January 17, 2018

This is Jerry’s Last Year, What’s Next?

With several initiatives and numerous statewide and Congressional offices up for grabs, 2018 will be a busy political year. I recently wrote about Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, whose strong economic policies and sensible approach to regulation have set him on course for a successful reelection campaign.

California, as always, is a different story.

Much has happened in California since 1975, and 37 percent of that time, Jerry Brown has been governor. Due to term limits, this year is definitely his last as the state’s chief executive, so it seems a good time to take a brief look back at his impact on our industry.

During his first stint as governor, Brown famously espoused his canoe theory of politics: paddle a little on the left, then a little on the right, and go straight down the middle. However, as evidenced by his alliance with Cesar Chavez, support for the United Farm Workers (UFW) and signature on the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRB), Brown banked his political canoe hard left his first go around, at least when it came to agriculture.

After a period of political desert wandering, Brown reemerged—first as mayor of Oakland, then as state attorney general, and finally as Governor Part Deux—slightly less ideological and a bit more pragmatic. Indeed, during his first term in this second go-round, Brown steered his canoe on a somewhat straighter course. Shortly after coming into office, Governor Brown sent shockwaves through Sacramento when he vetoed card check legislation, the then-crown jewel of the UFW’s legislative agenda. Brown rejected other UFW-sponsored bills, including a punitive heat illness measure that would have paved the way for a rash of class action lawsuits.

Unfortunately, in the current and final four-year term, and without another statewide election confronting him, Brown dealt California agriculture a devastating one-two punch by approving legislation that mandates massive hikes in minimum wage and overtime rates. On environmental policy, the record is similarly mixed. For example, at Brown’s insistence, renewal of the “cap and trade” system at the heart of the state’s greenhouse gas reduction strategy included provisions to aid the agriculture industry. Less helpfully, the Governor’s water quality regulators have imposed costly requirements on farmers while simultaneously seeking to reduce water availability from key rivers.

I provide this abbreviated analysis not as a critique of the Governor, but as a means to set up the significance of the 2018 gubernatorial election. While it may seem that Brown is constantly paddling in the opposite direction of California farmers, he has proven reasonable in certain situations, and is usually open to debating the pros and cons. For all the well-deserved criticism, Brown does have a fundamental appreciation for agriculture and has often served as the only check—a backstop, to use a baseball reference—to the radical excesses of the majority in the California Legislature. The obvious question is whether the next governor might have a similar approach.

This is the reason why Western Growers directors and staff have been so diligent in reaching out to the major candidates. To date, we have had substantial interactions with former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, State Treasurer John Chiang and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom. Villaraigosa and Chiang have already addressed our Board of Directors in person, and Newsom will join us for our next Board Meeting in March.

Based on our private conversations and public statements made by the current frontrunners, each of the candidates projects a desire to understand and help support agriculture, to different degrees.

Villaraigosa clearly understands the direct connection between California agriculture and the economic livelihood of his most significant voter base: Latinos. He supports efforts to increase our water supply and has expressed his desire to “look out for the interests of farmers.” Additionally, he has shown an independence from the unions that are so powerful in Democratic campaigns. As mayor, Villaraigosa clashed with government worker unions as the Great Recession forced cuts to public payrolls. He also publicly scolded the state’s teachers union for its role in protecting bad teachers.

Newsom is quite vocal about the iconic value of California agriculture. As a business owner himself, he has acknowledged the regulatory challenges facing California farmers, stating that “we could do a lot better to make a point that agriculture matters and we care.” As lieutenant governor—a position with few official duties and little influence—Newsom hasn’t had much of a chance to influence the state’s policies. As he campaigns for governor, however, Newsom has embraced key positions of the progressive (or liberal) wing of his party, such as supporting a single-payer health care system.

Chiang also supports the single-payer system, although he talks about it with caution, noting the need for a realistic scheme to pay for it; this financial acuity permeates his campaign as Chiang stresses his record as both state controller and treasurer. In his meeting with the WG Board of Directors, Chiang focused on fiscal management and mostly bypassed discussion about labor, water, regulatory demands and other major issues, leaving a great deal of uncertainty about the impact he would have on our industry if elected governor.

Then there is the matter of the Republican candidates for governor. Many in our industry affiliate with the Republican Party, myself included, so it pains me to say that there is almost no chance a Republican can be elected here.

California is a heavily Democratic state; indeed, by the November election, it is possible that registered Republican voters will have fallen from second place to third, as independent voters (deemed “No Party Preference,” or NPP) increase their ranks. Nearly 45 percent of registered voters are in the Democratic column. Republican registration has fallen to 26 percent (from 34 percent just 10 years ago); independent/NPP registration now counts for 24.5 percent of the state’s voters and is increasing.

Nearly twice as many California voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. California has not voted for the Republican nominee in a presidential contest since 1988. Not a single Republican holds statewide office, the state’s 53-member delegation to the House of Representatives includes just 14 Republicans, and the state Legislature is controlled by Democratic supermajorities.

As advocates for the best interests of our members and our industry, these are the realities we must confront as we prepare for a new governor. We can hope for, and will work toward, a rebalancing of California’s politics, but those efforts are probably best made within the realm of the Democratic majority. It is a near certainty that for the foreseeable future, California will be governed by that party.

All of this is to say that we have engaged, and will continue to engage, these candidates in an effort to determine their vision for California, to educate them on the role the state must play in protecting and promoting our industry, and to lay the foundation for future access and influence regardless of who wins in November. California is already a challenging place for agriculture, and times seem to be getting tougher, but we are redoubling our resolve to fight the fight, and these early and sustained exchanges with Villaraigosa, Chiang, Newsom and others will give us our best chance of developing a meaningful and, hopefully, productive relationship with the next governor.