09/07/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2014

On the Road To Term 4, Jerry Brown Dispenses With Kashkari and Rolls With Arnold Schwarzenegger

After kicking off the fall campaign with his latest Labor Day weekend tour, Governor Jerry Brown ... wait. That didn't happen. I don't know what Jerry Brown did on Labor Day weekend, but it wasn't that.

To the extent that he is running a campaign for his unprecedented fourth term as California's governor, Brown sort of eased into the fall campaign season with a Thursday night debate against his lackluster Republican challenger.

For your viewing pleasure, here is the 2014 California gubernatorial debate, live from the old Senator Hotel in downtown Sacramento, between Governor Jerry Brown and Republican candidate Neel Kashkari.

Coincidentally, haha, timed to coincide with the kick-off of the NFL regular season, it was an entertaining but decidedly low-profile event. Caught up in following the various geopolitical messes, I missed it in real time. Later that night, I ran into a group of LA activists. Few knew the debate had taken place; none had watched it. So much for the LA Times sponsorship of the debate.

Immediate postmortems were promising for Brown. A viewing the next day and more reactions -- even the Republican-boosting Wall Street Journal called Brown the winner -- made it clear that the hour-long encounter had gone well for the veteran campaigner. More on that in a few moments.

So as Brown began what might, or might not, be the last campaign of his colorful career, to borrow a space program metaphor, all systems were go. Brown had dispensed with the only event in which his remaining opponent might make a move on his commanding lead in the polls. And he did it having just won plaudits for big bipartisan successes in the just concluded legislative session, with events looking at the past of future of the governorship, featuring predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, coming up on Monday.

Brown's bipartisan legislative successes this summer were major. The historic water bond deal, the state's rainy day fund, groundwater management, and patches for the teachers' pension fund and major help for Hollywood production. With the Democrats' supermajority gone due to three state senators being on suspension for legal matters, Brown needed to get Republican votes on some major issues. He got them. All the time he's spent talking with those folks is paying off, even though it didn't at first when he wanted their votes to place a measure on the ballot to continue the temporary tax hikes of the late Schwarzenegger era.

But it's not all coming up roses for Brown. The federal EPA is forcing some adjustments to his Sacramento River Delta tunnels to carry water from resource-rich North to thirsty South. Brown is overcoming legal roadblocks to high-speed rail but acquiring the land for the project is taking time. And after months of negotiations, Tesla Motors, the California-based leader in electric cars, decided instead to place its planned battery "giga-factory" in Nevada, just outside Reno.

Much as I like to focus on what's good for California's economic strategy, it seems to me that Tesla made the right choice for its own strategy. Nevada, desperate to jump-start its economy, presented a much bigger financial incentive package than California could reasonably handle. (The state has already given a big tax break to Tesla founder Elon Musk's other, arguably more promising company, SpaceX.) The Nevada site comes with lower costs, the opportunity for essentially unlimited expansion in the high desert, and easy access to to rail lines and trucking routes to Tesla's San Francisco Bay Area factory.

Brown also has a brewing problem surround the Public Utilities Commission and the state's regulated utilities, notably Pacific Gas & Electric, whose pipeline destroyed a Bay Area neighborhood and left several Californians dead, and whose Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is again a center of earthquake safety concerns, and Southern California Edison, whose San Onofre nuclear plant was finally closed after many problems. Community and legislative leaders see some commissioners as too cozy with the companies it's supposed to regulate.

Nevertheless, with a 58 percent job approval rating and a $23 million campaign war chest -- Republican Neel Kashkari has less than a million -- Brown is in complete control of his re-election with just over eight weeks before election day. At issue now is the size of his landslide in what will be the third landslide win in four victorious runs for governor. Oh, and what Brown intends to in his fourth term in California and in any forays into presidential and global politics.

In reality, Brown's re-election this year was secured with the big win for his Proposition 30 revenue initiative in November 2012. (Campaign consultants Ace Smith and Dan Newman had much more challenging tasks in that very crucial campaign.)

After more than three years back in the governorship on this go-round, one of the daily newspapers tumbled to Brown's flexible adhocracy approach to governing with a recent feature story. Brown, the paper discovered, frequently relies on a largely unpublicized cast of advisors and counselors nowhere near his formal gubernatorial or campaign staffs, as circumstances dicate.

For years now, I've called this phenomenon the Network. It exists on the other end of Brown's iPhone, in voice communications, text messages, and e-mails. (Brown, an old friend of the late Steve Jobs, was the first politician I knew who used e-mail, decades ago.)

What it is, really, and the paper didn't note this, either, is an updating of the methods of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR relied extensively on a host of special envoys, emissaries, consultants, and advisors to gather intelligence and work his will. His most important aide, actually on the payroll, went long stretches of time without any title at all.

In this 21st century version, First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown is a cross between Eleanor Roosevelt, Missy LeHand, and the aforementioned Harry Hopkins.

With this approach, Brown is able to flourish with a staff half the size of Schwarzenegger's. Not that folks are getting rich off of helping Brown, either. (Heaven help a lobbyist who tries.) "Psychic income" has long been the coin of the Brown realm.

In November 2007, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown joined forces to sue the Bush/Cheney Administration to protect California's landmark climate change program.

Despite these big differences in approach, Brown and Schwarzenegger have a lot in common. I amused myself with a high-ranking Republican who went on to have a big role with Schwarzenegger by capping off a list of reasons why I liked Arnold by telling him that the action superstar was "like a Republican Jerry Brown." The poor fellow practically brandished a cross to ward off a sudden vampire attack.

Brown and Schwarzenegger really do have a lot in common. I discussed this last month while assessing Schwarzenegger's governorship on the 11th anniversary of his shock Tonight Show announcement of candidacy. Both men are what I call "up-wing" political figures, those who often look beyond left and right to future-oriented civilizational uplift through technological advance and innovative arrangements. Which accounts for a big part of what they are doing together Monday, appearing with their mutual Air Resources Board chief Mary Nichols to go over California's landmark climate change program and discuss how to move the anti-greenhouse gas agenda on a global basis. Things will come to a head in December 2015 at a big UN climate summit in Paris.

Schwarzenegger, who hosted three Governors' Global Climate Summits in conjunction with the United Nations, is a player internationally on climate and energy issues through his Geneva-based R20 group of subnational officials and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute.

In contrast to Brown, who gets bored saying the same things and has at times had to be convinced to keep up consistent rhetorical themes, Schwarzenegger has exhibited a problem of too much repetition. The third installment of The Expendables, the old school Sly Stallone-driven action hero movies series in which Schwarzenegger is a featured player, ran out of gas from the start a few weeks ago at the domestic box office. Seen by some as a he-man counter to The Avengers, Expendables 3's opening weekend was only one-sixth that of the latest Captain America film. It was dwarfed by the same ratio by Marvel's newest superhero team-up, the endearingly offbeat Guardians of the Galaxy, and will do less than half the domestic box office of the first two Expendables pictures. With the series never coming down one way or another between serious action drama and camp, the old school action shtick has been run into the ground.

In similar fashion, Schwarzenegger has been saying much the same things in his public affairs remarks since 2010. But in this instance, with Brown, it's all good.

Talking about climate change and renewable energy isn't all that Brown and Schwarzenegger are doing. They will also unveil the Governator's official portrait for display in the State Capitol. It's been ready to go for a couple of years, but Brown, like a certain vintner, sells no wine before its time.

What's the portrait look like? I haven't seen it. But, like the various statues of Arnold, I suspect it looks like him. Which is to say that it's quite figurative and not avant grade.

Brown's own portrait, from the early '80s, was quite controversial. It would have been even more controversial had Brown not turned down Andy Warhol's offer to do it. As it is, Don Bachardy's painting is moody and intriguing, decidedly on the expressionist side. But viewed today, the portrait, like many things that were controversial about Brown back in the day looks like a Rorschach test for banal minds.

Which brings us back to the not so big debate.

Brown turned up at the debate site, the old Senator Hotel across the street from the State Capitol, about 10 minutes before the debate began. He's an excellent debater and his task was relatively straightforward.

He needed to speak in complete sentences, mostly in English. A bit too much Latin or Greek would have been distracting for some.

He needed to be interesting. But not too interesting.

He needed to be commanding but show humility. He's accomplished much and ended the big crisis, but the job isn't finished, which is why he is coming back to complete it.

Kashari, of course, tried to trash Brown's record as governor, which was a mistake, since Brown is on a popular path. Brown was strong and quick, but wisely didn't try to kill Kashkari on each and every point. It simply wasn't necessary.

Kashkari was well-programmed with buzzword phrases, and aggressive. As in aggressive to a fault, frequently talking over others. He revealed himself, again, as a bog standard corporate conservative. True to his Wall Street bailout coordinator claim to fame, he thinks that the market solves big problems and the role of government in the economy is to bail out big business when it screws up. He's pro-gay rights and pro-choice, but anyone who isn't would get run out of any industry in which knowledge workers predominate, especially in New York City. Like, say, Wall Street. He's pro-immigrant rights, but that's been a big business position for a long time, the better to maintain a cheap, mobile labor force. He's pro-environment and concerned about climate change, just not enough to back the programs to take on the crisis.

Kashkari did make one good point in the debate, however, when he criticized Brown for deciding to appeal the LA Superior Court ruling invalidating the state's ludicrous laws on teacher tenure, which make it too easy to gain and virtually impossible to to get rid of a poor teacher.

Teacher quality isn't the main problem for public education, but it is a real issue. And while Brown has a point in saying that such an important legal decision shouldn't be left to the lowest level court, he hasn't publicly remonstrated with our friends in the teachers unions about their need to get real on teacher quality.

Brown, of course, has a big agenda in which things sometimes play out in indirect ways. But he also has a responsibility to to speak out and provide clarity and some straight talk on matters of public concern.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote here that Brown would be effectively unopposed for re-election, and that has turned out to be the case. Soon we'll see how big the margin of victory is for Brown, and what comes next.

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