THE BLOG
06/04/2014 10:14 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2014

California Primary: Jerry Brown Romps While Republicans Dodge Their Own Silver Bullet and Other Races Intrigue

California's primary election yielded several interesting results amidst what looks like a record low turnout. First and foremost, the state's reeling Republicans dodged a silver bullet of their own making on Tuesday night when former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary Neel Kashkari won a hard fight over far right state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly for the second spot in November's general election against Governor Jerry Brown. While Kashkari has no chance, his presence as the Republican gubernatorial nominee will prevent the ongoing embarrassment that having a fringe character like Donnelly would have provided. And Republicans might, just might, mind you, find themselves with a likely win for another statewide office, that of controller, depending upon the count of late absentees and provisional ballots.

Though the election was largely a bore, it did have some interesting outcomes, not only in the statewide races but also in some district level races for Congress and state Assembly and even local office.

The big winner, of course, was Jerry Brown. I remember in 2001, when California's electric power crisis hit full force, doing a long Q&A with him for the LA Weekly and having some question why I was bothering talking with him. Er, because he'd been the biggest leader around on renewable energy and energy efficiency? But he was only the mayor of Oakland and the ex-governor, they said, with his future well behind him. Ha ha.

Governor Jerry Brown, accompanied by First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown, discussed his victory in the California primary election Tuesday night outside the Old Governor's Mansion in downtown Sacramento where he held a dinner meeting of the state's Cabinet. His father was the last governor to live in the historic mansion, built in 1877, through his governorship. The Reagans moved out after a few months. Brown was away at seminary, university, and law school during his father's governorship, but spent a few months there studying for the bar exam.

Now Brown is poised to win an historic fourth term as California's governor. His 54.5 percent showing in a disproportionately Republican primary electorate was not only far ahead of Kashkari's 19 percent and Donnelly's 14.8 percent, it also positioned him to win this fall with more than 60 percent of the vote, which would provide the biggest margin since Earl Warren's feat right after World War II when the future chief justice was the nominee of both major parties.

Brown's showing Tuesday, cementing his obvious standing as the Democratic nominee for governor, broke two records held by his legendary father, the late Governor Pat Brown. Jerry Brown has now won four Democratic nominations for governor to his father's three. (The third time was not the charm for the elder Brown, who fell before the Republican he wanted to run against, an actor fellow by the name of Ronald Reagan.) And the younger Brown has now won seven Democratic nominations for statewide office to his father's six.

Not that there was any particular sense of occasion as Brown performed the election day ritual of voting at the fire house near his and First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown's home in the Oakland hills. An air of pervasive nonchalance was evident in reports and electronic renderings of the event.

As the Browns arrived (he in dark suit and red tie, she in flight jacket and slacks) sans entourage to a site free from any touch of an advance staff, one of the few Brownies on the scene, campaign advisor Dan Newman, an accomplished political attack dog who has been pretty quiet in this campaign, improvised a microphone stand for the media by swiftly acquiring a discarded chest of drawers set next to a dumpster on the road. While the governor held forth, his wife, easily the most operational first lady in California's history as Brown's de facto chief aide in politics and government, leaned against a post holding both her coffee and the all-important leash of Sutter Brown, the most famous Corgi this side of Buckingham Palace.

Brown suggested that it doesn't really matter who he faces, given the negative image of the Republican Party. "Anyone carrying that banner," he said, "has a major weight on their back." Yet he injected a note of caution.

"Confidence is a tricky business in politics, because if we've learned anything it's that the future is uncertain, that fortune is fickle, and one kind of goes forward with a certain amount of trepidation. And, yes, everything looks good, but no one knows what tomorrow will bring. There's always issues, there's catastrophes, there's scandals, there's mistakes. So, I'm a bit wary as I do this for the fourth time."

Still, he acknowledged to the reporters on hand: "The fact that you have so few questions, I think indicates the impending result."

After his victory Tuesday night became obvious, Brown addressed reporters and supporters outside the historic Old Governor's Mansion in downtown Sacramento, where he held a dinner meeting of his Cabinet.

"Someone once told me you win elections the year before," said Brown. "What won this election tonight is curing a $27 billion deficit, keeping my promise not to raise taxes unless the people themselves voted for it, and bringing government closer to the people."

Brown was asked Tuesday morning about turning his campaign into a vehicle to elect other Democrats.

"I don't have any plans this morning," he told reporters after voting in Oakland. "But I'm sure that, as people meet with me, I'll be glad to talk with them. We will have a unified campaign. We have a very goodDemocratic Party under John Burton, and I think there'll be opportunities for what we call constructive engagement at the international level."

One of the smartest and best educated folks in politics, Brown either misspoke there, seizing in classic associative fashion on an attractive buzz word... or said exactly what he had in mind.

For "constructive engagement" was President Ronald Reagan's fake reform, in the face of a rising sanctions movement, which avoided the issue and allowed apartheid South Africa to continue on just as before. The plan was to provide incentives to South Africa to gradually move away from its racist system. Reagan ultimately had to abandon it after it was denounced by Bishop Tutu and top Republicans in the U.S. Senate distanced themselves.

Governor Jerry Brown's Sacramento Bee shadow, reporter David Siders, provided this video record of the Browns' early morning appearance at their neighborhood polling place on Election Day in the Oakland hills.

Brown comes out of the primary with nearly $22 million cash on hand. Kashkari's coffers are empty. And the former Wall Street bailout coordinator, with his fundraising lagging expectations, had to inject almost half of his declared near $5 million net worth to get past Donnelly. Kashkari spent over $4 million, while Donnelly spent well under a million.

The best way for Brown to help his party, of course, is to win big, leaving Republicans dispirited about the election in general. In 2010, when Brown beat the biggest spending non-presidential candidate in American history, billionaire Meg Whitman, by "only" 13 points, he triggered a sweep of all statewide offices by the Democrats.

Below the top of the ticket, there are only a relative handful of truly competitive races that will determine the Democratic margin in the state legislature and in the congressional delegation. Brown can make adjustments as the election draws closer.

But if the Republicans have some luck, they may steal a statewide office before the November vote.

As expected, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, an articulate moderate conservative Republican brought into politics by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, finished first in the race for state controller. But her vote, at 24.4 percent, was significantly lower than in the last Field Poll. What happened?

What happened is that a guy whose name was not included in the poll, accountant David Evans, was running a near dead heat race with former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Perez and Democratic Board of Equalization member Betty Yee locked in a blanket finish just a few points behind.

Evans, the former mayor of California City in the Southern California high desert near Edwards Air Force Base, spent less than $5,000 but ran a close second until late in the election night vote counting. His "secret" weapon? Ballot designation of "chief financial officer." (And having gotten some 40 percent of the Republican primary vote for state controller in 2010.) Now he's just over two thousand votes behind former Speaker Perez. I wouldn't say it's likely, but with luck amongst the late absentees and provisionals he might eke out a spot in the top two.

Is this the future face of the Republican Party in California? Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin has a chance to grab the office of state controller.

Even if Evans doesn't, Perez's underwhelming performance points to an opportunity for Swearengin, whose potential victory would provide a very different face for Republicans in California.

But not all the excitement, as it were, was at the statewide level. There were several high-profile races for Congress, state Assembly, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

In the latter, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, a veteran former member of Congress and the state legislature, completed a successful return home by easily winning a seat on the East Side of LA. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors does not have a high profile but it does have a lot of power. Each of the five supervisors, long dubbed "the five kings," represents two million people.

Over on the West Side, Bobby Shriver -- son of Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy, nephew of John F. Kennedy, brother of former First Lady Maria Shriver, estranged brother-in-law of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- opted for another career change by seeking to succeed the retiring Zev Yaroslavsky. But despite leading the fundraising field, thanks in large part to a million dollar campaign contribution from himself, the former Santa Monica mayor ran second to former state Senator Sheila Kuehl. Kuehl had 36.2 percent to Shriver's 28.8 percent. The two will face each other again in the November run-off, with the votes of the distant third place finisher, West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, who was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times, significant for the outcome.

Like many in dynasty successor generations, Shriver, a Yale Law grad, has pursued several callings in his life without establishing a consistent field of endeavor beyond the family philanthropies. He ran for the Santa Monica City Council after becoming alarmed over city hedge ordinances.

Later he explored a run for California attorney general in 2010.

His opponent, Kuehl, is arguably California's most prominent lesbian politician and a longtime leader of California left-liberals. A veteran state legislator and UCLA and Harvard Law grad, not to mention a great character, she had a flourishing television career in her youth before her sexuality became an issue, co-starring in the classic series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

It won't be at all easy for the Kennedy family member to beat Sheila Kuehl.

Legendary LA Congressman Henry Waxman's seat is also getting filled now that he is retiring and a host of Democrats and left-of-center candidates ran in the open primary. As a result, a Republican, Elan Carter, eked out a first place finish with 21.5 percent of the vote. But Carter now has to face the candidate who turned out to be the top Democrat, state Senator Ted Lieu, in the November election. Lieu, who beat former LA City Controller Wendy Greuel, once frontrunner for mayor of LA, in this race, has to be considered a near prohibitive favorite.

Interestingly, Waxman did not endorse a successor in the primary. Perhaps as a result, Greuel and Lieu raised less money than might have been expected. That left prominent New Age author and lecturer Marianne Williamson as the top fundraiser in the race. But Williamson finished fourth with 13 percent of the vote, with the campaign materials I saw too rhetorical and seemingly alternative to be effective with most voters. Former Clinton White House aide and journalist Matt Miller, endorsed by the Los Angeles Times, finished fifth.

Former Assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary Neel Kashkari, now the Republican candidate for Governor of California, showing good prowess with an axe, says he's "not afraid to make cuts."

In a Congressional race up in Northern California, San Jose Congressman Mike Honda, who spent of his childhood in a World War II Japanese internment camp, forcefully fended off a challenge from fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, a former deputy assistant secretary of Commerce in the Obama Administration who has caught the fancy of many Silicon Valley players. What many expected to be a close race turned into a blow-out, with Honda leading the Indian-American Khanna, 49 percent to 27 percent. The two will re-run their battle in November.

Khanna's problem is one of rationale. While Honda is, unlike Khanna, a product of the University of Chicago and Yale Law, no Phi Beta Kappa type, he is not a problem, either. He's a good Democrat. So the case against him becomes, implicitly, something else, that he too close to labor, not young enough, not smart enough, not stylish enough. That's problematic.

Northern California also saw another hot Democrat vs. Democrat battle, this time for a seat in the state Assembly on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay Area. In a race in which the governor remained neutral, his 2010 day-to-day campaign manager Steve Glazer, who took advantage of Brown's victory by taking on a lucrative campaign consulting role with the state Chamber of Commerce and is also an Orinda city councilman, faced off against an activist teacher-turned-Dublin mayor Tim Sbranti.

It turned into a nasty fight in which labor and business groups, primarily real estate interests, spent millions promoting and attacking their surrogates-as-candidates.

Glazer, with whom I've spent perhaps 15 to 20 minutes in conversation over the years, was blackballed by the California Labor Federation in complex circumstances I haven't really followed involving campaigns against pro-labor Dems. He further incurred labor's wrath by calling for a ban on public transit strikes.

In my view, there is no question that labor often has a nasty habit of overreaching. We see it now in the form of presently unsustainable commitments to public employee retirees.

But a union that doesn't have the right to strike is a union that has had its teeth pulled, and that is a dangerous precedent in an economy in which capital has far more power than labor. Better to browbeat that union when it's wrong, as happened in last year's Bay Area Rapid Transit district strike.

In any event, I knew what I needed to know about this race last year when I learned that Gale Kaufman, arguably the most effective state political consultant, was handling the campaign for the labor side of the fight.

In 2005, the longtime California Teachers Association political honcho won acclaim for her lead role in defeating all four of Arnold Schwarzenegger's special election initiatives in what he had dubbed "the Year of Reform." In 2004, she showed me district-by-district how she planned to defeat each of his rather hastily selected candidates in a dozen swing Assembly districts he had carried in his first landslide election as governor. She won all those races.

And in Tuesday's election, while Republican Catharine Baker ran first with 36.5 percent, Kaufman's candidate Sbranti led the three other candidates, all Democrats, with 29.6 percent of the vote. Glazer finished back in third, out of the November running, with 22.5 percent.

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