If the current large corps of potential candidates for retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s job look to some like a gaggle of political pygmies, it might have something to do with the proverbial 800-pound gorilla lurking in their living room. That would be Gov. Jerry Brown, who could most likely have the job for the asking.
There are plenty of other names, including state Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a bunch of Congress members including Loretta Sanchez and Adam Schiff and John Garamendi and Xavier Becerra, and even Republicans like former party chairman Duff Sundheim, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and San Diego County Assemblyman Rocky Chavez.
The reality is that if Brown wants the Senate seat, it’s almost certainly his.
He has coveted a Senate seat before. Back in 1982, he tried to move from the governor’s office to the Senate, only to be whipped by former San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, who would himself become governor eight years later. It’s still the only loss of Brown’s 47-year political career.
Notoriously impatient, easily bored and always eager for new challenges, Brown could dominate the Senate race. But because Harris now employs Brown’s 2012 campaign manager and campaign spokesman, her presence means Brown won’t run, even though he’s said nothing on this.
Not only does he have more campaign money available than anyone else, but Brown sports an unusually high approval rating in every poll, his ratings higher than any other California figure.
Plus, Brown has moved the state’s nascent bullet train forward about as much as he can for the moment and has been stymied so far in advancing his “twin tunnels” water project.
And people his age (mid-70s) are much more common in the Senate than in governor’s mansions.
So, why isn’t he running? He would say it’s because he wants to finish what he started in 2010, when he began his second incarnation as governor. But maybe it’s also because he knows there are vulnerabilities in his record. One weakness: some of his appointments to key state jobs. This was never discussed in last year’s campaign, where the worst names Republican candidate Neel Kashkari called him were “lazy” and a “do-nothing advocate of the status quo.”
That was before Brown appointed non-Californian Leondra Kruger, who has never contested a legal case in California, to the state Supreme Court. No non-Californian in memory has ever been given a spot on the state’s highest court. The appointment was a slap in the face of the state’s huge corps of lawyers, who certainly believe many of them could do at least as good a job as someone who knows virtually nothing about California.
Then he named his former renewable energy adviser Michael Picker to replace the disgraced Michael Peevey as president of the vital and powerful state Public Utilities Commission. Peevey left after disclosure of private emails between him and officials of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Since then, other emails have turned up showing he was also cozy with Southern California Edison Co. During the year Picker and Peevey were together on the five-member commission, Picker never voted against Peevey in any significant case.
There was also Brown’s reappointment of Robert Weisenmiller to head the state Energy Commission. Among other problems, Weisenmiller presided over awarding of multi-million dollar “hydrogen highway” grants despite the fact both he and Brown knew about serious conflicts of interest by one major recipient.
There have been other questionable appointments, too, some of them present and former Brown aides and cronies. He consistently refuses to discuss any beyond bland press releases announcing their appointments.
And there was his bill-signing message making it easier for parents to avoid getting their children vaccinated for diseases like measles and mumps, a possible factor in this winter’s measles outbreak.
So yes, Brown could likely be the top primary election vote-getter in the upcoming Senate race. But a little opposition research by any runoff opponent could make things at least a little unpleasant for Brown, and chances are he knows it.
Which could be one reason he’ll likely never run for office again.