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Brown Downplays 'Berniecrats,' Defends Firing Of Oil And Gas Regulators

Andy Wong / AP

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks in the Clean Energy Ministerial International Forum on Electric Vehicle Pilot Cities and Industrial Development, at a hotel in Beijing, Tuesday, June 6, 2017.

Andy Wong / AP

A populist wave inspired by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is pushing the California Democratic Party leftward. Self-proclaimed “Berniecrats” have disrupted the party’s conventions, won Senate passage of a single-payer health care bill, and are being courted by 2018 candidates. Their stance contrasts with Gov. Jerry Brown's philosophy of "paddle a little to the left and a little to the right."

In a nearly 20-minute interview the governor conducted with Capital Public Radio during his trip last week in China, Brown downplays the influence of “Berniecrats” on party policy.

Listen to the full interview

 “There are three elements to the Democratic Party. There is the party, the 2,500 delegates, there’s the party in the Legislature and there’s the party in the electorate. They’re all different,” Brown says. “And at the end of the day, the party in the Legislature makes the bills, the party in the electorate ultimately determines the policy, and the party who go to these conventions debate everything from the small to the very large to the outlandish, and that is their functionality.”

But a push by this wing of the party, led by the California Nurses Association, is shaping policy in the Legislature, most notable in the advancement of the single-payer health care measure. The Senate passed that bill, which a fiscal committee says would cost the state $400 billion, without including new funding to pay for it.

“Well, it’s a lot better than spending $400 billion I would say,” Brown says. “If I had to take my choice between zero and $400 billion, I’d take zero.”

Firing Of Oil Regulators

Even as he champions the global fight against climate change, Brown has received criticism from some environmental groups for his oversight of oil and gas drilling in California, as the governor discussed in the first part of this interview.

The California agency that oversees oil production in the state continues to receive criticism from environmental groups for its oversight of drilling operations. The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has also been plagued for years by reports of lax enforcement, as well as federal scrutiny for allowing oil companies to drill in protected aquifers.

The governor says the agency is implementing reforms under scientists and professionals he’s appointed to lead it. But Brown has also been accused of impeding greater scrutiny of the oil industry’s activities, most clearly by firing two regulators who blocked expedited permitting of new wells, Derek Chernow and Elena Miller. It’s an allegation that has cropped up for years, most recently detailed in this February investigative report from the Center for Public Integrity, published in the Nation magazine:

This approach is simply contrary to law,” Chernow wrote in a memo to his superiors. The US EPA had asked the state to tighten its standards, not relax them, he said, warning that the proposed shortcut would likely draw legal challenges from environmental groups.

The following day, the regulators were summoned to the governor’s office. There, Chernow alleged in court filings, one of Brown’s senior advisers told them to fast-track the permits. The aide then handed Chernow a proposal modeled on the one WSPA had presented earlier. The regulators were incensed. In a follow-up call, tensions flared. According to a declaration by Chernow, Miller told Brown’s advisor that the proposal would break the law. The aide shot back: This is an order from the governor. The next day, Brown fired Chernow and Miller—a move the oil industry applauded.

About 10 minutes into the interview, Brown gives his response about their dismissal.

“Right now, the division of oil and gas is run much better than it was before and it’s being run by very professional people. I have a person now, and I had a person before who was a Ph.D. professional, not a lawyer, not some hack politician. These are real people doing real work,” Brown says. “Whenever people find their employment is terminated they always find other reasons other than maybe they weren’t doing the job I wanted them to do.”

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