03/11/2014 08:37 pm ET Updated May 11, 2014

Now That the Future's Back in California, What's Up and Why with Jerry Brown, Democrats, and Republicans

California still has some big problems, as pretty much always, but as observers across the spectrum and around the world have noted, the state's political system, long mired in gridlock has become increasingly functional. Especially compared to national politics and governance and the ongoing clown show that Washington has become.

Is it because of Arnold Schwarzenegger's process reforms in the form of the open primary and the citizens redistricting commission? Is it because of Jerry Brown's leadership skills, his "insider's knowledge and outsider's mind?" Is it because California Democrats have their act together? Is it because California Republicans have run their party into the ground? Or some combination thereof?

Some good clues were available at this past weekend's California Democratic Party convention in downtown Los Angeles. And still more are available from what we already know of next weekend's state Republican convention in Burlingame, near San Francisco International Airport.

While Hillary Clinton spoke a few days earlier at UCLA, the 2016 presidential frontrunner did not put in an appearance at the California party conclave, leaving the field to Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a would-be dark horse candidate, and Governor Jerry Brown, who, though he gave Bill Clinton a hard run for his money two decades ago says he has no plan to run in 2016. It was just as well, for the California gathering was all about California and the party's strong hold on a Golden State whose luster is being at least somewhat restored.

California Democratic chairman John Burton set a tone for the weekend at his chairman's reception Friday evening at the Bonaventure Hotel. The former state Senate leader and San Francisco congressman, known for his trademark '70s Vegas tourist/Mexican wedding shirt look at these conventions, was unusually dapper in a blazer, perhaps befitting the reception area surrounded by glittering LA skyscrapers. Acknowledging widespread Democratic successes and Brown's accomplishment in stabilizing state government through a combination new taxes, budget cuts, and an improving economy, Burton nonetheless cautioned Democrats against over-confidence in this year's elections.

"We cannot be complacent," he warned. While Republicans are having trouble fielding candidates for all the statewide offices -- all of which they lost in a Jerry Brown-led sweep in 2010 -- there are key legislative races to determine whether Democrats can hold a two-thirds super-majority in both houses and key congressional races to determine whether Democrats will pick up more seats here.

Confidence is high among Democrats, some of whom believe they may be on the verge of finishing off the Republicans as any sort of real force in the state. Which is why Burton, perhaps thinking of the governor's race, said "It's tough to be enthusiastic when you think you have a cinch."

But on the Republican side, many worry that running a relative nonentity against the popular and canny governor carries its own sort of risk, that of sliding participation among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who will interpret a collapse at the top of the ticket as a death knell, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in many down-ticket races.

Just before their convention began, Brown's operatives Ace Smith and Dan Newman attended the Sacramento Press Club debut of the candidate that most Republican elites hope emerges from the June primary as their standard-bearer, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Neel Kashkari, picked by the Bush Administration to coordinate the Wall Street bailout.

For their effort, they witnessed Kashkari declaring that "Jerry Brown's legacy is the destruction of the middle class in California."

How exactly he figures that, since financial and economic conditions have improved under Brown -- not that Schwarzenegger was responsible for all the problems before, either -- is unclear. If he's talking about changes in California since the first time Brown was governor in the 1970s and early 1980s, he conveniently forgets that the governors who followed Brown 1.0 and preceded Brown 2.0 were, with the exception of Gray Davis, all Republicans.

Newman, functioning as a campaign press secretary with Smith taking on the lead consultant role he played with Brown in the governor's 2006 election as state attorney general and the 2012 passage of the game-changing Proposition 30 revenue initiative, had little difficulty brushing back Kashkari's speech, noting the wildness of the charge and that the rookie candidate offered no solutions of his own.

With a massive campaign warchest and Republican opposition consisting of Kashkari, fire-breathing far right state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and the little-known mayor of Laguna Hills who just tossed his hat into the ring, the Brown campaign still hasn't sent out any press releases. The governor focuses on governing, though not without an eye to the politics to be sure, while Newman and Smith offer brushback comments to deal with challengers.

Later, of course, there will be a full-tilt campaign, with TV ads and speeches and the general panoply of campaigning, albeit pared down more than a bit as Brown and First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown -- the other part of the shrewd duo occupying the pivot point of California governance -- believe that much of what is done in campaigns is wasted effort.

But for now, it is what it is. And what is is not good for the Republicans. Indeed, the party's gubernatorial candidates are not being granted slots to address next weekend's state convention, though they will be able to talk at various smaller gatherings of party interest groups and others in and around the convention site near San Francisco's airport. The scrappy Donnelly, eager to cast his rival as a big-spending RINO, wants a debate with Kashkari, but it's no go so far.

Meanwhile, state Republican chairman Jim Brulte wants the focus elsewhere, on national speakers like former Secretary of State Condi Rice and Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, and on selected races for state legislature and Congress. Brulte has already helped Republicans win back a Central Valley state Senate seat in a special election last year and re-take the mayoralty of San Diego, long a Republican preserve despite changing demographics, after Mayor Bob Filner was forced to resign in disgrace.

And the Democrats do have some problems.

Two state senators, indicted on very different sorts of felony charges, are on leave of absence pending dismissal from the legislature. Longtime LA area player Ron Calderon, a wheel-dealing moderate in the Senate, is up on an array of corruption charges while veteran LA pol Rod Wright is looking at the exit after it was determined he didn't really live in his district, something which is not entirely uncommon.

And Democrats from Brown on down still need to do more about a public employee retirement system which sees its contractual promises out-stripping its resources.

Brown also may be facing a passive-aggressive revolt against his prison realignment policy, in which he has brought the state close to compliance with federal judicial demands to roll back state prison overcrowding by moving low-level offenders to local jails. Just as that policy went into effect, prosecutors in some counties ramped up their discretionary prosecutions of second offense felonies, thus reversing the realignment effect by sending more folks back to state prison.

And just as Brown has determined to overcome opposition from the fossil fuel lobby and like-minded critics to California's controversial high-speed rail program by investing part of the proceeds from the state's carbon market -- a key part of California's landmark climate change program from here till 2050 -- his measured support for fracking is leading to high-profile protests against him.

After dogging him at some other public events, several dozen activists hoisted signs and heckled Brown during his otherwise very well-received convention address on Saturday.

As on high-speed rail, Brown has not responded with a sustained PR effort around fracking, the short form name for hydraulic fracturing, the process by which rock is fractured in order to drill for harder-to-access natural gas and oil. Brown last year signed legislation by state Senator Fran Pavley, a principal author of California's landmark climate change legislation, to regulate and monitor fracking in California, where large reserves seem to be available such that the state could join and perhaps lead what has become an American gas and oil boom.

Brown and others say that fracking could result in a bonanza for California, with major advances in state income, employment, and government revenue. But some environmentalists are vehemently opposed.

Brown is pursuing a full-spectrum energy agenda, allowing and regulating fracking activity in developing oil and natural gas resources which appear to lie in abundance beneath much of central California while studies continue. The reality is that fracking is nothing new in California, having been around for some five decades. I first saw it over 30 years ago in Kern County, likely a center for a new generation of fracking, which did not collapse into the hellish conditions that vehement fracking opponents insist will happen. While opponents act as though there is a scientific consensus against fracking, there is not.

Opponents, including some former Brown aides and advisors, insist also that Brown's leadership against climate change is inconsistent with allowing fracking because all fossil fuel development is bad. The reality, of course, is that we are going to keep using fossil fuels for the foreseeable future even as California continues to promote renewable resources and energy efficiency and new vehicles and transportation systems. The obvious national security question is whether it is better for those fuels to come from, say, the middle of California than from the the Middle East. And whether California should reap a bonanza in the process which just might make many things more possible in the Golden State. Assuming, of course, that ongoing further research does not indicate the worst from fracking.

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund operator who after helping then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and company defeat an initiative by out-of-state oil companies to gut California's climate change program in 2010 has gone on to position himself nationally as a sort of left wing counter to the Koch Brothers, piled on after the heckling by calling for legislation requiring a two-thirds vote in any county before fracking could go forward there. I doubt that sort of NIMBY-ism will fly.

But former state Senator Tom Hayden, a veteran pro-renewable energy/anti-corporate leader who keynoted a rump group of left-liberal Democrats at the convention, told me he thinks that "Fracking politics will change as the issue comes to the LA Basin." Citing "great inner city organizing against it" and an LA City Council-adopted resolution in support of a statewide fracking moratorium, Hayden sees increased prospects for moratorium legislation this year.

Like nuclear fission power, fracking has a somewhat frightening sound to it. But after Brown blocked a huge pro-nuclear surge in the '70s, nuclear fission power in California declined not because of a serious deleterious impact on the environment but because it was inefficient. The San Onofre plant outside San Diego, where I once spoke at a huge anti-nuclear rally in the early '80s, has finally been closed by the utility that owns it. Not because it had damaged the environment, as most of the rally speakers claimed it would, but because a history of problems with equipment, which caused it to be off-line for much of the state's ballyhooed electric power crisis early in the last decade, finally made it more trouble than it was worth.

If the oil and gas industry can get ahead of the curve on fracking by taking steps to make it clear the industry is confident in its technology and practices, and if Brown and other state leaders make sure the state is exercising clear oversight, fracking could have a promising future in California.

In the meantime, the future is back in California, with the state's people contemplating and debating things off in the distance, free from having to constantly worry about the state's chronic operating budget deficit.

A study last month from the policy center Schwarzenegger started a year and a half ago, the USC Schwarzenegger Institute on State and Global Policy, released at a forum featuring MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, strongly suggested that political reform initiatives pushed by the former governor tamed the wild beast of "hyper-partisanship" and created a more moderate and productive state legislature.

The USC prof who conducted the study used floor votes on Chamber of Commerce priority bills to gauge this end of gridlock in California even as Congress was becoming more gridlocked and polarized. The finding? That the advent of the citizens redistricting commission, which ended backroom partisan gerrymandering, and of the open primary, which is designed to force pols to address broader audiences than the partisan core from the primary election on by putting the top two primary finishers in the general election regardless of party registration, coincides with the legislature moving more toward the center.

Of course, this also coincides with Brown's governorship. (Brown was supportive of these reforms, but it was Schwarzenegger who took by far the lead role.) Brown and a number of supportive commentators have repeatedly urged Democrats to exercise caution in their big majorities, with some observers thinking Brown's intention was to wean business money even more so away from the troubled Republicans.

It turns out that legislative Democrats, probably also chastened by the defeat of a couple of labor Democrats by more moderate business-backed Democrats, something which would not have occurred in the old system, have become more moderate on the measure at hand.

But Republicans have actually become somewhat more conservative.

The upshot? Although journalistic critics point out that it does not measure social issues, or votes in committee, where ideological interests are often haggled out before more pressure comes down from the governor and legislative leaders, the reforms are probably already having their intended effect of helping reduce gridlock and moderating at least one party. Especially with Jerry Brown, who as attorney general not infrequently worked with Schwarzenegger on shared substantive priorities, as governor.

But the hoped for kumbaya long sought by Schwarzenegger, and of course Barack Obama, of "post-partisanship," in which both parties come together to work cooperatively toward the common good? That hasn't shown up yet.