SACRAMENTO, Calif. – It was past dark when a contingent of Republican senators filed into California Gov. Jerry Brown’s Capitol office as the deadline loomed for a plan to overhaul California’s aging water system.
A final deal was still elusive, and the Democratic governor needed GOP votes. “We had most of our guys leaning ‘No,’ at that point,” recalled State Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff.
For nearly an hour, the group pressed Brown on a stubborn sticking point in the negotiations: more borrowing for reservoirs in the bond measure they were trying to refine. “He talked to each one of us individually, and he let us all talk about as much as we wanted,” said Sen. Andy Vidak, a farmer from Hanford, in the parched Central Valley.
The next day, more reservoir funds were included in the $7.5 billion proposal – not as much as Republicans wanted, but enough to earn a unanimous “yes” vote from them in the Senate.
The measure, set to go to voters in November, was among several bipartisan deals forged after Brown’s party lost its supermajority in the Legislature. As lawmakers finished their work for the year in the early hours Saturday, a Capitol that not long ago was riven by partisan intransigence had become a place where Republicans and Democrats were doing business.
A few issues – driver’s licenses for migrants here illegally, a change in school funding – had some bipartisan support last year. But it wasn’t really needed; Democrats could pass the proposals on their own.
This year, however, after the suspension of three senators charged with crimes, Democrats needed Republican help not just on the bond measure but also on a ballot proposal to boost the state’s rainy-day fund, both measures requiring a two-thirds vote. And they got it.
Republicans also came aboard a long-term plan to patch a shortfall in the teacher pension system. And both parties got behind bigger tax breaks for Hollywood.
The cooperation stands in stark contrast to the continuing gridlock in Washington, where a divided Congress led to a government shutdown last year and has stalled major legislation on immigration.
It’s unclear how long the good feelings in Sacramento will last. But Brown frequently touts the bipartisan work as he seeks an unprecedented fourth term in the governor’s office.
“This is really amazing. Such unanimity on such big, important stuff,” he said at a Capitol appearance with the visiting Mexican president last week. He called the agreements “a high point in our work together, as Republicans and Democrats.”
The loss of the Democrats’ supermajority was an opportunity for Republicans to throw a wrench into the legislative works and drag down Brown’s agenda in an election year. Instead, they chose to work across the aisle.
“Sometimes we’re reduced to beating on the door to get their attention,” said Huff. “So when they come to us, it’s a nice change.” He called his caucus “more collaborative, less confrontational, more focused on getting things done” than before.
There’s another calculation, too, said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican strategist who publishes a nonpartisan election guide: “They know who is going to be in the corner office come next January.”
At least some Republican lawmakers admit they expect Brown to trounce former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari in the November election. At an April hearing, GOP Assemblywoman Diane Harkey praised the governor’s handling of state finances and lamented that he “will only be here for another term.”
And Brown greased the skids this year by focusing on issues likely to win bipartisan support.
Republicans have long wanted to strengthen the state’s rainy-day fund, intended to cushion the state against economic downturns. And the drought gripping California drove home the need to ask voters for money to upgrade the water system.
At the negotiating table, all sides showed an appetite for compromise. Brown often became involved.
During talks on the rainy-day fund, Assembly Budget Vice Chair Jeff Gorell, a Republican, was meeting with staff when he ignored a phone call from an unknown number. Checking voicemail later, he found it had been Brown.
“I called him back,” Gorell said. “He said, you know, Jeff, I think this needs to be bipartisan, because this is the only way voters will approve this in November.”
Gorell pitched Brown on new restrictions for pulling money from the fund – something Democrats had resisted. The final measure didn’t include exactly what Republicans wanted, but it had stricter limits than Democrats proposed.
Speaking at an annual Lake Tahoe conference this month, Brown offered a formula for bipartisan success. “You have to have people of different points of view see the common ground,” he said.
During his first stint in the governor’s office more than three decades ago, Brown antagonized lawmakers with his short attention span and presidential ambitions. He is the last California governor to have a veto overturned, and it happened a dozen times.
This time around, Brown has earned praise for pragmatism.
“Through discipline and doggedness – I wouldn’t say charm – he’s been able to work his will with the Legislature,” said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant.
Brown and Democrats are still perfectly willing to push through bills over heavy Republican opposition when they don’t need GOP votes, as they did Friday night by passing proposals to regulate the use of underground water.
Despite that setback, Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Republican who has long chafed at what he characterizes as Democrats’ imperial attitude, took heart that his party had helped shape the water bond.
“I’ll take bipartisanship where I can get it,” he said.