California is being looked at as the rare alternative to Tea-Party rule these days. Jerry Brown’s direct style and transparent budget strategy as governor have led to a waning in people’s longtime pessimism about state government. Yet, with the extreme policies of other new governors dominating the news -- and with Meg Whitman remaining in the public eye-- one must wonder how it would have been if California had voted the other way in 2010. It was certainly significant that voters went to the polls and beat back Whitman's $178 million candidacy. This is further relevant because in California elections one can always expect that well-moneyed novices will throw their hat into the ring.
The idea of a Governor Whitman can feel remote now, notably with Brown’s smooth transition into his old job. But the races here were considered close, and Whitman’s unprecedented self-funding ensured that she would remain competitive throughout (and of course the news was constantly buzzing that Tea-Party momentum might jump all the way to the coast).
As we witness a brand-new Republican governor dominate national news with a labor war in Wisconsin, it is clear that larger non-red states can flip to crimson, and overnight. The shifts can border on the surreal. Florida’s new governor recently refused $2.4 billion in federal funding, for high-speed rail no less.
Though conservatives lack an outsize presence in California these days, their offensive continues --statewide Democratic sweep notwithstanding. Due to Washington anti-tax icon Grover Norquist’s push for statehouse Republicans to sign a ‘no tax’ pledge, Brown’s proposed tax referendum is looking unlikely to make it to the voters to be voted on. The GOP even tried to outsource a debate with Brown –by asking Norquist to debate Brown for them.
Also, Whitman, it will be remembered, ran to the right in the 2010 primary so as to ensure victory --and made sure to state during the general election: “A lot of Tea-Partiers were excited by my candidacy.” We would have seen just how ‘excited,’ had she won. The professionally-funded Tea-Party operations and stridency would have been amped up all the more for a prize as big and rare as California.
Would a political rookie have withstood that …or even wanted to? A.G. Block, associate director of the UC Center Sacramento, noted, "I can't imagine she wouldn't have looked at what is happening in Wisconsin and tried in some way to replicate it in California."
One can only guess, particularly because the former Ebay CEO continues to divulge little about herself. The post-race spotlight offered a good opportunity for Whitman to announce some local pet cause. Instead there has only been her swearing in to multiple boards -and corporate advisory roles- including Procter and Gamble’s and HP’s (a former employer and another Silicon Valley heavyweight, though HP was challenged about its new board selection process). This month Whitman reiterated that she “want(s) to stay involved in public policy.”
Furthermore, in Tea-Party style, candidate Whitman employed pre-selected audiences and avoided media and editorial boards. Her campaign materials and the endless frills reminded one of a larger scale Arnold Schwarzenegger, if such a thing could be possible. The latter, with his private-jet commute, irked people so much that the famously frugal Brown has earned major plaudits simply by locking down in Sacramento and actually making himself available to the people and the press (and even the other party) –a highly unlikely scenario under a Whitman administration. Her call to ‘Take Back Sac’ was more akin to the ‘Take Back America’ anti-Obama slogans nationwide.
With an ascendant right-wing on the scene had Brown lost, we could have expected huge cuts and the dredging up of hot-button issues. One can only imagine what it would be like if immigration were in the mix now. The veteran Brown’s cagey dance to fix the budget, and dysfunctional Sacramento itself, has been a study in nuance from day one.
If conservatives had been empowered here, like they have been to re-fight health care in Washington, it would have been a disaster. California Republicans were fine with letting immigration spin their 2010 primary into a war of Arizona-like fury (while voters awaited reality-like budget ideas). The creative messaging of Whitman’s campaign would have been laughed off by an emboldened right-wing. Forget the harmonious Spanish-language ads. It would have been all ‘tough as nails,’ to quote her ad with campaign chair and former governor Pete Wilson.
Brown did win, of course. But as we watch what is happening in the rest of the country, we would do well to remember how easily it might have descended here as well. Finally, lest we forget, conservatives were able to recall the last California governor who beat them.
Craig Kaufman has organized progressive and grassroots campaigns as well as having founded an educational non-profit. His work has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, and other outlets.