Gov. Jerry Brown, whose public approval rating is rising statewide and whose re-election is all but assumed, arrived in the San Joaquin Valley this week to promote his new spending plan in a region that has resisted him for nearly four years.
This is land where billboards criticizing Brown’s $68 billion high-speed rail project are no more out of place than ones reading “Jesus is Lord.” California’s economic recovery lags behind in the Valley and the Inland Empire, and the electorate is deeply skeptical of Brown.
Meg Whitman, the governor’s last Republican opponent, beat Brown by wide margins in Fresno, Kern and Riverside counties in 2010, and all three of those counties, in which Brown promoted his budget plan Monday and Tuesday, went against Brown’s initiative to raise taxes in 2012.
Brown’s ability to improve his standing in these inland reaches of the state could be significant – if not to his relatively safe re-election prospects – to policies he has made a priority of his third term. These include high-speed rail, which is highly controversial in the Valley, and water policies complicated by drought.
“I’m here because I haven’t spent as much time here,” Brown told reporters in Bakersfield on Tuesday.
He came to listen, he said, but also “maybe I influence people to some degree.”
It is not unusual for a governor to travel the state to build support for his annual spending plan, which Brown released last week. The effort can help frame months of budget negotiations at the Capitol, but Brown makes these journeys less frequently than most.
In the cities hugging Highway 99, it is not clear he has been universally missed.
“I’m not a huge fan,” Vince Smith, an Bakersfield oilman, said outside an Elks lodge across town from where Brown appeared. “He’s just much more liberal than I am.”
The state’s inland regions not only are more conservative than many other parts of California, but are less affluent. The state has emerged unevenly from the recession, and the unemployment rate in each of the areas Brown visited exceeds the statewide average. In Fresno County, it has hovered above 12 percent.
“I’m not sure that the governor realized the magnitude of the challenge here,” said Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who showed Brown a map of poverty-stricken areas in her city.
The $154.9 billion budget Brown is promoting may provide a new inroad to conservatives. Following years of economic malaise, the spending plan includes modest increases for social services and schools, but also billions of dollars to address long-term debt.
Swearengin, a Republican, said, “I applaud the governor for being very conservative and setting aside money for a rainy-day fund, making sure that internal debt’s being paid down.”
Brown’s two-day tour took him from Fresno to Bakersfield and Riverside, including private meetings with agriculture, water, education and law enforcement officials. Swearengin showed Brown a downtown pedestrian mall she is trying to redevelop, while inmates at Lerdo Detention Facility, in Bakersfield, crowded around the governor as he signed certificates for various programs and classes they completed.
Looming over the entire visit, however, was growing pressure on Brown to declare a drought emergency – he suggested he is close – and objections to high-speed rail.
State Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, called the proposed cost of the rail project “too high for government to maintain.” The state has acquired $3.4 billion in federal funding to start construction in the Valley, but legal challenges have left state bond funding uncertain, and opposition has swelled among farmers.
Brown defended the project, his rhetoric at times tuned to parochial concerns.
“It’ll transform Bakersfield,” he said while visiting that city. “There’s no question it will increase the wealth, the economy and the property values of Bakersfield and Kern County. No question about it.”
Brown said last year that he planned to travel more to “get a real-world feel of what’s under my responsibility,” and his trip this week reflected that sentiment.
But Brown is not only learning. This is an election year. Brown held media availabilities in each of the cities he visited, and he did little to discourage political overtones.
As he prepared to leave a news conference Tuesday, Brown told reporters, “This is not my last visit to Bakersfield. You’ll see me more often in the months ahead.”
Asked if that is because he is running for re-election, Brown said, “I’m not running for re-election ... yet.”
Though Brown has not yet said if he will seek a fourth term, he is raising millions of dollars and is expected to run. His 58 percent public approval rating, according to a Field Poll last month, is the highest of his third term, and he leads a field of Republican challengers in both fundraising and early polls.
Jeff Cummins, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno, said Brown’s appearances this week are indicative of a candidate who would “probably like to kind of break the wall of lack of support” in the Valley.
He said a visit is unlikely to change the minds of many conservatives, but Brown may have some limited success.
At Peeve’s Public House & Local Market in Fresno, owner Craig Scharton, the city’s former business development director, said he joked with a friend not long ago about Brown’s relatively restrained spending tendencies, concluding “from our standpoint, he’s the best conservative governor that we’ve had.”
Even if Brown is not preferred in the Valley, Scharton suggested tolerance of the governor may be spreading. He pointed for proof to the atmosphere on conservative talk radio the morning Brown was in town.
“You know, as negative as they would be on Obama if he were here,” Scharton said, “it was a pretty balanced conversation.”