A former seminarian with rock-star pals and a taste for Zen meditation, the younger Brown instantly emerged as a leader of post-Great Society Democrats shedding the traditional interest-group liberalism that had animated his party from Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson. Liberal on social issues and visionary on the environment and renewable energy, he espoused an “era of limits” and promised to “move left and right at the same time,” while squeezing state spending. (He symbolized his frugality by rejecting Reagan’s newly designed Governor’s Mansion for an apartment with a mattress on the floor.) Barely more than a year after he took office, Brown became a national sensation when he belatedly entered the 1976 Democratic presidential race and beat Jimmy Carter, the eventual nominee, in a series of late primaries.
“Our first charge with the supermajority is to ... grow jobs.” —Assembly Speaker John Perez
After Brown returned to California, his relations with the cornerstones of the traditional Democratic coalition deteriorated. Grumbling heightened after he offered only halfhearted opposition in 1978 to Proposition 13, the ballot initiative backed by conservative crusader Howard Jarvis that slashed state property taxes, and then embraced the measure after voters approved it. “As governor, Brown baffled and infuriated the traditional liberal-labor coalition, which has worked so closely with his father,” wrote journalist Robert Kuttner in Revolt of the Haves,his account of the Proposition 13 fight. Yet in his combination of social and environmental liberalism and fiscal restraint, Brown presciently articulated the priorities of the white-collar suburbanites who would loom larger in the Democratic coalition under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
After a difficult second term as governor, Brown was routed in a 1982 bid for the U.S. Senate. He receded from and then returned to the national stage with a long-shot campaign for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. This time, he ran as a born-again liberal populist, pounding Clinton from the left and inveighing against the corrupting influence of money in politics.
After Clinton cruised past him, Brown withdrew again before beginning a methodical comeback that progressed from election as mayor of Oakland in 1998, to victory as state attorney general in 2006, to his return to the governorship in 2010, at age 72. His victory that year was perhaps the most decisive of his winding career: He won by 13 percentage points, in what was one of the worst midterm elections nationally for Democrats since 1946, against Meg Whitman, a former eBay executive who spent more than $140 million of her own money on the campaign.
Brown’s 2010 victory showed how years of demographic change had reshaped California’s political balance. By then, minorities and college-educated whites comprised almost three-fourths of the state’s voters, and they provided Brown an impregnable core of support. The Edison Research exit poll found that Brown captured more than three-fourths of African-Americans, nearly two-thirds of Hispanics, and just over half of college-educated whites, as well as three-fifths of younger voters, themselves heavily minority. That allowed him to win easily despite resistance from the same groups that Democrats are struggling with elsewhere in the Obama era: Brown lost whites without a college degree by 20 percentage points, white seniors by 16 points, and all whites by 5 points.
Two years later, the same coalition powered the Democratic victory in the most important statewide election of 2012. That was the passage of Proposition 30, a ballot initiative backed by Brown and the Democratic legislative leaders that extends an increase in the state sales tax for four years, and a hike in the state income tax on the highest earners for seven years. The initiative was the cornerstone of Democrats’ plan to stabilize the state’s finances, and they warned that they would be forced to make major program cuts, particularly in K-12 and higher education, if it failed.
Even so, a clear majority of whites without college degrees and whites over 40 opposed the initiative, according to the Edison Research exit poll. The proposition nonetheless passed easily with support from a solid majority of younger and college-educated whites, just over half of Hispanics, about three-fifths of Asians, and roughly three-fourths of African Americans—all the pillars of the coalition of the ascendant. (Once again, minorities and college-educated whites cast about three-fourths of all votes.) The same wave, meanwhile, brought Democrats three more seats in the state Assembly and four more in the state Senate, creating their two-thirds supermajorities.
“For the Republican Party to become relevant again in California, I think … will take several election cycles before we can see it,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP operative who now publishes a respected nonpartisan almanac on California politics. “What’s happened to the California GOP—and the national party better worry about this—is we’re suffering from demographics. The Latino vote and the Asian vote keep increasing, and they’re not voting Republican, based on fear, not necessarily issues. They’re actually afraid of the Republican Party.”