02/10/2014 09:29 am ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

California Elections: The Fights to Lose to Jerry Brown and Succeed Henry Waxman Come Into More Focus

In a rather quiet year, some of the more significant races in California are coming into greater focus. Jerry Brown, who still hasn't gotten around to announcing -- that deadline is March 7, Governor -- is a prohibitive favorite to win an unprecedented fourth term as governor of California. But what sort of Republican will be his opponent in the fall? A moderate corporate financier who worships in the Hindu religion and voted for Barack Obama? (Oh, and oversaw the Wall Street bailout, too.) Or a gun-toting Tea Party state legislator who likes to imagine that the budget-cutting Brown is a socialist?

And will it matter?

My recent trip down memory lane recalling and assessing the times and doings of Congressman Henry Waxman & Co. remind what a rich brew of material exists in California politics, especially when it is relevant to the national scene, as of course all of the Waxman story is. also reminds of the advantage of looking with the historical eye rather than the journalistic eye, as the fallow periods can be largely ignored, something harder to do in day to day and week to week journalism.

The reality is that much of what goes on, and much of what is reported, is actually of little moment even in the moment, much less in the light of history.

Speaking of which, there are some recent doings in the race to succeed Waxman -- the 40-year old floodgates have opened at last and are narrowing again already -- and in the race to determine which Republican loses to Governor Jerry Brown in the fall which have some current interest.

Will any of that be historically relevant?

That, I'm afraid, is another question.

But not many would have imagined that Henry Waxman's election to the State Assembly back in 1968 marked the beginning of one of the most consequential legislative careers in American history.

Waxman's announcement at the end of January that he will retire at the end of this year briefly threw the flood gates of ambition open in much of LA. You don't have to actually live in a district to represent it in Congress, you see. But no sooner did the gates open than they narrowed again, as the perception of political opportunity hit the harsh light of political calculations.

Feminist advocate Sandra Fluke, whom Rush Limbaugh inadvertently made a star by calling her a "slut" for her congressional testimony in favor of contraceptives as part of health care packages, pulled back from her initial move to run, saying instead she will seek state Senator Ted Lieu's seat. Lieu is off and running for the Waxman seat.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavky, who had already announced his retirement from politics, looked at the race and realized he didn't want to be a freshman congressman in his 60s. State Senator Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills, a champion of state environmental legislation, considered a run but, seeing big power moving in other directions, decided to keep her state focus. A newer player, state Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, also demurred.

The endorsements and name consultants are flowing to two Democrats -- former Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel, undoubtedly the best known of the candida
tes following her race last year for mayor of Los Angeles and the millions she spent on TV advertising, and state Senator Ted Lieu, who represents much of the district now.

Greuel, a former DreamWorks executive, garnered big fundraising support in last year's mayoral race, which many expected her to win, from many elements of the Jewish community. Despite a strong showing in the primary, she went down to a 54-46 defeat at the hands of new Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In this race she has picked up a host of endorsements, including those of state Attorney General Kamala Harris and former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. San Francisco consultants Ace Smith and Sean Clegg -- who have worked successfully with Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Harris, and former Mayor Villaraigosa -- will handle her campaign.

Lieu also has big name consultants in the form of his longtime consultant Gale Kaufman, the Sacramento strategist who directed the demise of Arnold Schwarzenegger's four statewide initiatives in 2005 and has won more legislative races than I can think of off-hand. She's best known for her ongoing work with the California Teachers Association. Joining Kaufman will be LA consultant Bill Carrick, the former Ted Kennedy political director who has long been Senator Dianne Feinstein's chief strategist, among many other things.

Lieu has picked up the backing of Assembly Speaker John Perez, as well as some West LA local pols who may be helpful. The veteran state legislator is an interesting character in his own right, a Chinese-American born on Taiwan, a Stanford grad and an Air Force reserve colonel.

There is one big complication for this coming showdown between two establishment Democrats. Best-selling New Age author Marianne Williamson is running as an independent. In fact, she was already running against Waxman, and had already raised about $400,000 and garnered a big social media following.

I remember sitting with Williamson at a luncheon with then Texas Governor Ann Richards. Her private comments and asides were very incisive and amusing. A fine speaker, she has the smarts and celebrity to make an impact in this race.

Who does Henry Waxman like? That would be the $64,000 question.

We know he likes Jerry Brown, whom he backed for governor 40 years ago when the then California secretary of state ran in his first Democratic gubernatorial primary. If Brown seems a bit blase about, well, announcing his candidacy, it's because he's been to the rodeo before. Many times. He even ran in the Oregon Democratic presidential primary as a write-in candidate and nearly won the thing.

Not that that sort of thing should be encouraged.

Brown, who has a 60 percent job approval rating in the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll and over $17 million banked for a race he has not yet officially declared, has no real problem in this election.

House Republicans are trying to mess with him by passing a bill to "solve" California's drought by eradicating the state's carefully woven web of environmental protections. Brown, predictably, told them to buzz off.

But such mischief making won't avail Republican hopes to take back the governorship, as the "solution" doesn't play outside the Central Valley, home to about an eighth of the state's voters, and it doesn't play all that well there.

Solving the state's long-term drought problems, exacerbated by climate change, involves a medley of moves including conservation, storage, and conveyance. Which will not be worked out in some two-dimensional political campaign.

The House GOP sideshow aside, the only real action involves the rather lilliputian candidates the party has come up with this year.

Neel Kashkari, the previously unknown Goldman Sachs banker tapped by then Bush II Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to front the Wall Street bailout in his first and only year as an assistant secretary of the Treasury, is running for governor as a socially liberal, fiscally moderate Republican who wants to end poverty.

Tim Donnelly, the state Assemblyman from Twin Peaks (no, you can't make this up), is running to enforce his Tea Party/Minuteman views on an already hard right state Republican Party.

And never the twain shall meet.

Neither Donnelly nor the former frontrunner, former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado -- who dropped out of the race praising Brown as "a good governor" and then unsuccessfully billionaire funder Charlie Munger to run -- was able to raise more than a few hundred thousand dollars last year.

Kashkari has quickly blown past that, raising nearly a million dollars in his first two weeks as a candidate. Which is certainly better.

But before anyone gets too excited about that, bear in mind that he would have to keep up that fast pace for another eight months before catching Brown. Assuming that Kashkari didn't spend any money in the meantime and Brown didn't raise any. Which, er, is not happening.

Kashkari is going to have to spend whatever he raises between now and the first Tuesday in June if he hopes to pass the better known Donnelly.

Donnelly is going in another direction, conducting a 40-city bus tour. At these stops, he's hitting that old time right-wing religion and, oh yes, saying there's not a dime's worth of difference between Kashkari -- who acknowledges voting for Barack Obama in 2008 -- and Brown.

I bet that by the time he is done, Donnelly will be hitting Kashkari for being more liberal than Brown, at least on big government spending.

So there you have what some say is the battle for the future of the California Republican Party, between a modernizer, of sorts, and a stereotypical hardliner.

We'll see how exciting that gets.