By now most Californians and a good part of America have heard that, after six years in political exile, former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. is the new chairman of the state Democratic Party.
When was the last time the election of a state party chairman made network news? The national coverage of Brown's victory says something about his return from the political dead, and what it might mean to Democratic politics in this state.
Jerry Brown is a media favorite--he's interesting to write about and the TV camera loves him. With a bland U.S. senator and no Democratic governor to capture the political spotlight, Brown will give California Democrats a media presence in this age of "sound-bite" politics.
Still, as Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, who endorsed Brown's opponent, complained: "Star quality may have a place in California politics. But without the will to lead, stars don't guide." Other critics have scored Brown's managerial skills; his record shows little expertise, patience or desire to handle the nuts and bolts of party administration.
So what? It's staff that does the nuts and bolts--and Brown's gubernatorial operation had both ethereal gurus and hard-nosed pols. And "stars" may not guide, but they can sure raise money.
California's party organizations have been weak since Hiram Johnson and the Progressives legislated away the parties' power in the early 1900s. Today, the real Democratic Party exists in the Legislature and through elected officials.
They held a monopoly until recently on the power and money to dictate party candidates and positions. But there are moves afoot to shift power back to the state central committees. With the election of Brown as Democratic state chairman, things won't really change--at least that is the plan of some politicians.
Elected officials understand that the era of "the party as eunuch" has ended. And they see an opportunity to enter a new era of "the party as laundry." They can use it to raise and expend money beyond the stringent voter-approved limits on campaign contributions to candidates and the ban on transfers of funds between candidates--a device that legislative leaders used to infuse massive amounts of money into favored candidates' campaigns. Taking their cue from how the national parties and candidates adapted to federal limits on contributions and expenditures, California political leaders look to raise money through the state party to finance "voter education" and get-out-the-vote programs. And they want to continue to have a strong say in how and where those funds are used.
It is ironic that the man who rode the white horse of political reform into the governor's office in 1974 should owe his political resurgence largely to the desire of politicians to get around newly enacted campaign financing restrictions. But Brown--as Proposition 13, Medfly spraying and his flip-flop on abortion during the chairmanship campaign have shown--is nothing if not flexible.
The former governor defeated a long-time party activist--who was in line to inherit control of the party apparatus--because he is a proved fund-raiser whose political-action committee has given millions to Democratic candidates since his own defeat for the U.S. Senate in 1982.
And despite his "flaky" image, he can be a pragmatic politician; he earned his spurs with the party's legislative leaders by signing a "midnight" Democratic reapportionment bill after the 1982 election.
Reapportionment is important to the timing of Brown's ascension. Although Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and the political organization of Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) have been antagonists since the 1980 Speakership wars, they are willing to work in tandem to protect Democratic legislative majorities and elect a governor who will sign a Democratic reapportionment plan. As top party hand, Jerry Brown is uniquely acceptable to both Willie Brown and the Waxman-Berman organization in that high-stakes match.
New party clout may also stem from a 1986 California Supreme Court decision striking down Progressive laws prohibiting political parties from making pre-primary endorsements. If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the decision, it would limit the power of legislative leaders unilaterally to anoint most Democratic candidates and force lawmakers to be more accountable to their party's electorate.