The California Influencer Series

‘Think big, spend conservatively.’ California leaders offer advice for the next governor

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 13. The governor has been recognized as an international leader on climate change policy.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco on Sept. 13. The governor has been recognized as an international leader on climate change policy. Los Angeles Times/TNS

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The California Influencers Series

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Trust your gut. Be courageous. Reach out to your critics.   

As California voters prepare to select their next governor,  the California Influencers, a group of the state’s most respected experts in government, politics and public policy, weighed in with their advice for the winning candidate. 

The Influencers’ recommendations reflected a wide assortment of policy challenges, but two of the state’s former governors offered broader guidance on the importance of setting priorities and resisting external pressure.

“Do the hard stuff first,” former Governor Gray Davis said. “Many people tried to dissuade me from calling a special session on education reform the first month of my administration. But that session produced improvements in the professional development of teachers and incentives for every school to improve their performance from the previous year.”

Davis’ predecessor Pete Wilson also looked back at his own time in office, pointing to the budget and revenue crises that he inherited at the beginning of his first term.

“Do not allow the Legislature to violate the state Constitution by spending money you do not have,” Wilson cautioned. “Do not make promises that you cannot keep when revenues are not sufficient to live within the constitutional mandate that the state live within its income.”

Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, joined Wilson in warning of the demands for additional spending that the new governor will face.

“There is a pent-up desire by many progressives for universal health care, universal pre-school, free college tuition and numerous other budget-stretching, if not busting, initiatives,” Guardino said. “Our new governor will need to strike a balance between bold policy programs and limited budgets.”

Other Influencers illustrated the competing pressures that the new governor will face, calling for additional financial support for policy objectives that they argued will strengthen the state’s long-term stability and prosperity.

“The future of California will depend on your courage to invest in strengthening educational opportunity and closing racial gaps for California’s diverse residents,” said Michele Siquieros, President of the Campaign for College Opportunity. “…(Y)ou have the opportunity to put students first and invest in their opportunity not just to go to college, but to graduate ready to contribute to our economy.”

Kim Belshé, Executive Director of First Five LA, cited statistics showing the high numbers of California children living in poverty and pointed to the need for additional funding for early childhood services. She quoted the late civil rights leader Frederick Douglass saying: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Belshé added: I’m confident the new governor will consider the impact this has on young lives and our collective future. We must level the playing field so every child has an opportunity to start strong and be successful in school and life.”

Former Obama White House spokesman Bill Burton focused on broader public education challenges, saying, “there is no place that this state fails its citizens more than its inability to provide the high-quality education every kid deserves. Focus on education and the vast racial and economic disparities (that) communities across the state are facing and you have the opportunity to make California the state of opportunity for all its citizens for generations to come.”

Lanhee Chen, the chief policy advisor for former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, also recognized the need for large-scale policy change but offered advice from a different ideological perspective.

“Resist the temptation and pressure to move to the hard left and pursue progressive pipe dreams that will do nothing but leave California worse off for the next generation,” said Chen, now the David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Find common ground and assemble a coalition of strange bedfellows to move our state beyond the tired, old debates and rivalries.”

Other Influencers also counseled the new governor to seek out advise from a wide range of sources on other policy matters as well.

“It’s important that all voices be at the table, because a truly sustainable energy future has to take into account the multiple needs of all Californians…” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association. “There are enough points of agreement to lay a strong foundation. We can build on that to protect the environment, ensure energy independence, provide solid jobs, and keeping people moving.

“The biggest risk any elected official faces is insularity. Most succumb to it,” said California Sierra Club Director Kathryn Phillips. “So find ways to reach out to others, including your critics and foes, to have quiet, honest conversations.…(Y)ou’ll have a deeper, unfiltered understanding of what’s happening and what thinking is occurring outside of the governor’s suite.”

Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, now the president and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, offered a reminder on the need for geographic diversity, outlining the state’s various regional needs.

“The new governor should be mindful of the differences between the two states he will govern – Coastal California and Inland California,” Swearengin said. “Coastal California will demand the full time and attention of the administration, but Inland California will determine the future of the state 50 years from now. Intentional efforts and a dedicated focus on the ‘other California’ will reap big dividends for future generations.”

Karen Skelton, a former top political aide to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, and now the founder and president of Skelton Strategies in Sacramento, summed up the Influencers’ collective insights succinctly: “My best advice: think big, spend conservatively, ask for advice, trust your gut.”

Bay Area Democratic strategist Catherine Lew was even more blunt: “This is an enormous responsibility and opportunity. Don’t you dare squander it.”