Ever since gold miners first scraped their fortunes out of the hills of northern California, America’s most populous state has been a land of titanic dreams. These days, though, it’s a place with even bigger problems. Its $42 billion budget deficit would make an out-of-control Hollywood director blush and bankrupt a small nation. Its schools are failing, air quality is worsening, and unemployment neared 10% as of December. The only thing larger than its litany of woes, however, is the roster of big-name political celebrities who are testing the waters for a run for governor in 2010, when term limits show Arnold Schwarzenegger to the door.
“This is an era of limits,” Jerry Brown recently told TIME, reprising a theme he sounded more than 30 years ago when the state first put him in the governor’s mansion in the aftermath of Watergate and the last throes of Vietnam War. “There is not a lot of room for political maneuvering. The age of dividing up the easy surpluses is over. We’ve been on a borrowing binge, both in the private and public sector, and we’re going to have to enter a time of belt-tightening.”
Brown, 70 and himself a son of an iconic governor , is probably best known outside of California as a three-time Democratic presidential candidate and former long-time boyfriend of Linda Ronstadt. Currently, the state’s attorney general, he has already added more than $3 million to his war chest, money easily enough transferred to a gubernatorial campaign when the time is right.
Not everyone is waiting. When Brown does enter the race he’ll be facing another long-time Golden State political pro, Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, a two-time former insurance commissioner and deputy U.S. interior secretary under President Clinton. “I am in. Period,” Garamendi told TIME. California, Garamendi says, needs a leader who will put progressive back into the Golden State’s political lexicon. Despite Schwarzenegger’s swing to the middle recently, Garamendi said the governor has lost his ability to lead the state out of its troubles. His two terms, he said, “have been a failure of leadership.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, 41, another Democrat who has yet to officially enter the race, has been barnstorming across California holding town-hall style meetings. “We’ve done six and we have more scheduled,” he said recently, taking a late-night break on the side of the road to talk politics with TIME for 45 minutes. “And I just can’t believe how engaged, and how passionate, the voters are at each and every place we go. They are hungry for change.”
Like Brown, he says California is in bad shape. But he adds that he’ll offer a more hopeful message than one anchored by austerity. “There are two ways to respond to our current crisis,” he said. “One, we can cut our way out. But then we enter a downward spiral of disinvestment. The other is we can grow our way out of our problems. That’s where I am. This state has such amazing capacity for change, for economic development. We need a strategy to grow.”
The state that once drew people from all over the world to create Silicon Valley, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and Hollywood, now sees too many of its best people leave. To stop that, Newsom hopes to borrow a page from last year’s Obama campaign. On the floor of the Democratic National Convention last summer, Newsom told TIME that he wanted to run in 2010, but first wanted to see if voters embraced Obama’s campaign of youth and generational chance. “I think we’ve had an answer to that, back in November,” Newsom said in his recent interview. “Youthfulness and hope it’s also who I am naturally. I was 35 when I ran for mayor of San Francisco [in 2003]. Youthfulness is not a chronological date, it’s about a state of mind, it’s the quality of your imagination.”
Another big-city mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, could shake up the already crowded Democratic field as soon as this spring. Villaraigosa, 56, is expected to easily win a second term March 3. After that, an aide tells TIME, he can turn his attention to whether he will run for governor. “He has said on the record that he doesn’t know yet, but when he decides, he’ll do what’s best for the people of California.”
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the state’s most popular politician, has been coy about her own intentions regarding the race. She’d make a powerful candidate, but others doubt she’ll give up her power in the Senate.
Whichever of the Democrats wins the primary, he or she will likely face tough competition from Schwarzenegger’s party, where two billionaires and a former Silicon Valley congressman are already sizing each other up. Former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell and state insurance commissioner and tech billionaire Steve Poizner have formed exploratory committees and are expected to make the race.
Last Monday, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman shook up the potential GOP primary line-up by forming her own gubernatorial exploratory committee. Already equipped with a powerful roster of statewide co-chairs and political endorsements and her own history of big-time fundraising the Whitman development looked anything but exploratory. Whitman, 52, was a national co-chair and money magnet for the McCain/Palin ticket in 2008. In a statement, she said, “California faces challenges unlike any other time in its history a weak and faltering economy, massive job losses, and an exploding state budget deficit. California is better than this, and I refuse to stand by and watch it fail. Now is the time for people across the state to join a cause for change, excellence and a new California.”
Brown, who expects the billionaires on the other side to make it a race, says he’s betting that voters aren’t looking for a new California. Ideas, even if borrowed from an earlier time, will be fine, just so long as they work. “They want a campaign based on hope, but grounded in common sense,” he says. “They don’t need a grab bag of alluring ideas. They want realism.”
Whatever it is Californians want, the only thing they can be sure they’ll get is a long campaign to sell them a candidate who can try to deliver the goods.
See pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife, Maria Schriver.
Read a TIME cover story on Schwarzenegger.