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Governor wades, carefully, into contested primary races

9:57 PM, Jun 2, 2012   |    comments
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The value of a gubernatorial pat on the back may be hard to measure in a contested primary race, but a handful of candidates have been more than happy to accept Gov. Jerry Brown's praise -- even though that praise isn't apparently synonymous with an endorsement.

In the last few days and weeks, Brown has waded into a few of the more high profile and bitter battles appearing on Tuesday's primary ballot.  But he's done so carefully, in a way that's being suggested is encouragement, yes, but not an official seal of approval.

That's certainly how the governor's camp spun Brown's comments this past Tuesday about San Diego mayoral hopeful Nathan Fletcher.  Fletcher, the incumbent assemblyman who renounced his Republican party membership back in March, is in a pitched battle for the top job in America's Finest City -- part of a large field but also somewhere in the top echelons alongside GOP contender Carl DeMaio and Democrat Bob Filner.

Fletcher doesn't need to necessarily win on Tuesday, but he does need to finish in the top two.  Which means a boost from the state's top Democrat couldn't hurt.

"Nathan Fletcher stands out from the pack," began the quip attributed to Gov. Brown that appeared one week out from the election.  "In the face of partisan pressures, he maintains his independence and calls it like he sees it."

Endorsement? No, says Brown political adviser Steve Glazer.  "It's his observation of Nathan Fletcher after working with him over the past year," Glazer wrote in an email.

Brown certainly owed Fletcher for stepping out over the line last September, when the then GOP assemblyman broke ranks with his caucus to back the governor's call for erasing a corporate tax break and using the resulting cash on a different set of proposals designed to stimulate the California economy and create jobs.  Fletcher's 'aye' vote helped the package get out of the Assembly, but Brown found no such GOP help in the state Senate... and the plan fizzled in the final hours of the 2011 legislative session.

The governor may not have seen his written statement, one week out from the primary, as an endorsement but Team Fletcher certainly treated it like one.

A similar reaction to a nod from Brown came from the campaign of Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, a Democratic incumbent who moved into a new and liberal Malibu-to-Beverly Hills district after redistricting.  Butler is locked in a nasty Democrat-on-Democrat fight with Santa Monica activist Torie Osborn, a fight that you wouldn't think Brown would want to touch with a ten foot pole.

Or does he?

"Assemblywoman Betsy Butler has made the tough decisions - to balance our budget, protect Democratic priorities and get our state back on track," Brown wrote in a statement released Thursday. "That takes political courage and integrity, and Betsy Butler has both."

Again, the governor's political camp insists it's not an endorsement.  And again, the candidate on the receiving end of the gubernatorial praise went to great lengths (PDF) to let the world know of his benevolent gesture.

Brown adviser Steve Glazer didn't have a comprehensive list of which candidates have caught the governor's eye in Tuesday's election, though he does point out that Brown has actually endorsed in some cases -- such as an official endorsement for Rep. Howard Berman in the 15-term Democrat's pitched battle against fellow incumbent Democrat Rep. Brad Sherman in California's newly redrawn 30th congressional district that stretches through the San Fernando Valley.

Of course, the value of a gubernatorial endorsement is debatable. For starters, there's the question of Brown's own popularity -- which a May 24 poll suggests may be sagging a bit these days.  And even when governors are popular, local races often hinge on issues or political currents that a chief executive can't rejigger to his own liking.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly learned that the hard way in the 2004 primary, which was -- like this one is for Brown -- the first after taking office.  The GOP governor stumped for candidates like Stockton's Gary Podesto, only to find the celebrity touch didn't do much come Election Day.

But unlike Schwarzenegger, Brown probably doesn't see his pronouncements as game changers.  Pay back a debt here, play nice to leadership at the state Capitol there... it's all in a day's work.


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