History repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce, claimed Karl Marx, whose doctrines encouraged both outcomes. State Attorney General Jerry Brown, no Marxist, is hoping for a happier result as he strives to become governor of the Golden State again — 27 years after he left that office.
He is not alone. At least four former governors will seek their old jobs in 2010, and former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. could join the list. Definitely running in addition to Brown, are Roy Barnes of Georgia, Terry Branstad of Iowa and John Kitzhaber of Oregon.
On the face of it, it might seem unlikely that so many ex-governors would attempt a comeback at a time politicians are in disrepute and states face their worst fiscal crunch since the Great Depression. In fact, it is the very unpopularity of present officeholders that encourages these politicians of the past to seek an encore. Polls show these former governors more popular than the current ones and also leading their prospective opponents.
But why would anyone want to be governor during an economic crisis that has forced states to the wall and is likely to linger for at least two years? Political demographer Michael Barone suggests these former governors may be banking on an economic recovery that would give them an opportunity to do something other than balance the books.
“Governors have power,” said Barone, co-author of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics. “In normal times, it’s a good job.”
The other calculation, to judge from statements made by Barnes and Branstad, seems to be that these ex-governors believe they can do a better job than the present occupants.
Branstad, 63 and the only Republican in the group, is Iowa’s longest-serving governor. Elected four times, he served 16 years, ending in 1999. His first year in office, 1983, coincided with a national recession; Iowa land values plummeted and 38 state banks closed. Branstad weathered the storm. Today, he is a persistent critic of Democratic Gov. Chet Culver and the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which Branstad contends put Iowa in the hole by engaging in a ”spending spree.” In a Rasmussen poll in September, Branstad led Culver by 20 points.
Kitzhaber, 62, a former emergency room doctor and energetic fly-fisherman is also popular. He won the governorship of Oregon narrowly in 1994 but was re-elected in 1998 with nearly two-thirds of the vote after pushing through the innovative and controversial Oregon Health Plan, which provides broad but rationed medical coverage. Termed out in 2003, he left office with high approval ratings and seems poised to succeed Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who will be termed out in 2010. Oregon can be unpredictable, as Kitzhaber realizes. He told The New York Times that he wanted to win but “was not afraid to lose.”
In Georgia, Barnes struggled for years to regain his confidence after his unexpected defeat in 2002 by Sonny Perdue, a veterinarian and political neophyte. Barnes, now 61, initially blamed his defeat on his successful effort to persuade the Legislature to drop the Confederate battle flag as Georgia’s flag, which did not sit well with rural voters. He now acknowledges there was more to his defeat than that. Barone observes that Perdue scored points by challenging Barnes’ ambitious agenda, which included creation of the Georgia Regional Transit Authority — satirized by critics as “Give Roy Total Authority” — and an education reform measure that included annual testing. Teachers didn’t like the law. Barnes, described by his political foes as imperious, has struck a contrite tone in his new bid for office.
“Listening is something I didn’t do enough of when I was governor,” he said. “I tried to do too much, too fast. My heart was in the right place but I was impatient and didn’t consult enough different people outside the Capitol.”
Perdue is termed out in 2010, and spirited contests are expected in both Republican and Democratic primaries.
Brown, 71, is the oldest of the comeback quartet. As governor of California from 1975-1983, he was at once a visionary and a pain in the neck. Brown succeeded Ronald Reagan but in many respects contrasted more with his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, whose two-term governorship is remembered as the apogee of California’s emergence as a nation state.
Under Pat Brown’s leadership California constructed the largest water aqueduct in the world, made the University of California a showcase, expanded the state college (now state university) system, and built more freeways than any state has done before or since. California stepped back a bit under Reagan, but far less than conservatives wanted or liberals feared. In his first year in office, Reagan won approval of the largest tax increase ever proposed by any governor of any state up to that point, and a progressive one at that. He negotiated a far-reaching welfare reform bill with a Democratic Assembly speaker, who said that Reagan’s “bark was worse than his bite.”
In contrast to his predecessors Jerry Brown celebrated a minimalist approach to government that matched his spartan lifestyle. He took himself too seriously, appointed a mental health director who believed the mentally ill were faking it, and reduced the budget for higher education. Two years after he was elected, a university lobbyist who had battled Reagan over budget issues, told me, “I want Reagan back.”
But on environmental issues, Jerry Brown was ahead of his time. He appointed many women and members of minorities to government or judicial posts. He was chock-full of creative ideas, including a never-realized plan to put a California space satellite in orbit that earned Brown an enduring nickname, “Governor Moonbeam,” from Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko. Even so, Brown argued long before Bill Clinton came along that there were limits on what government could accomplish, a useful insight for anyone seeking the California governorship in 2010.
After losing a Senate race to Pete Wilson in 1982, Brown embarked on a series of personal reinventions. He spent six months in Japan studying Zen and Buddhist practice, worked with Mother Teresa in India at the Home for the Dying and served two years as chairman of the California Democratic Party. In 1998, he returned to electoral politics by winning the mayoralty of Oakland, a poor and embattled city that Brown improved with a hands-on approach that had eluded him as governor. Crime decreased, and Brown opened two charter schools that are still flourishing. In 2006, he was elected state attorney general, a post once held by his father.
In terms of recurring deficits, California ranks worst of the 50 states. California’s last two governors, Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, with much help from clueless legislators, have made a compelling case that California is ungovernable. Beyond its fiscal mess, California has failed disgracefully to help to its less fortunate citizens. Because of a dysfunctional system the state was six weeks late in sending out November unemployment checks to 2.3 million jobless Californians. Meanwhile, only 48 percent of Californians eligible for food stamps receive them. In contrast, the top eight states enroll more than 80 percent of food-stamp eligibles; Missouri provides nearly every eligible resident with food stamps. The Los Angeles Times blames California’s arcane rules, including a requirement shared by only three other states that food-stamp applicants be fingerprinted.
Brown, still months away from a formal announcement of his candidacy, has stayed mum about his agenda if elected governor again. He has kept himself in the public eye by using both the powers and the bully pulpit of the attorney general’s office to go after alleged consumer and mortgage lending frauds and environmental violations. Political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, cautiously optimistic, believes Brown has the potential to be a successful governor.
“He’s mellowed, and he’s learned from being mayor of Oakland,” she said.
Brown is unopposed for the Democratic nomination and would be heavily favored against any of the three Republicans now in the field.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.