Business groups, most of which have closely allied with the faltering state GOP, are watching these debates in the uncharacteristic position of looking to Brown as the brake on the political debate. Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a centrist organization of technology executives, said that when he met recently with CEOs he was struck by “how much they are depending on Governor Brown to be a backstop to any excesses they may see come out of the Legislature.” That’s “not a comfortable position for him,” Guardino added, “but it’s one that we are depending on him to play as we do all we can to strengthen the California economy.”
Lacking the money to immediately meet the fiscal demands of their supporters, Brown and Democratic leaders may try to satisfy them in other ways. As in his first round as governor, Brown will push the envelope on environmental causes; in the interview, he stressed his support for the state’s pioneering cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and said he will “quite possibly” seek to further increase what already are the nation’s toughest requirements on state utilities to produce power from renewable sources.
During the last session in Sacramento, Brown frustrated Hispanic activists by vetoing as overly broad legislation that would have largely barred California law-enforcement officials from cooperating with federal authorities in detaining suspected illegal immigrants, except those accused of serious crimes. Now, Brown, Steinberg, and Perez all express confidence they will agree on a revised measure to limit California’s participation in that “secure communities” federal initiative, which could precipitate a confrontation with the Obama administration.
If the U.S. Supreme Court this year overturns lower federal court decisions upholding gay marriage in the state, the Democratic Legislature could also place an initiative to legalize same-sex weddings on the ballot for 2014 or 2016. Perez, the state’s first openly gay speaker, said that there “is a high likelihood” California would now pass such an initiative, “but I am hoping we never have to get there.”
Yet, ultimately, the Democrats now steering California cannot meet the needs of the minority and young voters at the core of their coalition without providing stronger pathways to the middle class. For all their reluctance today, that is likely to eventually pressure them to raise taxes further to expand funding for programs such as early-childhood intervention, child care, education, and health care. Politically, the choice facing California Democrats is how much they can increase taxes to fund programs for their low-income (heavily minority) supporters before alienating the upscale (mostly white) voters drawn to them largely around social and environmental issues.
Over the next two years, this tension may peak over whether the Legislature should put on the statewide ballot a plan that would loosen Proposition 13 to make it easier for local governments to pass their own tax-raising ballot initiatives. Legislative liberals are already discussing such proposals, and Steinberg, the most left-leaning of the Democratic leaders, is warm to the idea. (He also hinted, in his reaction to Brown’s budget, more interest than other Democratic leaders in restoring funding to more programs.) When people argue that Democrats should not “overreach, we get it, we acknowledge it, we agree with it,” he said. “But the equivalent danger is to be so cautious, so worried, that we fail to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities.”
Once bitten by Proposition 13, Brown is much more skittish about reopening it. He worries that the public’s tolerance for higher taxes or spending may not be as great as 2012 made it appear. “Right now, let’s digest what we have,” he said. “I want to live within our means and make stuff work under the existing regime.”
That caution fits the experience of the Democratic Party since the 1960s, a period that tracks Brown’s tumultuous political career. Over that arc, Democrats have struggled to balance their own belief in activist government with the deepening skepticism about its value among white swing voters.
But the expanding coalition of the ascendant centered on minorities and the millennial generation is allowing Democrats to win elections while capturing fewer of those skeptical whites than ever before. In that way, the evolution of the Democratic coalition may be providing the party more rope than many in it recognize to hold majority support while advancing a vision of activist government that includes some higher taxes. Nowhere is the coalition evolving faster than in California, and in the next few years the state’s dominant Democrats may help measure just how far that rope can stretch before it snaps.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed
This article appears in the Jan. 19, 2013, edition of National Journal as Where Democrats Reign.