05/20/2014 10:21 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

Jerry Brown Aims Elsewhere As Republicans Careen Toward California Primary

With California's chronic budget crisis fast receding the rear view mirror, the big current budget controversy over how big the surplus is and what to do with it, and the state's unemployment rate dropping last month from 8.1% to 7.8%, Governor Jerry Brown isn't especially concerned about the Republican candidates in the June 3rd primary election as he cruises toward a record fourth term. He's focused on state Capitol politics as he drives to pass a state budget as close to his own as possible and on national and international matters.

Largely ignoring a truly bizarre Republican gubernatorial "debate" late last week hosted by a pair of yo-yo radio yakkers, Brown, in addition to his usual behind-the-scenes work as governor, did some national media interviews and gave a speech to a University of California conference on climate change.

Governor Jerry Brown discussed climate change and presidential politics Sunday on ABC's This Week.

Twice runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, having lost both time to the eventual winner of the presidency, Brown -- who would make a strong favorite son candidate in 2016 -- had some supportive but cautionary words for Hillary Clinton during an appearance on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

"I would say she's the overwhelming favorite," Brown told Stephanopoulos, who campaigned against Brown in 1992 when he worked for Bill Clinton. "I can't see any opposition or even potential opposition. Whether that's a good thing or not, it does carry with it risk."

"Being a frontrunner is being on a perch that everyone else is going to try to knock you off of," Brown noted. "She's there, she's got the capacity, but she has to be cautious and wise in how she proceeds."

Brown's appearances on Sunday national chat shows came after fires roared through parts of Southern California, causing some $20 million in property damage and the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. With climate change, as Brown's predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently pointed out on the Showtime series, Years of Living Dangerously, he and James Cameron produced, California's fire season is nearly year-round now. So Brown framed the wildfire challenge in terms of the larger challenge of climate challenge, pointing out that few Republicans accept the consensus scientific view that humanity's greenhouse gas emissions are causing fateful shifts in the weather.

"We've got to gear up here," Brown declared. "After all, in California for 10,000 years our population was about 300,000. Now it's 38 million. We have more structures, more activity, more sparks, more combustible activity and we've got to gear up for it and as the climate changes, this is going to be a radically different future than was our historic past."

Some 1100 wildfires burned in drought-stricken California during the first four months of 2012, a sharp increase over the nearly 700 which struck the state during the same period just a year ago.

"Humanity," noted Brown, "is on a collision course with nature. And we're just going to have to adapt to it in the best way we can," referring to California's landmark climate change program which he is pursuing following the major efforts of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his old chief of staff Gray Davis before him.

But Brown again made plain that pursuing the path of renewable energy, which he first laid out in his governorship of the 1970s and early 1980s, does not, in his view, mean that careful fossil fuel development to achieve energy independence in a geopolitically chaotic world should not be pursued. That's why he supports fracking, in spite of protests against him from some longtime environmentalist allies.

"We are not going to shut down a third of our oil production and force more oil coming from North Dakota, where they are fracking a lot more, to come by train, or more boats and ships coming in from all over the world," Brown declared on CNN.

On Monday, two dozen anti-fracking protesters -- apparently not impressed by the idea that oil and natural gas can either come from the middle of California, under Brown's supervision (generating jobs and revenue in the process), and the Midwest or from the multiply fraught Middle East -- dogged Brown as he addressed a University of California conference.

Brown, who pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping on climate change at their parallel summit last year at the time of the Obama-Xi summit in Rancho Mirage, California and signed agreements with Chinese provincial and ministerial officials during and after a lengthy tour of China, told the conference that he will pursue climate change agreements with Mexico when he visits there in the last week of July. It's part of his effort to engage other states and nations on climate and renewable energy and energy efficiency, something very familiar to those of us who attended Schwarzenegger's three Governors' Global Climate Summits in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Of course, I also personally recall Brown attending the first Earth Summit, hosted by the UN, in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992, so this is a situation of like-minded people.

Using the rise of the wildfires and the state's already far-reaching programs as rhetorical centerpieces, Brown on Monday declared that California is "the epicenter of climate change." His task is to "align our economy and our way of life in California with the demands of nature as we now understand them scientifically." To drive that realignment, as it were, Brown intends to have some 1.5 million electric cars on the road in California by 2025.

While that's less than 5 percent of the cars expected to be on the road then, it is a very big step.

Brown noted that vehicles in California currently travel 332 billion miles a year, a figure expected to rise by another 25 billion vehicle-miles in 2025. He cited that as another reason to support the state's controversial high-speed rail project, which began under Davis and received a big boost from Schwarzenegger before Brown went to the mat in 2012 to move the plan forward.

Citing the scientific view that climate change, cutting sharply into the state's critical Sierra snowpack, is driving California's serious drought conditions, Brown noted the dramatic impact on farmlands.

"I have a ranch (referring to Northern California property which has been in his family since the Gold Rush days) where the temperature was over 100 degrees for 35 days," he said. "I know what heat looks like. The rattlesnakes like it, and it's not easy to manage if someone throws their cigarette butt out the window."

Meanwhile, there are reports that the race between two Republicans for the right to lose to Brown in the fall is tightening. Of course, a lot of folks have already voted.

Far right state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, though trailing Brown by 30 to 40 points, has held
a big lead over former U.S. Assistant Treasury Secretary Neel Kashkari. Kashkari, who fronted the Wall Street bailout, whose support was mired for months in the very low single digits, has at times trailed the mayor of Laguna Hills, who has since dropped out, and a registered sex offender who saw fit to run for governor for some damn reason. But with negative publicity about Donnelly mounting, Republican big shots like 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, former Governor Pete Wilson, and House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa coming out for Kashkari, and Kashkari himself digging deep to give what is now $2 million, nearly half his declared net worth, to his own campaign, Donnelly's edge is endangered.

Brown says he doesn't care which Republican he runs against, that it's really a matter for the Republicans to decide. He is not polling on the primary fight, which should be decided in two weeks.

In truth, it doesn't really matter for Brown which Republican he wallops in November. He will win a record fourth term as California's governor in a landslide, his third in four gubernatorial runs. What difference does it make how much he wins by?

Running against Donnelly could make it easier for Brown to lead an even larger sweep than he did in 2010, when California Democrats won all statewide offices and added to their legislative majority. But it might make Democrats dumber, too, by further marginalizing the other major party in the state.

And there is not exactly a guarantee that Kashkari will put up much of a fight against Jerry Brown, about whom he has seemed at times to be remarkably ignorant. In fact, I think Kashkari is a weak candidate. He just wouldn't be as embarrassing as Donnelly would be. Republicans face dire straits this fall no matter which candidate ends up in the final two. It's a matter of which sort of humor one prefers. Broad and obvious with Donnelly. Or more subtle with Kashkari.

One thing is for sure. Whatever his motivation, and I suspect it's mostly good, Kashkari deserves a lot of credit for his efforts to prevent California Republicans from becoming even more of a laughingstock.

While some aforementioned big names have come out for the man, they haven't generated much money for his campaign. Nor have they been much in evidence campaigning for him with less than two weeks till the primary election.

Last week I noted that Kashkari had raised less than $200,000 from people not named Kashkari since the beginning of May. In the week since then, he's raised about $100,000 from other donors. The big foot Republcans endorsing him have all raised very big money. Just not for him.

The decline of the once great California Republican Party reached its latest nadir when two far right LA radio yakkers hosted the only Republican gubernatorial debate of the election at an Orange County hotel.

Nor has an independent expenditure committee emerged to take down Donnelly and talk up Kashkari.

Instead, the tyro candidate, who said at the beginning that, notwithstanding rumors to the contrary, he was not in a position to self-fund his campaign, has dug deep into his personal funds to fuel at least a rudimentary media effort in this big, diffuse, and relatively indifferent state.

After struggling for months to try to match the million bucks he raised in his first two weeks as a candidate, on May 2nd, Kashkari put $500,000 of his own money into the campaign, which I pointed out would not be enough even with the money he'd raised from others. On May 8th, he put another $500,000 into the campaign. Also not enough without an independent expenditure committee.

Then on May 16th, Kashkari wrote a million dollar check to his campaign. Considering that his declared net worth is less than $5 million, that is very impressive. The man is going all in, come hell or high water. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ... Okay, I'll stop now.

But you get the gist. If Neel Kashkari doesn't succeed, it won't be because he didn't try.

And, not at all incidentally, given his evident commitment, if he doesn't succeed, I think some other folks will deserve a lot of blame for the utter disgrace that will befall the California Republican Party.

For not only did some very monied and/or connected folk who want to be thought of as serious Republicans do little to help Kashkari and the reeling Republican brand, they allowed one of the true political travesties anywhere in the country this year to take place on May 15th when right-wing LA radio shock jocks John Kobylt and Kenneth Chiampou, known as "John and Ken" though Brown prefers to call them "Ken and John," hosted the one and only California Republican gubernatorial debate of the season.

With a room packed full of conservative extremists, the event played as something of a pro-Donnelly rally. And while the boys have a very large audience, their bully boy antics -- Brown notes that they turn down his sound when he makes his points, thus his lack of interest of having anything ever to do with them again -- play to a far right choir.

Naturally, the two yakkers dressed up a skeleton in a suit and tie with a "Jerry" name tag attached and sat it in a chair on stage.

A shrewd and experienced pol might have turned this bizarre spectacle into a very potent form of political jiujitsu, but Kashkari is not that figure. His blows mostly missed the mark, even though Donnelly returned, incredibly, to his lunatic notion that Kashkari promoted sharia law in America by giving a welcoming talk to a conference of Islamic bankers hosted by the Bush/Cheney Administration.


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