SACRAMENTO -- As he prepares to deliver the third State of the State speech of his third term on Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown will be peering down from a lofty political perch that he may never ascend to again.
Even this late in his political travels, the 74-year-old Brown can safely be called a political phenomenon. He's fresh off producing what many are calling a "miracle" deficit-free budget only two years after inheriting $27 billion in red ink. And the budget came only two months after he shocked the political world with his triumphant tax-hike ballot measure, Proposition 30.
Brown now has a command of the Capitol stage as only a handful of California politicians -- one of them his father, Gov. Pat Brown-- have enjoyed. And it's a good time for the son to have the wind at his back, as he prepares to push through a slew of major projects, ranging from a bullet train to a huge new water project.
"It's been a long time since any governor has been riding this high," said Ethan Rarick, director of UC Berkeley's Matsui Center at the Institute of Governmental Studies. "I'd say that Jerry Brown 2.0 has disproved skeptics every step of the way. If the economy goes south, they'll come back. But for now, it's hard to see how you could've done better than he's done."
Since he first appeared on the political scene in the mid-1970s, Brown has been a darling of the national media, if only for the quirky quote. Of late, though, he's viewed more as a sober elder statesman who might have the answer to the country's fiscal problems while invoking Greek philosophers and throwing out Latin phrases.
"Is what you did transferable to the national government?" Brown was asked in a PBS interview last week.
Los Angeles Times editorial-page columnist Paul Whitefield even urged Brown to run for president, arguing that the "Moonbeam" tag from his first two terms decades ago no longer applies. "He's now the sage of Sacramento," Whitefield opined.
"If he were 10 years younger, they'd be talking about him along with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden as contenders for 2016," said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "The great irony is that he ran for president twice during his first time as governor but never had anywhere near the political capital he has now."
The governor now occupies an enviable "strategic position," as he calls it, a place and time that confers credibility and momentum as he wades into treacherous waters.
Brown wants to build an underground canal to deliver Sacramento River water across the Delta to Southern California while dodging bullets between warring environmentalists and developers; lay the first tracks for the generally unpopular $69 billion high-speed rail project; and turn the school finance system on its head by jettisoning the complex funding formula and local mandates, while giving more money to schools with disadvantaged students. He also wants to reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the decades-old law that requires environmental impact studies for building projects, over the objections of his own allies.
Critics say trying to tackle any one of these major policy goals on their own would be foolhardy enough. But to pursue them together even as he hammers out a new budget, while handling other significant issues such as gun control and political reform, could be considered political suicide.
"Especially with high-speed rail, which is hard to defend," said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "It's a massive project in search of a rationale. As the cost becomes more clear, that could undercut his political standing, and even more so if the economy sours."
There are plenty of other traps that could ensnare Brown, said Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist who worked on the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of Brown's Republican opponent, Meg Whitman.
"If we get into a deficit by May when the real budget comes out, it'll be tough sledding -- that will be hard for him to explain," Stutzman said. "The other thing is he has nothing to show on job creation. I'd think he needs to make good on regulatory reform like CEQA."
But Brown's supporters point out that his doubters have been wrong about him since his return to the governor's horseshoe-shaped offices at the Capitol two years ago. And even before he got there, Brown had to overcome skeptics from his own party, who feared the billionaire Whitman would overwhelm him with her unlimited personal treasury. They complained that he was taking too long to get his campaign up and running, that he didn't have enough money and lacked flair on the campaign trail. But on Election Night he crushed her.
Brown heard the same complaints and criticisms from Democratic activists about his campaign for Proposition 30: He didn't get out on the campaign trail early enough. He wasn't fundraising aggressively enough. He had no unifying message. He didn't capitalize on voters' yearning for class warfare against the rich.
Many political analysts seemed confident that California voters' long-standing hatred of taxes would send Brown scurrying for cover, wondering how he'd be able to face teachers and parents when he was forced to slash $5 billion from K-12 budgets that would be triggered by a loss.
But again, Brown triumphed. Proposition 30 passed by a stunning 10 percentage points.
A daunting $27 billion deficit greeted Brown when he returned as governor in January 2011 -- 28 years after he left the office. So he laid out an austere path riddled with billions of dollars in education and social service cuts that devastated his own Democratic constituencies.
His fellow Democrats begrudgingly went along with the cuts, and their party gained two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers in the fall for the first time since the 1880s.
An irony to Brown's sense of political leverage is that he has said he will use much of his power to do nothing. He has vowed to put the brakes on the plans of Democratic legislators to restore programs for the poor, launch an assault on the landmark Proposition 13, and possibly seek more tax hikes now that their two-thirds majorities have made California Republicans irrelevant.
Brown can also play it safe when it comes to his political future. Because voters appear to be asking him to be cautious with their money, he is unlikely to face a challenge from the left if, as is widely expected, he seeks re-election. And a credible candidate coming out of the Republican Party seems as unlikely as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie beating Brown in a chin-up contest.
Still, even with his high political standing at the Capitol, Brown has yet to break 50 percent in voter approval polls, something for which Stutzman argues he only has himself to blame.
"He is so reclusive; he doesn't enjoy selling his achievements," Stutzman said. "Brown needs to wring out as much political capital as he can because it can turn to vapor quickly."
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Twitter.com/ssharmon. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.
STATE OF THE STATE
What: Gov. Jerry Brown's State of the State speech
When: 9 a.m. Thursday
Where to see it: It will be streamed live at CalChannel.com. It will also be broadcast on several TV channels, yet to be announced.
HOT ITEMS ON BROWN'S PLATE
Water project: Building an underground canal to deliver Sacramento River water across the Delta to Southern California.
High-speed rail: Laying the first tracks for the $69 billion high-speed rail project.
School funding: Turning the school finance system on its head by jettisoning a complex funding formula and local mandates, while giving more money to schools with disadvantaged students.
Regulatory reform: Streamlining the California Environmental Quality Act, which business groups say has slowed economic growth and job creation.