California Governor Jerry Brown waits to speak during a news conference at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

California Governor Jerry Brown waits to speak during a news conference at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California March 19, 2015. (Reuters/Max Whittaker)

Politics | Tuesday, July 14, 2015 – 7:17am EDT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. | By Sharon Bernstein

After years of fiscal and policy restraint by California Governor Jerry Brown, a new crop of legislative leaders are trying to push the state further to the left, with mixed results.

It is a policy tussle that could ultimately benefit both sides, as Brown, criticized as too liberal during a 1970s-era stint as governor, burnishes his image as a moderate and legislative leaders play to their progressive base.

In recent weeks, progressive Democrats have won an expansion of subsidized healthcare for low-income undocumented immigrant children, eliminated religious exemptions for school vaccinations, and persuaded Brown to spend nearly a billion dollars more on higher education and social programs than he had intended.

But they have also had to back down from efforts to restore services to the disabled, legalize assisted suicide, and, perhaps most significantly, get Brown to more broadly expand state spending.

“It hasn’t necessarily been easy,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego. “We need to be pragmatic about what we are able to do.”

Democrats dominate electoral politics in California, holding large majorities in both houses of the legislature and all statewide offices.

But the party’s progressive wing has been frustrated in recent years as economic and political trends, along with Brown’s strong will and veto pen, pushed the state more toward the center.

The 2008 recession and ensuing economic meltdown hit California hard, and when Brown took office in 2011 the state faced an 18-month budget gap of $25 billion. He righted state finances through a combination of new temporary taxes and fiscal caution, including support for a ballot initiative enshrining a rainy-day fund in the state constitution.

Additionally, a new method for selecting candidates led to the election of moderate Democrats in some relatively conservative Assembly districts, leading that body farther to the right.

By late last year, frustration among many in the party’s liberal base had begun to boil over.

Activists demanded that the state restore funding cut during the recession for the disabled, the mentally ill and the poor. Gun control advocates railed at Brown’s 2013 and 2014 vetoes of several firearms bills.

Frustrated, then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg pushed for prison reform, mental health services, universal preschool and gun control, winning modest battles as Brown continued to hold the line on spending.

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