The Case for a Contested Democratic Primary

Gavin Newsom’s decision to quit the race for governor has left California Democrats with just one option – two-term governor Jerry Brown, back for his third term after nearly 30 years. For the first time in a very, very long time (before 1934), there will not be a contested Democratic primary where there is an open seat in the governor’s office.

This is not a positive development for the California Democratic Party or the future of our state. A contested Democratic gubernatorial primary is essential to not only a strong Democratic campaign in the fall of 2010, but more importantly, to rebuilding the shattered ruins of a once-golden state.

We need to first look at the big picture. As we’re seeing in Virgina and New Jersey gubernatorial races, the deciding factor is whether the Obama voters of 2008 will turn out to elect Democrats in state gubernatorial races. The answer to that question is clear: where the candidate espouses openly progressive positions, as Jon Corzine has begun to do in New Jersey, he has some success in motivating the Obama voters to return to the polls and elect a Democratic governor. Whereas Creigh Deeds couldn’t distance himself from Obama quickly enough and took anti-progressive positions, and now faces a resounding defeat at the hands of a wingnut.

To those who say “it can’t happen here,” I say your understanding of California politics is superficial. For over a century California voters default to electing Republicans to the governor’s office. Since 1900 only four Democrats have served as California governor. Two of them served essentially one term: Culbert Olson was beaten by Earl Warren in 1942, and you know what happened to Gray Davis in 2003.

The other two were named Edmund G. Brown. The younger of the two Edmund G. Browns is the last man standing in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor. Now you might think that is a positive sign for Dems, that one of the only two Democrats to serve two full terms as CA governor since 1900 is likely to be the party’s nominee in 2010. After all, Jerry Brown has a decent poll lead over the three Republicans, so we should be fine in 2010, right?

I am much less confident. A contested primary will only make Brown a stronger candidate should he indeed win that primary – and more importantly, it would give Democrats and DTS voters a chance to weigh in on the future of California, to have a real discussion about how to fix a broken state.

Flip it for the full argument…

Jerry Brown’s current poll lead rests on two factors: name recognition and a belief among some Democrats that Brown is a truly progressive politician. Both are not likely to continue to fuel a Brown polling lead. By next August the Republican nominee will have a much greater name recognition, coming off a contested primary that will include a high-profile TV air war. They will be well-funded and will likely have closed some of the existing gap with Brown.

That’s where the VA/NJ factor becomes so important. If Brown can mobilize Obama voters with progressive policies, then he will be well positioned to withstand the Whitman/Poizner/Campbell barrage.

But that’s a big if. Brown was never as progressive as many Democrats assume. During his two terms as governor in the 1970s and early 1980s he often gave liberals fits by his inconsistent support for their causes. Sure, he signed the law giving farmworkers important unionization rights, and carried forward some high-profile renewable energy projects.

At the same time, Brown demonstrated conservative fiscal instincts. Upon taking office in 1975 he ordered budget cuts across the board, including to social services and schools, resulting in a massive budget surplus. When he and Legislative Democrats failed to agree on property tax reform in 1977, Prop 13 went onto the June 1978 ballot and passed, the surplus lulling voters into thinking the dire predictions of doom were false. The day after, Brown declared himself “a born-again tax-cutter” and set about constructing the basis of the existing system in California, where the tyranny of Prop 13 is unchallenged by Democrats who seek short-term technocratic fixes to the budget that don’t solve the underlying problem.

It would be one thing if today’s Jerry Brown were more progressive on these matters. Unfortunately, he continues to believe that to get elected, he must espouse conservative ideas on the state’s financial and economic crisis. He continues to claim taxes and regulation hurt business and has proposed further tax cuts. He has staunchly opposed drug policy reform and sentencing reform and joined Arnold Schwarzenegger in suing to stop the federal government from exercising oversight over our prisons. Instead of calling for eliminating the 2/3rds rule that empowers right-wingers, he positions himself as a centrist and argues both right and left are wrong. Instead of offering a new vision for the next 30 years, Brown continues to defend the catastrophically failed status quo of the last 30 years.

This centrist positioning is the same playbook Brown ran as mayor of Oakland, where he frequently battled progressives. In short, Brown is unlikely to offer the kind of progressive language and policies that are required to drive a favorable turnout in November 2010 to get himself elected.

A competitive primary could help turn that around. If Brown faced a more progressive challenger, he would have to clarify his positions on key issues facing the state, instead of keeping them under wraps until August 2010. A primary battle will help him keep not just his name, but his vision before the voters of California. And as it worked for Obama in 2008, it would help him become a better statewide candidate (aside from a low-profile 2006 AG race, he hasn’t run a major campaign for office since 1992, and hasn’t won a major campaign for office since 1978).

If Brown did ultimately win the primary, he would be a better candidate for it. He’d have experience debating the issues of 2010 California  against an opponent. He’d have his arguments and talking points honed. He’d have a campaign infrastructure ready to go.

The rest of us would be able to have an opportunity to hold Brown accountable, and get answers to the key questions facing our state. And if we decide we like someone else better, we can mobilize behind them as the candidate that will truly offer change. It wasn’t clear if Newsom was ever going to be that candidate, but at least he was talking about the issues that matter, and offered a chance to force Brown to go public on these things as well.

While the bruising, stupid, and self-defeating primary battle of 2006 between Phil Angelides and Steve Westly might give some Democrats pause, the experience of the 2008 presidential primary, and the fundamentally different nature of the 2010 race should give Democrats confidence that a contested primary would build the party, energize the base, mobilize volunteers, and perhaps most importantly of all, would allow voters to decide whose vision they prefer for California: a vision that acknowledges the present situation is a failure and that lays out a progressive path for the next 30 years; or a vision that eschews the future and tries to defend the status quo of the last 30 years.

And even if Brown does become the nominee, he’ll be better off having been challenged. Not only will he be a sharper candidate with a better campaign, he may actually come to realize that to get elected governor in 2010, he has to show us where we are going as a state, and stop explaining, justifying, and defending where we’ve been.

12 thoughts on “The Case for a Contested Democratic Primary”

  1. Jerry’s early crowning only makes it easier for me to vote for the Green candidate.  The Old Democrat party is moribund, idealess, and stricken with fear.

  2. The fact is, you can’t fight a known quanitity with a vague sense of dissatisfaction because he doesn’t quote chapter and verse from the “progressive” bible.

    You need to ID at least a few people, and build a movment to help they or them out. Once that happens, either Brown moves to court that movement because it has some power, or that movement elevates the candidate(s).

    Right now, the only person I can think of that would be that candidate would be Debra Bowen. Smart, articulate, and fights for the right values. But do we want to cede the SoS office to some asshat hack politician from the legislature or worse (Think Cruz Lose with Cruz Bustamante) at a time when we NEED clean, fair elections?

    It’s a tough call. I don’t like coronations and contested primaries by two GOOD candidates works. But if we repeat 2006 where Steve Westly and Phil Angelides did a “battle of the titans” (btw that is sarcastic) which ensured the re-election of one of the biggest assholes in California history, we’re fucked. And I don’t like that.

    But who oh who is going to have the courage to DO THIS. I don’t want to hear names of who “might be good” – who the frak is going to step up and say “I can do a good job too” and put together what needs to happen to WIN, not just “make a statement”?

  3. We need a progressive leader with intelligence, integrity and the ability to be effective.  Two words which frequent the description of Senator Kuehl ~ intelligent and integrity.  She effectively authored 171 bills signed into law.

    Over the last few years a grassroots effort of around 500 organizations and thousands of individuals came together to pursue single-payer healthcare in California.  Sheila Kuehl led the way with SB840.

    I suspect that many of the organizations and individuals that backed SB840 would also back her candidacy if she ran for governor.  There are approximately “12.1 million Californians – 37.4 percent of residents under age 65-were uninsured at some point in time during 2007-2008, according to a report released today by the health consumer organization Families USA.” And in “contradiction to the support of the ‘shared’ costs proposal in the ‘Governor’s plan,’ by 61% to 31% all Californians support for ‘a universal health insurance program, in which everyone is covered under a program like Medicare that is run by the government and financed by taxpayers’ to ‘the current health insurance system in the United States, in which most people get their health insurance from private employers, but some people have no health insurance.'”  Californians are open-minded to effective, cost-efficient healthcare.

    Senator Kuehl’s legislative expertise runs the gambit of state issues from healthcare, to education, civil rights, environment, labor, etc.

    My 2 pennies worth ~ we should Draft Sheila!  

  4. If something were to happen to Jerry Brown?  It is not unheard of for a 60 year old to have a heart attack or a stroke…  What happens if that happens before the primary, and there is no other candidate?  What happens if he’s the nominee?

  5. This is exactly what I have been saying about Brown. And why everybody I know has been hoping for another challenger.

    There are, BTW, two completely unknown challenges that I’ve heard of. Neither, frankly, has half as much of a chance as Newsom had.

    Unlike Willie Brown, I’ve heard nobody at all suggest Jane Harmon or Maria Shriver. And all the people I have heard suggested seem happy with their current gigs or–as in the case of Sheila Keuhl or Sally Leiber–focused on another race. Maybe we could persuade one of the many candidates for AG or insurance commissioner to move up? There has to be a credible candidate for governor in a state this size. I just can’t believe this.  

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