CVIndependent

Sat08182018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

As Gov. Jerry Brown neared the end of his last State of the State speech on Thursday, Jan. 25, he invoked a name that has become a frequent theme: August Schuckman, his own great-grandfather, who left Germany in 1849 and “sailed to America on a ship named Perseverance.”

The 79-year-old Democrat cast his ancestor’s journey—and the ship’s poetic name—as a metaphor for California in an era of natural disasters and deep rifts with the federal government. “We, too, will persist,” he said, “against the storms and turmoil, obstacles great and small.”

Brown, delivering his 16th such speech during an unprecedented four-term tenure as California governor, contrasted California with the direction the United States is heading under Republican President Donald Trump—touting the state’s efforts to combat climate change and its embrace of Obamacare. He reiterated his commitment to two major infrastructure projects he’s long championed: a high-speed train that would eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a massive tunnel to move water from the north end of the state to the south. And he gave an impassioned plea for legislators to look at the big picture of California’s criminal-justice system instead of passing new laws in response to crimes ripped from the headline.

Democrats praised Brown for an optimistic speech that demonstrated the hallmarks of his leadership. Even some Republicans offered mild praise: Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle called Brown “one of the most conservative Democrats in this place” for his relative prudence. But he criticized the governor for signing laws, like the gas tax, that raised the cost of living in California.

What Brown didn’t mention: the fact that California has the highest poverty rate in the nation; that housing prices that have skyrocketed beyond affordability for many residents; and that the state’s tax structure exposes it to perpetual cycles of boom and bust.

Also absent were the obscure intellectual references that have studded his past speeches—although he did contrast the state’s bloated penal code with the Ten Commandments.

His also struck some themes that are vintage Jerry Brown. He cited California’s recent wildfires and mudslides, as well as the Doomsday Clock, echoing past speeches in which he predicted environmental disaster. He advocated remedies to slow global warming—like clean cars and renewable energy—that resembled ideas he espoused when he was first elected governor more than four decades ago.

“We should never forget our dependency on the natural environment and the fundamental challenges it presents to the way we live,” Brown said to his 2018 audience. “We can’t fight nature. We have to learn to get along with her.”

Yet as he looked forward for California, he also looked back at his own family history. When Brown was first sworn in, in 1975, he rarely talked about his ancestry. As the years mounted, however, he has increasingly turned to his family-origin stories to illustrate his belief in California’s potential.

Now the Brown family’s California Dream is a common trope in his rhetoric. He talks about the great-grandfather on the Perseverance, the grandmother who was the youngest of eight children, and the father, Pat Brown, who preceded him in the governor’s office.

Some of that reflection may be the natural consequence of age. But it also reveals a governor more assured of his own accomplishments and less fearful that he’s riding on his father’s coattails, said political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. A professor at University of Southern California, she’s been following Brown’s career since he ran for the Los Angeles Community College board in 1969.

The younger Brown first moved into the governor’s office less than a decade after his father had moved out. During those first two terms in office, Jeffe said, Brown went to great lengths to distinguish himself from his father.

“He did not want to live in his shadow,” she said. “Jerry wanted to build his own legacy, his own philosophy of governance.”

His early speeches reflect the schism. Brown—a 37-year-old bachelor at the time, who famously slept on a mattress on the floor of an apartment—opened his inaugural address in 1975 with a quick quip about his dad. “My father thought I wasn't going to make it,” to become governor, he said. “But here I am.” He went on to talk about problems with environmental and land-use rules, and the need to provide a better system for funding schools and farmworker rights.

For the next six years, Brown used his State of the State speeches to float ideas: developing more clean energy, building more prisons, making housing more affordable, putting a satellite into space, and overhauling the bail system. Then, as now, he acknowledged the uncertainty of the future and urged lawmakers not to spend too much.

But near the end of his first two terms, Brown’s 1982 State of the State speech reminisced about his father, his grandmother and his great-grandfather Schuckman, who traveled the plains from St. Louis to Sacramento during the Gold Rush.

“Let me read to you from the diary that was kept during that trek westward,” Brown said then, recounting in detail their journey across deserts, through rivers and over mountains. He spoke of oxen dying of thirst and wagons going up in flames.

“These were men and women who matched our mountains, and in not too many years, built these walls,” Brown said. “We are bearers of that powerful tradition. It still drives our people and the hundreds from foreign who arrive in our state each day.”

Most people assumed, of course, that 1982 speech would be Brown’s final State of the State. But after serving as Democratic Party chair, Oakland mayor and attorney general, he reclaimed the governorship in the November 2010 election. In his inaugural address in January 2011, Brown again read from Schuckman’s diary.

“We can only imagine what it took for August Schuckman to leave his family and home and travel across the ocean to America and then across the country—often through dangerous and hostile territory—in a wagon train. But come he did, overcoming every obstacle,” Brown said.

In 2015, Brown reflected on his father’s leadership in ways he never did in those speeches during his early years as governor.

“The issues that my father raised at his inauguration bear eerie resemblance to those we still grapple with today: discrimination; the quality of education and the challenge of recruiting and training teachers; the menace of air pollution, and its danger to our health; a realistic water program; economic development; consumer protection; and overcrowded prisons,” Brown said. “So you see, these problems, they never completely go away. They remain to challenge and elicit the best from us.”

Whatever challenges lie ahead for 2018 and beyond, Brown said on Thursday: “All of us—whatever our party or philosophy—have a role in play in defending and advancing our democracy. Our forebears set the example.”

Now he’s planning retirement on the rural land in Colusa County where Schuckman settled in the 1800s. Though Brown’s upbringing is very different from most Californians, his family stories can make the austere governor more relatable, said Roger Salazar, a Democratic political consultant who works for the Legislature’s Latino Caucus.

“It’s a story that I think a lot of legislators can relate to,” Salazar. “When you look back at your familial history and the context in which they came to California, I think that’s something that we all can connect with.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

You’ve heard the term, “All politics is local”? California Republicans had better hope so.

The pre-vote polls told us that this week’s gubernatorial matchup in Virginia would be a nailbiter. Instead, it was an electoral thrashing. Voters handed the governor’s mansion to Democrat Ralph Northam with a decisive 9 point margin while stripping the state GOP of its firm grip on the legislature’s lower chamber, reducing a supermajority to a virtual tie.

By all accounts, this blue wave—which also swept up statehouse races in New Jersey and New Hampshire, municipal contests in Pennsylvania, a special election in Washington state, and a Medicaid expansion vote in Maine—was as much a referendum on what’s happening in Washington, D.C., as it was a rebuke of local lawmakers. Or as Republican political consultant Mike Murphy told the Washington Post, Virginia was a test of whether the GOP’s electoral fates are tied to the president’s approval numbers. “The canary in the coal mine didn’t just pass out,” he said. “Its head exploded.”

Though political analysts are still analyzing the numbers, it sure looks that way. Virginia saw its highest increase in voter turnout in two decades, with the bulk of the bump coming from Clinton-winning districts in the suburbs. Young voters and voters with college educations flocked to the Democratic side. According to exit polls, a third of all voters said they cast their ballot in part to “express opposition to Donald Trump.”

“There may have been some local issues involved, but the main driver of what happened was the energy among base Democratic constituents who finally woke up,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who advises the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

California Democrats are hoping for a similar awakening in the elections of 2018. On the line: their lock on power in Sacramento, where the party holds a commanding two-thirds supermajority of legislative seats, along with all statewide constitutional offices. At the same time, the GOP’s control of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., could also be decided here. Of the 14 California districts that last sent Republicans to Congress, seven voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Hours before Tuesday’s election returns rolled in, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista became the first of those 14 to withdraw support for the current House GOP tax plan, saying it would strip away tax deductions disproportionately used by Californians. Democrats had identified Issa as a top target for 2018.

So how nervous should California Republican candidates be? Very, said Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican political consultant in San Diego.

“They’ve got to assert their willingness to step up to the president when they feel he’s wrong,” he said, but do so without alienating the party’s base. Though only 27 percent of California likely voters approve of the president, 7 in 10 Republicans still stand by their elected man.

“A majority of Republican voters don’t seem to really care about winning as much as they care about voting for someone who they believe will be a shot to the system,” Roe said.

Indeed, some Trump loyalists are arguing the election results merely prove that Republican candidates fell short because they failed to embrace President Trump even more enthusiastically.

While many other Republicans are wringing their hands, Democrats are imagining 2010 in reverse: Recall the historic shellacking the party took that year when conservatives—driven by Tea Party fervor, equal parts anti-Obamacare and anti-Obama—turned statehouses red across the country and flipped the House.

“Trump is clearly the giant orange blob blotting out the sun for Republicans,” said Dan Newman, a political consultant and spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the early Democratic frontrunner to be governor. “He's depressing moderate Republicans, alienating swing voters, and motivating Democrats—who are fired up like they haven't been in years.”

That’s the inversion California Democrats hope for heading into the 2018 midterms: depressed Republican numbers (as the base fails to turn out and moderates cross over to vote blue) and jacked-up Democratic turnout among so-called “low propensity” voters—non-white and younger voters who typically lean Democratic but who are usually less likely to turnout during off-year elections.

In the small number of elections we’ve seen in California this year—a special Congressional election, an assembly primary matchup, a handful of municipal races like the one in Palm Springs—we have haven’t seen that kind of turnout.

This week, in Virginia and elsewhere across the country, those stars finally seem to have aligned. But then again, 2018 is still a year away. And California is not Virginia.

According to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., the Golden State has been shielded in the recent past from the political waves that buffet the rest of the country.

As statehouses went red en masse in 2010, for example, Democrats in California actually picked up a legislative seat. “There some evidence to suggest that the waves stop at Reno,” he said.

Plus, the Democratic party’s current political dominance could serve to buffer the effect of an anti-Trump wave. Typically, the voters most animated during midterm elections are those hoping to rebuke the party in power. This week, voters in Virginia, New Jersey and Maine found ready targets for their frustration with the status quo among the Republicans occupying their statehouses and governor’s mansions. But in California, powerful Republicans are hard to come by.

And then there’s the simple fact of geographical distance: While national politics may weigh heavily on the mind of a D.C. suburbanite, said Mitchell, national politics might seem more abstract to a California voter, whereas the quality of local education, the housing crunch or the price of gas might feel more pressing.

California Republicans are certainly banking on that anyway—although the list of Republicans who didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story includes Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Dahle, and Assemblyman/gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen.

“In a low-turnout midterm election, at least some California Republican incumbents will find other issues to help them achieve re-election. Those who do survive, however, will do so in spite of their party’s leaders,” wrote Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant who was a key aide to the state’s last Republican governor, and now a professor at the University of Southern California.

As far as Schnur is concerned, national Republicans have sized up California’s changing ideology and demographics and concluded “it’s not even worth fighting to retain a foothold in the nation’s largest state.”

So on the campaign trail, state Democrats will do everything in their power to remind voters that every last Republican dog catcher shares a party label with a wildly unpopular president.

“Here in California, the reason they want to talk about Donald Trump is because they don’t want to talk about the record they’ve created here,” Jim Brulte, the state GOP chairman told a gathering of Republicans at the party’s convention last month. After rattling off a list of economic and social ills facing the state (presumably all the fault of the party in power), he then tried out a phrase that is sure to resurface in campaign ads and talking points in the months to come: “They broke it; they own it.”

With that, the California Republicans have crafted themselves a midterm strategy. Keep it local. Talk about the gas tax. Talk about the state’s first-in-the-nation poverty rate. Donald Trump’s latest Twitter spat with Kim Jong Un? No, I’m afraid I haven’t seen that.

Or as Brulte put it while speaking at the Sacramento Press Club last week: “I don’t get the vapors over what’s going on in Washington D.C.”

Nor, presumably, in Virginia, New Jersey, or Maine.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California leads the nation once again in a statistic no state wants to boast about.

When the cost of living is factored in, the Golden State has the highest poverty rate in the country. More than 20 percent of its residents struggle to make ends meet, according to recently released Census figures. That’s nearly 8 million people.

Unfortunately for Californians, this year’s poverty numbers are not an aberration. The Census began releasing state-by-state results for its “supplemental poverty measure” in 2011, in an attempt to improve upon the outdated and heavily criticized official poverty statistics.

In the less sophisticated “official” measure, a family of four in San Francisco or Los Angeles or San Diego faces exactly the same poverty threshold—$24,339 annually—as a family in rural Mississippi. That’s despite the fact that you can rent a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,200-square-foot house in Horn Lake, Miss., for the same price ($850 per month) as half a living room in the Bay Area.

California has been the poorest state in the nation under the vastly more sophisticated “supplemental” poverty measure since the alternative statistic was created. (Mississippi is poorest under the old measure.) It’s not even really that close: Florida has the second-highest rate, at 18.7 percent.

The supplemental poverty measure is calculated using a three-year moving average, so year-over-year changes can’t swing a state’s poverty rate one way or another all that much. The Census uses data dating to 2011 to calculate the cost of living, so even the improved poverty rate could be underestimating how big of a drain housing has been on California’s poor. The biggest jumps in housing costs—like those we’ve seen in Sacramento and other mid-size California cities in recent years—typically apply to a relatively small percentage of renters finding new apartments. But ask any California renter whether they’d rather be paying 2011 rents or 2017 rents, and they’ll ask you for the keys to the DeLorean as soon as possible.

What, exactly, is the role of housing in California’s poverty problem? There are a couple ways to answer that question, none perfectly satisfactory.

One method: What would poverty look like if everyone in California had cheaper rents?

Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California, which has developed its own California-specific alternative poverty measure, tried to simulate an answer to that question. Researchers there ran a model of the state’s poverty rate with every Californian bearing a cost of living similar to that in Fresno County, where a family of four making about $25,000 a year would not be considered poor. 

The result? The overall poverty rate would drop dramatically (from about 21 percent to 14 percent), with nearly 2.4 million Californians lifted above the poverty line. The effect is most pronounced among children, who are disproportionately likely to live in higher-cost regions of the state. The child poverty rate drops nearly 8 percentage points—about 717,000 kids—once the cost of living is lowered.

Relocating every poor family in the state to Fresno is, well, not a practical policy consideration. And housing subsidies for low-income families currently make only a small dent in the poverty rate, at least compared to some other safety-net programs. (Advocates for the poor argue that’s a great reason to dramatically expand housing subsidies.)

A group of researchers at Columbia University re-created the Census supplemental poverty measure for all states with data stretching back to the late 1960s. Under this measure, California started looking considerably different from the rest of the United States in the early 1980s.

But notably, while California’s supplemental poverty rate has remained significantly above the national average in recent years primarily because of housing costs, in absolute terms, the state is actually in better shape than it was in the early 1990s, when more than one in four Californians lived below the poverty line—and the recession of the early 1990s paled in comparison to the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

That’s partly because of the significant expansion of federal and state povertyprograms to California families in the past three decades. In 1991, researchers estimate, such programs reduced California poverty by about four percentage points. In 2014, those same programs (and new ones) cut hardship by twice as much.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues