THE BLOG

While Jerry Brown Focuses On Term 4 Challenges, a Senate Race Starts to Shape Up

02/07/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2015

For the first time since the first George Bush was president, California Democrats are having a competition for a seat in the U.S. Senate. And the early leader is the only candidate on the 2010 statewide Democratic ticket who nearly didn't win.

That's Kamala Harris, a friend of President Obama (she and green tech venture capitalist/former state Controller Steve Westly were his first California co-chairs) who three months ago won an easy re-election as California attorney general.

Now, even though she appeared to be readying a campaign to succeed Jerry Brown when term limits force him to leave the governorship in four years, she's running to replace the retiring Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate.

She's off to a good start, with Governor Jerry Brown, the most obvious choice to take his big future-oriented agenda to the bully pulpit of the Senate, focusing instead on the challenges of Term 4 and most other potential candidates opting not to run.

But not all.

While billionaire green champion Tom Steyer, who might have had to discuss his old hedge fund's investments in more than enough greenhouse gas-generating coal power to fuel Great Britain, first declared his very active interest in the the race before issuing a demurral, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has not been dissuaded. In fact, his longtime close ally, former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, has been passing the word that his fellow former Assembly speaker is going to run.

While I don't know Harris, I do know Villaraigosa pretty well. I do know Harris's principal consultant, Ace Smith, the once-and-again chief consultant for Brown, pretty well also. I observed him working very effectively with Jerry and Anne Brown in 2006 -- in their little Oakland campaign loft headquarters just one floor below the Brown's residence -- as they won the California attorney generalship in the biggest landslide of that's year's statewide elections.

They all worked well together in a partnership I felt would continue when Brown recaptured the governorship in 2010. Until Smith decided that his then client Mayor Villaraigosa would be the next governor.

After Brown cleared the Democratic field of Villaraigosa, Gavin Newsom and the rest and won his 2010 landslide over Republican billionaire Meg Whitman, the Browns and Smith made up. Smith and his able colleagues Dan Newman and Sean Clegg worked with Jerry and Anne Brown to pass the landmark Prop 30 revenue initiative in 2012 and then to win Brown's easy re-election last November. Smith and company also worked to win the easy re-election of Harris, whom they'd helped to her squeaker victory in 2010, and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.

Why does Harris have an early yet real edge in a race for which filing closes next year? She cuts an impressive figure. She's a woman and person of color. And she is the state attorney general, the office which former First Lady Bernice Brown identified years ago as that best from which to run for higher office. The AG, as California's top law enforcement official, can delve into many areas.

That was demonstrated again the other day when top Obama Justice Department officials credited Brown with having come up with the best strategy for going after wrongdoing in the nation's near financial meltdown of 2008 while serving as California attorney general. Brown pressed the strategy of going after credit-rating agencies which wrongly assured of the validity of various Wall Street investment schemes.

Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney, may also have a built-in advantage of coming from the San Francisco Bay Area. Which, despite the Los Angeles area's greater population, has a much stronger civic culture and a much more reliable base of voters.

It's noteworthy that Brown, a native San Franciscan, lived in LA's Laurel Canyon during his first go-round as gubernatorial candidate and governor, but returned to the Bay Area before returning to the governorship.

But Villaraigosa, who showed some magic of his own at times during a sometimes tumultuous tenure as LA's mayor, could overcome any such regional advantage with campaigning. He represents California's still rising Latino population, a plurality now in the state but one which still has lower voter participation rates.

The 50-year old Harris, a protege and long ago significant other of legendary former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, is claimed by the African American community in what some observers see as a clash of Democratic ethnic constituencies. But her background is more complex and exotic than that as the daughter of an Indian physician mother and Jamaican economist father.

As you can see, there are many intriguing political, sociological, and inter-personal factors in this unfolding dynamic.

Meanwhile, Brown, who I think may have an excellent Senate opportunity in 2018, when Dianne Feinstein must decide if she is running again, has some major dynamics of his own now in Term 4.

Californians have finally met his goal of a voluntary 20 percent reduction in water consumption during this greenhouse era drought. That's very good, but more may be needed. In any event, he has next steps coming up in his big north-south water conveyance program.

Facing disapproval from not only Brown and statewide elected but also most of the state legislature for going along with University of California bureaucrats in pushing a tuition increase, the UC Board of Regents got themselves out of the way and set up a two-person committee of Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano to seek new efficiencies and a path forward.

But Brown is encountering resistance from utilities and oil companies to the dramatic plan he laid out last month in his fourth inaugural address to have California get 50 percent of its electrical power from renewable energy and cut the use of petroleum in vehicles in half by 2030. It's not unexpected, as I suggested in "Jerry Brown's Big Green Inaugural Week."

The oil companies, as they've said of many past California reforms, say what Brown wants can't be done.

The utilities, who've had a cozy run of things with a complacent Public Utilities Commission -- highlighted by numerous e-mails and the retirement under fire of longtime PUC President Michael Peevey -- say they'd prefer instead to get credit for investing in carbon reduction out of state and want large-scale hydroelectric and nuclear power included as renewable energy.

Of course, the utilities wanted dozens of nuclear plants in California before Brown put a stop to it during his first go-round as governor. With the lifespan of nuclear waste extending into the distant future, there's nothing renewable about nuclear power, at least in its problematic fission form with hoped-for fusion still seemingly far off.

Since Brown left the governorship in 1983, the state's three nuclear plants were reduced to one.

Rancho Seco out side Sacramento was shut down after a public vote, which I campaigned for.

San Onofre outside San Diego was shut down recently a a long series of big and expensive problems. Most of which the utility wants the ratepayers to pay for.

That leaves Diablo Canyon on the Central Coast, with its panoply of nearby earthquake faults.

Better not count much nuclear power going forward.

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