. Odds are that Clinton will be the next president. And Brown will have two years remaining as governor. He'll want his favors granted and his phone calls returned.

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Politicians' staffs get especially emotional about endorsement refusals.

A classic example was the "Bridgegate" scandal in New Jersey. Top aides of Gov. Chris Christie closed lanes of the George Washington Bridge, snarling traffic, allegedly to punish a mayor for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection.

"Very few of these endorsements are expressions of the heart," says Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist.

They're about joining a potential winner's team. Building coalitions. And networking — the same reason local merchants join the Elks or Rotary.

Whatever, Brown owes the Clintons.

Former President Clinton endorsed Brown and stumped the state for him at a key point in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

Yes, they did have a rocky past.

When Brown challenged Clinton for their party's presidential nomination in 1992, he famously called him "the prince of sleaze." He also characterized him as a "union-busting, scab-inviting, wage-depressing, environmental-disaster governor" of Arkansas.

And, although Brown was thoroughly beaten, he refused to endorse Clinton before the convention.

But that was an eon ago. And, strange as it might seem, I always thought Brown pulled his punches considering the blows he might have landed on Clinton.

In 2008, Brown stayed neutral in the nomination battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

The next year, in what was widely viewed as Clinton retaliation for past grievances, the former president initially endorsed then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for governor over Brown. But Newsom soon dropped out.

Brown doesn't endorse much. And, as with most things, he doesn't respond well to pressure. He's rather mulish that way.

In 2012, he didn't even endorse a ballot initiative to end the death penalty, a lifelong cause. He apparently didn't want to risk angering some voters and jeopardizing his "soak the rich" tax increase on the same ballot.

Recently he endorsed Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris for U.S. Senate, state Sen. Isadore Hall for Congress and former state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg for Sacramento mayor.

In the presidential race, Brown seems most concerned about keeping tempers under control and the party healthy enough to beat Donald Trump. Without mentioning Sanders by name, he warned last weekend about "seeking the Democratic nomination with a scorched-earth policy."

A Brown endorsement of either candidate could risk his personal standing with their fans. A poll published Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that Democratic primary voters who approve of Brown's job performance are pretty divided. Clinton is favored over Sanders by 52% to 42%.

Among all likely Democratic primary voters — regardless of what they think of Brown — Clinton has only a thin edge: 46% to 44%.

The Clinton-Brown saga continued Monday. The former president and the governor met for 90 minutes in the same breakfast room of the executive mansion where John F. Kennedy sought then-Gov. Pat Brown's endorsement in the 1960 presidential race.

Gosh, you think Bill and Jerry may have talked about a potential endorsement? That would be logical, but a Brown spokesman said no. They discussed the election and politics only generally.

No matter. Both old pols are skilled at communicating in nuances with winks and nods.

Kennedy got Pat Brown's endorsement — sort of — but Jerry's dad badly botched making it worth anything. That's a long story.

Will Brown endorse Hillary Clinton before the primary? There are no plans, I'm told. But the governor is unpredictable.

Should he? Yes, if he thinks she's the best candidate. It's called candor and getting on board.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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