Last fall, Jerry Brown encountered a rival from the 20th century, who sarcastically compared the governor’s bald pate to the hirsute look of his first term. “When I had hair,” Brown replied, “Methuselah was walking the streets.”
His rare bit of self-deprecation spotlighted a fundamental feature of 21st-century California politics: Nearly all of its top officials have long been eligible for Medicare. From Brown (76) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (74) to U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (74) and Dianne Feinstein (81), a familiar cast of antediluvian Democrats has dominated politics for decades, suppressing the aspirations of the next generation.
Things are about to change.
Last week, Boxer confirmed she’ll retire when her fifth term ends in 2016; three days before, Brown was inaugurated for the final time as governor. These events set off a mad rumpus of behind-the-scenes plotting and public maneuvering among the lean and hungry set, whose ambitions at last are liberated.
THE TOP TIER: The top players in the political drama are an intertwined trio of liberals, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (47), Attorney General Kamala Harris (50), and ex-L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (61).
Newsom jumped first, taking to Facebook last Monday to reject a Senate campaign, a signal he plans to run for governor in 2018. Twenty-three hours later, Harris declared her Senate candidacy on her website, becoming the early money front-runner a mere 23 months before election.
Former San Francisco mayor Newsom shares a fundraising base with Harris, an ex-S.F. district attorney; both are protégés of legendary pol Willie Brown and also share a political consultant, Averell “Ace” Smith. This happy coincidence suggests they’ve now sat down and divided up the world, a scenario that Newsom hotly denied: It’s “nonsense that there is some kind of understanding,” he told the L.A. Times.
A few days earlier, Villaraigosa solemnly proclaimed, “The urgency of the needs of the people of this great state have convinced me to seriously consider looking at running” for Senate. Loose translation: I’m running, unless I can’t raise the money.
If he goes, Tony V would be the highest-profile Latino in the race, establishing an intriguing rivalry with Harris, a woman of African-American and South-Asian descent, over whom would be a more formidable advocate for California’s emerging population.
THE SECOND TIER: Harris’s Senate decision is unlikely to defer Tom Steyer, a billionaire climate-change enthusiast and ex-hedge fund honcho, who dished out $75 million to Democratic candidates nationally last year, more than anyone else. Despite the string of self-funded political novices who have failed here, (hello, Senator Michael Huffington), Steyer is beloved by environmentalists, in part because of his role in defeating a 2010 measure to undo California’s progressive climate-change law.
Treasurer John Chiang also could imperil Harris’s hopes of clearing the field, while most of the state’s 38 Democratic House representatives surely look in the mirror and see a U.S. senator. One Dem who doesn’t: L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who’s taken himself out of the picture. The endangered status of the state GOP makes it tough to imagine a Republican winning statewide, although the top two primary makes all things possible. One name longingly tossed around in Republican circles is ex-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who has rejected previous entreaties to run for office.
JERRY SPEAKS: Brown’s 23-minute inaugural last week sharply contrasted the seven-minute smart-ass speech he delivered when first sworn back in 1975. Displaying seriousness about governing, his 2,783-word text waded deep into the wonky weeds of education, criminal justice, and energy policies.
Forty years ago, Brown was the first major politician to advocate alternative fuels and environmental sustainability, and his career-capper speech embraced the issues as a political legacy; he proposed a sweeping, Send-a-Man-to-the-Moon-scale climate agenda, including a reduction in state gasoline usage of 50 percent.
Brown also rolled out a $164 billion budget plan for the fiscal year starting next July, a 5.4 percent proposed increase.
WINNER: K-12 schools, with a proposed $8 billion, 12 percent raise forecast to hike annual per-pupil spending to $9,667 — payback money “borrowed” from schools during the recession and finance Common Core standards implementation.
LOSER: UC, slated for a mere $120 million increase. UC president Janet Napolitano has threatened to impose a big tuition increase unless Sacramento boosts funding, infuriating Brown, no fan of political extortion: “As I’ve said before, I will not make the students of California the default financiers of our colleges and universities,” he said.
Should be an interesting year.