As progressive activists across America organize to fight the looming “cat food commission” proposals to destroy the futures of working Americans by slashing Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age, Jerry Brown is now proposing to do the same here in California – in this case with cuts to public employee pensions:

On his campaign website and in recent comments to the media, California’s attorney general and former governor has advocated rolling back state retirement benefits. Many of his points mirror changes pushed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and tentatively accepted by some unions, but don’t cut into pensions as deeply as policies proposed by Brown’s Republican opponent, Meg Whitman.

Whitman, the former eBay CEO, wants to raise the retirement age for most state employees from 55 to 65 and require increased employee contributions. New hires under her plan would receive 401(k)-style plans instead of defined benefit pensions state workers now receive.

Brown’s plan would keep defined plans in place, but with lower benefits for new hires, lengthen the retirement age for most state workers to age 60 and increase what workers pay toward their own retirements.

This is not only profoundly unhelpful to those of us fighting against similar proposals that would affect all Americans by cutting Social Security benefits – it’s also a bad idea.

Good pensions are good economic policy. They help fuel economic growth by ensuring seniors have enough to live on in retirement and not requiring financial support from their younger relatives. Retirees play an important role in sustaining the economy with their spending, and with the cost of living in California likely to be high for some time to come, a good pension helps retirees avoid financial ruin at a time when they literally cannot afford to have it.

A lower retirement age also helps ensure there are jobs available to younger workers, especially outside the major metro areas of California, where state and local government are a key source of employment for smaller towns and counties. Raising the retirement age, on the other hand, worsens the already-dire unemployment situation for younger workers and does little to help the older workers.

A two-tier system has also been a failure when tried at the local government level, as Mark Paul writes in today’s LA Times:

The problem is, California already tried this. State and some local governments put in place two-tier benefit systems during the long economic downturn of the 1990s.

That experiment taught two lessons. First, by its nature, a two-tier system provides little short- to medium-term relief for public budgets, particularly in an environment in which governments are hiring few new workers.

More important, long-term savings are equally elusive. A two-tier system is inherently unstable. Setting different levels of pension compensation for people doing identical jobs injects pension envy into the workplace and creates immediate pressure to equalize benefits. California’s last experiment with two tiers was quickly undone when SB 400 in 1999 made the lower tier optional and allowed workers to buy their way into the higher tier at bargain rates.

The workers this hurts aren’t the people who retire with “spiked” pensions and six-figure annual payments. This will instead hurt those public workers making $40,000 and $50,000: The librarians who read stories to children and help people use the Internet to find a job. The teachers who help our children learn. The police and firefighters who keep us safe. The folks who fill potholes in the heat and the rain, who keep the parks in good repair. They’re the ones who will see a lower quality of life and a greater economic struggle under these kinds of pension reforms – which it has to be said are still better than Meg Whitman’s “throw them all to the wolves” approach of shifting to a 401k system.

In this case, Brown’s policy proposal isn’t good policy and doesn’t help progressives with the politics of protecting seniors and promoting economic recovery through new job creation. This move is of course designed to help Brown politically, since he played a major role in the unionization of public employees in the 1970s and is being attacked by Whitman for that as part of her anti-worker, anti-job campaign.

So what are California progressives to do? Judging by the conversations here at Netroots Nation I’ve had with Californians, there’s a widespread sentiment that Jerry Brown isn’t the kind of inspirational progressive candidate we really need, not just to beat Meg Whitman but to lead California out of this crisis and into a more progressive future.

But there’s also a strong commitment to making sure Meg Whitman isn’t our next governor. With her presidential ambitions, her willingness to massively fund the state Republican Party and elect her candidates downticket, and her extreme right-wing positions designed to prolong and deepen our economic crisis by handing more of our wealth to her wealthy friends, Whitman is a huge threat to our ability to build a more progressive California. Defeating her must be a top priority for all of us.

It’s always been clear that Jerry Brown will not be a progressive governor. Then again, it was clear to many of us in 2008 that Barack Obama would not be a progressive president. The argument that I and others at the time made was that Obama offers an opportunity for progressives to make our case and push our solutions – that he would not act as the kind of obstacle that John McCain would have.

As we know, it hasn’t always worked out that way, and the White House has often blocked progressive goals. But they have also proven susceptible to progressive pressure. They moved to finally end the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy after activists like Lt. Dan Choi and organizations like the Courage Campaign (where I work as Public Policy Director) worked to force the issue. More needs to be done to finish that job, but the White House did feel a need to react to the pressure. And progressive support for Elizabeth Warren may be enough to secure her an all-important nomination to lead the new federal consumer protection agency.

Under Jerry Brown, progressives have a chance to play offense, just as we have under Obama. Under Meg Whitman, however, all we’ll ever do is play defense. For example, Brown has said that he’ll support a tax increase if the voters do, which gives us the ability to go out there and mobilize the public to do exactly that, whereas Whitman would actively fight us every step of the way.

None of this is to excuse those positions Jerry Brown holds that are not progressive. “Elect Jerry Brown so we can fight his pension plan” might not make the best bumper sticker slogan for the November election. But as progressive activists, we cannot afford the luxury of just complaining about Jerry Brown. We have to look at the bigger picture.

With Meg Whitman, massive and possibly irreparable damage will be done to California. If you thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was bad, wait until you see Governor Whitman – she will make you pine for the days of Hummers and cigar tents.

With Jerry Brown, we get an opening. A chance to make California the progressive laboratory that it ought to be. Not by leadership from the top, but by activism from the bottom. It’s not what we truly need. But it’s the situation that’s before us, in an election California cannot afford to lose.

Robert Cruickshank is the Public Policy Director at the Courage Campaign. He is also a contributing editor at