How Jerry Brown Cleared The Democratic Field for Governor of California

How did former Governor-turned-Attorney General Jerry Brown clear the Democratic field for governor of California over half a year before next year's primary election? Without even announcing his candidacy for governor? Let's count the ways as we set the stage for one of the biggest races in America next year.

Most California political experts did not expect this result. The state's much diminished press corps anticipated a big primary fight. Nor was Jerry Brown expected to be the easy winner. In fact, a site run by well-known state Democratic consultants put up an online poll in early 2007 to gauge early insider support for possible candidates. And, amusingly, neglected to include Brown. Despite the fact that the two-term former governor, two-time Democratic presidential runner-up, and two-time mayor of rugged Oakland had just won the biggest victory of any contested statewide race. Bigger even than Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide 17-point romp over his Democratic challenger.

"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." The Eagles, who backed Jerry Brown in his campaigns for president, perform "Hotel California."

Even after the main rivals to Brown dropped out, some kept pushing ever more unlikely prospects forward. Only to see them vanish like a desert mirage. Nevertheless, some amongst the thinned ranks of California reporters and bloggers still imagine that Brown and his capable and witty wife Anne Gust Brown are simply winging it. This view is, let's say, not entirely accurate.

The last major candidate to withdraw was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, as I broke on my on October 30th. Before explaining the sudden end of his heavily-hyped candidacy, let's go through the others. All the others, I should say.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was the toast of political progressives when he first ran for mayor in 2001, endlessly lionized in the LA Weekly. Then the former state Assembly speaker lost. And went into the political wilderness for a while.

I remember spending a day talking with him while marching up the Central Valley with the United Farm Workers in 2002, a move undertaken to pressure then Governor Gray Davis into signing a bill removing some roadblocks to organizing workers. (Davis signed the bill.) Villaraigosa was unsure about what to do next. He could start a think tank. Or he could run for an LA City Council seat, then go from there. He did the latter, and in a 2005 rematch with Los Angeles Mayor Jimmy Hahn, he won.

The Newsweek cover boy was everywhere at first, keeping to a dizzying 14-hour a day schedule. But the action didn't match all the activity. So when he got caught up in a personal scandal that ended his marriage, much of the excitement drained away. Still he seemed to many a formidable candidate for governor, with a big fundraising base, acting on the stage of the state's biggest media market.

Yet there were early signs of real doubt, even before the personal contretemps. Villaraigosa is very engaging, but he is not a strong platform speaker. Before and after the scandal, he eschewed several opportunities to appear on the same stage with Brown, who is a very strong public speaker. Then came his re-election this spring. Villaraigosa, spending millions on TV advertising, got only 55% of the vote against a field of no-names and cranks. He passed on an Oval Office meeting on education reform with President Barack Obama.

Jerry Brown receives a rave introduction from Gavin Newsom, who went on to run against him for governor, at his 2007 inaugural as California's attorney general.

Brown and his emissaries had been in touch with Villaraigosa and his friends throughout, pressing a message of friendship while planting seeds of doubt. Brown, who was busily raising a campaign warchest, was also in touch with big LA fundraising types. It was clear to Villaraigosa that he would have a real fight on his home turf when it came to raising money.

Which he wouldn't be able to do until his handpicked candidate for LA city attorney survived a run-off election. As it happened, Brown tacitly backed the other candidate, who won in a landslide. Then a poll came out showing that Villaraigosa had only a narrow lead over Brown in the City of Los Angeles. With the handwriting on the wall, Brown and his emissaries became even friendlier to Villaraigosa, who acceded to the inevitable and announced that he would not run for governor after all. Better to have a non-hostile, even friendly, governor and live for another day rather than go down in flames in a losing primary race.

Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi was the first candidate to officially declare for governor. It wasn't the first time. As a young state senator, he ran for governor in 1982 against then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and lost. In 1994, he ran against Jerry Brown's sister, then state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, and lost. He nearly ran a few other times. But having lost to Brown's sister, and to Brown's former chief of staff Gray Davis before that in a race for state controller, it wasn't likely that he would beat Brown himself.

Former Governor Gray Davis discussed Arnold Schwarzenegger, his old boss Jerry Brown, and the state of the state of California last year.

Brown and his emissaries kept a respectful relationship with Garamendi while he arrived at the logical conclusion. Which he did when he withdrew from the race to run in -- and win -- a special election for Congress.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer was attorney general before Brown won the office in 2006. Lockyer, one of the brightest and most knowledgeable politicians around, looked at a run for governor that year, but took a pass. Which didn't end his interest in the office. But he didn't think he could beat Brown, who in any event had established a bantering friendship with him. While some kept on trotting his name out as a prospect, he was in effect an early Brown backer.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell only recently announced that he would not challenge Brown. But that decision was a fait accompli last year, when he learned that his campaign manager would not be his campaign manager in a race against Brown.

Former state Controller Steve Westly, the ex-eBay honcho who is now a leading greentech venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, came from far behind to narrowly lose the 2006 primary for governor against then state Treasurer Phil Angelides. Westly was one of Barack Obama's earliest and biggest backers, raising a ton of money and serving as the most active California co-chair of the presidential campaign. He took a very serious look at running for governor again. As it happened, he ran against Brown once before, in 1989, when, as state vice chair of the Democratic Party he expected to become party chairman. Only to lose out when Brown decided to re-enter politics as state Deocratic chairman.

This was actually a very fortuitous event in Westly's life, as he went off to high tech start-ups before hitting it very big with eBay. Over a year ago, he and his wife had a very good dinner with Jerry and Anne Brown. When Brown is an official candidate, Westly, who co-chaired a big fundraiser for Brown last week in San Francisco before a state political columnist wrote that he was a potential candidate, will be an official in the Brown campaign.

The aforementioned Phil Angelides, having been smashed by Schwarzenegger in 2006, wanted another crack at the governorship. But his own polling in that campaign showed that, had Brown run for governor rather than attorney general in 2006, he would have walked away with the nomination. Angelides, reminded of this, decided not to run.

On the Friday before his landslide election as Attorney General of California, Jerry Brown shares some family memorabilia and blue-chip art in his Oakland loft.

Senator Dianne Feinstein has been much talked about as a candidate, especially in her hometown San Francisco Chronicle. As I wrote last year, she's not running. I've been through the Feinstein question twice before, in 1998 and in the recall election of 2003. Both times she was touted as an inevitable candidate. Both times I said she wouldn't run. The last time in answer to a question from Schwarzenegger, who did run.

In theory, Feinstein is an unbeatable candidate. In practice, she hates messy campaigns. And she worked for years to gain the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of the preeminent cockpits of geopolitics on the planet. She loves her life in Washington, where her husband's business, which sometimes coincides with the interests of the Senate, need never be questioned in a campaign.

At one point, Feinstein and Brown did not get along. But Brown worked on that over time. In fact, Feinstein presided over his marriage to Anne Gust in 2005.

After, and even before, Newsom's departure from the race -- and I'm getting to that -- other names were floated. Willie Brown, the legendary former Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor who is really for Jerry Brown but likes to stir things up, did a lot of the floating. Steve Westly again, even though he hadn't spoken to him in months and Westly was, for anyone plugged in at his level, clearly for Jerry Brown.

Then there was Loretta Sanchez, the colorful Orange County congresswoman. A nice person but not an especially serious idea.

And there was Jane Harman, the LA area congresswoman who ran in 1998 and lost badly in the primary to Brown's ex-chief of staff, Gray Davis. But Harman will be doing well to avoid a strong primary challenge from the left in her congressional district, so she was hardly in a position to pose an insurgent challenge to Brown, a veteran insurgent himself. And her lack of knowledge of California issues -- when she ran for governor in 1998 she said that for the first month or so of her campaign she'd only talk about pro-choice isses -- wouldn't help her in a capaign funded by her husband. (To the extent he was willing to still do that.)

Finally, there was former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, an old friend of mine from the Gary Hart for President days, whose statement of decided uninterest in running for governor was spun up by an "enterprising" reporter into new opposition for Brown. I called Hertzberg, who I knew would not run for governor, and asked him, receiving this rather definitive answer: "Oh, God, no. I'm not running for governor."

Hertzberg, in reality, had already had long talks with Brown about various reform measures for California's broken system of governance. Brown, who authored the state's political reform act -- which took the cash out of campaigns, established public reporting of contributions and finances, and ended the lobbyist-funded lavish lifestyle of many state legislators -- is considering proposals from a variety of people.

Gavin Newsom inadvertently starred in the ad campaign that abolished the right to same-sex marriage in California.

Which brings us to Gavin Newsom. Famed as the man who (briefly) brought same-sex marriage to San Francisco in 2004, and who inadvertently starred in the highly effective advertising campaign in 2008 that ended same-sex marriage in California, Newsom cast himself in an aggressive role running against Brown for governor.

But he never had a message or a coherent strategy. Unless one imagines that being new, young(ish) and cool, while deriding one's opponent as old and supposedly out of it, amuonts to a strategy.

As for message, see the above, and add the rosy-tinted story of San Francisco (a city which, with all its advantages, should be something of a real world paradise but has a huge bdget deficit, a vanishing middle class, and messy streets) -- which did not explain why Brown had a big lead over Newsom in the City of San Francisco -- and a call for a state constittional convention to do ... what?

Newsom's campaign in many respects devolved into his chief strategist Garry South throwing rhetorical spitballs at Brown. First on his age, but mostly from the right. South dredged up the playbook hit list employed by Brown's vanquished Republican opponent for state attorney general (developed by former Reagan chief speechwriter Ken Khachigian), planting sneering stories with a few trusty reporters about Brown's supposedly dangerous liberalism and Moonbeamish ways. An insurgent should run more from the left, but that's not the campaign that he fashioned.

South specializes in engaging with opponents in the press, dragging them into rhetorical firefights. Brown, a naturally combative sort, obliged at first, but then realized that the best way to deal with these antics was to ignore them. At least publicly.

In any event, it was all very curious for a Democratic political consultant. Even a Democrat who actually works for a powerful and largely Republican corporate consulting firm in Sacramento.

South (and his candidate Newsom) was perilously close to being identified as a conservative Republican stalking horse, something good neither for him nor, in the long run, the firm he works for.

Meanwhile, Brown was methodically raising money and not spending it. (He dispatched of Newsom while spending less money than Newsom paid South.) And blocking Newsom from raising money, anticipating his moves and, especially, blocking him from gaining any support to speak of from organized labor.

There was one last hope. That was the ballyhooed endorsement of former President Bill Clinton, spun by South to some credulous reporters and bloggers. But as I explained here on the Huffington Post on October 8th, that was an illusion.

There was a burst of badly-informed excitement around Newsom's candidacy when Bill Clinton said he'd appear at a fundraiser for him, which occurred a few nights before the piece linked above. Much of California's much-diminished political press corps went for the spin that Clinton was "a game-changer" for Newsom. And since Clinton and Brown ran acrimoniously against each other for president in 1992, maybe there was even a big feud between the two.
The reality, which I had reported in September, was quite different. Bill Clinton was on a long loyalty tour, repaying politicians who were very helpful to Hillary Clinton's campaign last year with fundraising appearances. Newsom, who styled himself a California version of Obama, was actually a national co-chair of Hillary's campaign. He campaigned extensively for her, and also attacked Obama.

And Newsom's backing was very useful to the Clintons. As the man who legalized same-sex marriage in San Francisco, though not for long, in 2004, Newsom is an icon in gay rights circles where Clinton himself was a problem. As president, Bill Clinton was responsible for the controversial "don't ask/don't tell" policy with regard to gays in the military and signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. And Newsom, though he emerged as the inadvertent TV star of the successful campaign to repeal same-sex marriage in California, had major backstop credibility for the Clintons in the human rights community.

In any event, Clinton did events like this with politicians all over the country. At least 20 that I know of, as someone who covers presidential politics and whose best man, John Emerson, ran Clinton's campaigns in California and was a top aide in the White House. (And backs Brown.) After appearing with Newsom in LA, where he issued a very tepid statement of general support and appeared at a low-key fundraising event, the former president was in San Francisco for the next two days. But did no fundraiser for Newsom in his own city.

As for the big Clinton-Brown feud, it was pretty heated at times back in the day. But there are no quotes from this century and Brown and Clinton actually had an amiable meeting last year.

Things got heated in a 1992 presidential debate between Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown.

The big Clinton fundraiser for Newsom in LA produced no big stars and only a few big contributions. And, when Clinton moved on to San Francisco for two days after that, he didn't lift a finger for Newsom, a key fact which nonetheless went unreported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

After that balloon was popped, it was a matter of time until Newsom dropped out. A matter of time being a few weeks. (Faster than I expected.) Nearly out of money, he dropped out of the race at the end of October, promptly decamped to Hawaii, then went weeks without talking to the press. I'm not so sure he is now, actually.

It was curious that Newsom ran against Brown in the first place. When, in January 2007, Brown was inaugurated as California's attorney general, in a ceremony in the grand Rotunda of San Francisco City Hall, Newsom introduced him as the greatest thing since sliced bread. When I first encountered Newsom, I noticed that he sounded more than a bit like Jerry Brown, frequently invoking Brown-like themes. Which was not surprising, given that Newsom's grandfather was a close associate of the late Governor Pat Brown, Jerry's father. And that Newsom's father was appointed a state appelate court justice by Jerry Brown, a post which afforded him the credibility to, as a private attorney, break the Getty trust and enable his son's fortune.

But perhaps it was not so curious that Newsom at least tried to run against Brown. My read of Newsom was that, for all his political talent, he was ambivalent about politics. Which in many respects is a sign of sanity. And that he might be looking for an up or out scenario.

And so the ever winging it Browns -- haha -- have for all intents and purposes won the Democratic nomination for governor of California in the year before the primary, without the attorney general ever announcing his candidacy.

What's to come? Well, a lot, including another piece after the first of the year running down the Republican hopefuls and their own rather intriguing situation. The GOP field includes not one but two super-rich candidates -- billionaire ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who co-chaired the Mitt Romney and John McCain presidential campaigns (running in a state Obama carried by 24 points), and cell phone tracking device inventor Steve Poizner, now the the state insurance commissioner.

Brown is experienced and very well positioned. As his very astute mother, the late Bernice Brown, said many years ago, the best office from which to run for governor is that of state attorney general. And the best way to do that is to be a strong attorney general.