Jerry Brown IS California's Martha Coakley

Posted on 26 January 2010

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By Robert Cruickshank

Last week we made a solid case that Barbara Boxer is no Martha Coakley and that Republican hopes of taking her seat this November are likely to be dashed. However, the dynamics of the Massachusetts special election ARE much more applicable to the other big statewide race this fall - the race for governor.

Jerry Brown seems to be doing all he can do to become the next Martha Coakley. Like the Massachusetts Attorney General, California's Attorney General seems to believe he doesn't yet have to run an actual campaign. Meanwhile, Meg Whitman is not only spending a lot of money, but spending it wisely. She is building a strong campaign staff, a good field operation, and airing some rather effective radio ads across the state that make her sound like a soft moderate, rather than the slash-and-burn radical she actually is.

And what is Brown doing in response? Still stubbornly refusing to launch his campaign or even officially declare his candidacy. Instead his online outreach is little more than going through the family photo album.

While Brown doesn't have to declare his candidacy just yet, his stubborn refusal to do any actual campaigning is a big problem. Whitman is able to define herself to the electorate on her terms, and generating favorable coverage and buzz as a result. Brown is instead losing valuable time to counter this by building his own support and base. Although Brown currently leads Whitman in the polls, that won't last; by April or May he will likely be behind.

Perhaps that's how he wants it. Brown seems to believe that he can take down Whitman by painting her as a member of the Wall Street corporate elite - which she is. Doing so would help Brown's chances. But it won't be sufficient. Unless Brown can organize and motivate the progressive base, the right-wing base will instead propel Whitman into office.

Calbuzz, which first made the Brown/Coakley comparison last week, today examines the latest Field Poll to see what it means for the governor's race. Along with pointing out eMeg's problems with women and Brown's with youth, they conclude:

The bad news for Brown is that no matter who emerges as his Republican opponent -- and at this point it sure looks like eMeg with her unlimited self-funded campaign budget - Brown can expect to get hammered on TV starting in about March with ads aimed at younger voters portraying him as old news, over-the-hill status quo.

"Jerry Brown and his entrenched allies will be spending millions to defend failure and the status quo in Sacramento, and Meg is committed to defeating them," Whitman mouthpiece Sarah Pompei told Contra Costa Timesman Steve Harmon last week, limbering up for some serious trash talk.

These ads will be potent since they'll have the added benefit of being true. Jerry Brown played a major role in the creation of the 30-year crisis the state has been facing. First through his hoarding of a surplus during his first term as governor, then his failure to produce property tax reform, then his decision to become a "born-again tax cutter" after Prop 13 passed, then his role in creating the flawed "system" of funding government in California where localities depend on the state to backfill lost revenue, leaving both local and state governments less and less able to meet the needs of a modern society.

Of course, Whitman's attack will probably focus instead on things like spending and labor unions. But Brown so far has shown absolutely no willingness to counter this by offering the kind of vision for the next 30 years that he needs to show in order to win the support of the younger voters whose turnout and support will be key to winning this election.

In particular, Brown so far hasn't explained how he'll restore education funding, either at the K-12 level or for higher ed. With the federal health care reform looking perilous, he hasn't yet offered any sense of how he'll provide affordable health care here in California, without which lasting economic recovery is impossible. He is still stuck in the mud on prisons and drug policy, and his budget solutions amount to "I'll sit down with everyone and work something out but won't raise taxes" - which earned him the title of Apostle for Fantasyland from David Dayen last year, deservedly so.

Would a contested Democratic primary have helped Brown become a better candidate, instead of stubbornly refusing to campaign? It didn't work for Coakley. But it would likely have worked for Brown and the Democrats. Whereas Massachusetts Dems seem to have assumed the seat would be an easy hold, California Dems know that winning the governor's seat is very difficult. Since 1900 only four Dems have done it, and since 1982, only one has done it - and we all know how Gray Davis's administration ended.

Of course, two of those four Dems were named Edmund G. Brown. The second, younger of them is convinced he knows what it takes to win the governor's office. I'm unconvinced. Edmund G. Brown, Jr. is going to have to show California progressives he knows what it takes to win - and that starts by rolling out a campaign that understands the need to mobilize the base.


Robert Cruickshank is a historian, activist, and teacher living in Monterey. He is a contributing editor at and works for the Courage Campaign, in addition to teaching political science at Monterey Peninsula College. Currently he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in US history, on progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. This article was originally published in Calitics.