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What can Jerry Brown teach Andrew Cuomo? California's fiscally pragmatic governor has also been dragged left


Andrew meet Jerry. (AP)

As New Yorkers prepare for the possibility of life under Democratic control of the governor's office and both chambers of the state Legislature, it's natural to wonder how one-party rule will impact the work of their government.

While no comparisons are perfect, those Empire State voters looking for a glimpse of their future could do worse than to look 3,000 miles to the west.

At the beginning of this decade, California elected a Democratic scion to his third term as governor. Although Jerry Brown had served his first eight years as our chief executive decades earlier, like son-of-a-governor Andrew Cuomo, he has spent his career in public office being compared to his own larger-than-life father, former Gov. Pat Brown.

The similarities between the current governors are far more than familial. Like Andrew Cuomo, Jerry Brown represents an old-school brand of pragmatism that combines liberal goals on cultural and social issues with a more cautious and prudent approach to economic and budgetary matters. While their electoral successes allow the New York and California Democratic parties to maintain hegemony over state government on both coasts, both men tend to frustrate the most committed liberals in their deep-blue states for not pushing for a sufficiently aggressive policy agenda.

Until recently, Cuomo had been protected by the Independent Democratic Conference, a cohort of renegade Democrats in the state Senate whose alliance with Republicans in that chamber has provided the governor with bipartisan cover to position himself near the political center. But the IDC first returned to the Democratic fold, then most of its former members lost in party primaries.

If Democrats take the Senate in November and Cuomo wins reelection, the pressure on him to move leftward will increase dramatically: to raise taxes, to increase spending dramatically on schools and health care and more.

As Brown's experience in California demonstrates, he can still resist. Facing similar partisan demands from his left flank, Brown has moved decisively in a progressive direction on climate change, gun control and a host of other issues. But party activists and elected officials have been exasperated by his fiscal and budgetary restraint in the face of their urgent spending priorities.

That's because, while the Democrats' ideological base has the passion, it lacks the numbers and the sheer political clout to drag Brown leftward.

Brown continues to occupy the political center because of an alliance he has forged with California's business community. There is no IDC equivalent in Sacramento, but a group of fiscally conservative Democratic legislators known as "the Mod Squad" vote a pro-business line on dollars-and-cents issues.

The aid of these allies both outside and inside the Capitol allow Brown to all but ignore the unhappiness of party liberals.

In New York, the IDC may be dead, but there are more than enough pro-business Democrats to play a similar role.

As Brown prepares to leave office after this fall's election, several years of pent-up progressive impatience are getting ready to boil over. Democrat Gavin Newsom is the strong favorite to succeed Brown; Newsom has demonstrated little interest in following the current governor's path. It's likely that next year will mark a dramatic turn leftward in Golden State public policy.

All of which means that for New York liberal Democrats who are unhappy with Cuomo's approach, there is a more satisfying progressive agenda in your future. It just may not arrive as quickly as you'd like.

Schnur is a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications and the University of California – Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.