There could be no better Christmas present for bunches of Democratic politicians than an announcement from Gov. Jerry Brown that he will not seek a second straight term in office, fourth of his lifetime.
Already the longest-serving governor in California history, Brown will be 76 if he stands for reelection next year and 77 barely three months into his fourth term, if reelected. The question is whether he wants to do it.
He’s hinted he does, of course, talking occasionally about his wish to see through the budgetary reforms he instituted after being elected in 2010 and a desire for a lasting legacy of leaving the California economy in good shape.
He had quietly raised more than $12 million toward a putative reelection campaign by late October, with no discernible need to spend any of it during the primary election season, meaning he could use it all in the fall, in case a wealthy, self-funded Republican candidate emerges from the woodwork in the next few weeks. Just such a possibility has lately emerged, with former Goldman Sachs executive Neel Kashkari saying he may run.
But there also have been a few rumors suggesting Brown might not want to bother, that he might be ready to retire after a lifetime of having his every move and sentence parsed for deep meaning and policy implications.
Nobody is betting on the energetic Brown retiring, but there are hints this is what some voters would like him to do, even if they have positive feelings about his performance.
That was suggested by a November USC/Los Angeles Times poll which found more than 50 percent of Californians generally approve Brown’s performance in office, but only 32 percent saying they’re inclined to vote for him next fall. This big gap may be explained by his longevity and a sense voters might like someone new.
Brown didn’t comment publicly on that survey, which registered public disapproval of how he’s handled prison problems and saw a paltry 38 percent of likely voters give him credit for erasing the $26 billion state deficit he inherited from Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Brown has never let hurt feelings govern his actions. But suppose for a moment he does decide to take his ball and go home, either to his manse in the Oakland hills or his family’s ranch north of Sacramento.
Brown’s aura of inevitable reelection – and his war chest – have prevented Republicans who seem like serious possibilities from entering the lists.
So far, only ultra-conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former appointive Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado are definitely in. But the dam could burst if Brown doesn’t run. Kashkari is only one of many wealthy folks in this state who believe, like previous GOP nominee Meg Whitman, that they would be terrific governors.
A Brown withdrawal would also destroy all the decorum currently exhibited by ambitious Democrats eagerly awaiting his disappearance.
Both Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor, and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, would love the job. So might state Controller John Chiang, whose dispassionate analyses and reports on state finances have impressed even some Republicans. Right now, Newsom and Harris are talking only about seeking reelection. Chiang, about to be termed out as controller, plans a run for treasurer, with current Assembly Speaker John Perez seeking the controller’s slot.
It’s also possible former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an ex-Assembly speaker who never hid his yen to become governor, might enter.
The only office now being openly contested among Democrats is secretary of state, California’s top election officer. Two termed-out state senators, Alex Padilla of Los Angeles and Leland Yee of San Francisco, are running there, along with Derek Cressman, recently head of the Common Cause good government lobby.
There could be a considerable shift in the likely Democratic lineup if Brown opts out and others try to move up.
The sorry state of California’s Republican Party, with fewer than 30 percent of all registered voters, now means there are not yet any formidable Republican entrants in races for the down-the-ticket offices where some Democrats plan to lurk while awaiting their chance to become governor.
But a political earthquake is certain if Brown opts out.