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William Bradley

William Bradley

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Assessing Jerry Brown's Assessments (And Why He Was in Stealth Mode So Long)

Posted: 04/18/11 01:44 PM ET

Jerry Brown is now 15 weeks into his new/renewed governorship. How were the assessments at his 100-day mark? And, oh yeah, why was he in stealth mode for so long, eschewing virtually all public appearances for months in favor of behind-the-scenes negotiations?

Brown's marks for the first 100 days of his governorship -- which ended at 11:19 AM last Wednesday, a hundred days from the moment at which he took the oath of office as predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger looked on -- were generally good. A typical assessment came from longtime Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, who gave the third-term governor a "B" for his work.

Skelton covered Brown's father, the legendary late Governor Pat Brown, who's gone down in history as the builder of the modern California, back in the 1960s. He also covered part of Brown's first go-round as governor in the 1970s and 1980s.

Governor Jerry Brown signed big California budget cuts last month.


Brown gets top marks from most for having eliminated half the state's bulging $26 billion budget deficit, largely through steep budget cuts. And he gets widespread kudos for bringing a new spirit -- hmm, that could be a slogan -- of constant engagement with state legislators from both parties.

Brown's predecessors weren't exactly keen on hanging with the legislature. Republican legislators famously wore name tags to a meeting with Schwarzenegger a couple of years back.

But even though Brown has spent countless hours with these folks, not to mention all the time he's worked Democratic legislators to get their half of the compromise, he still doesn't have a deal. As regular readers know, under California's unusual system, it takes a two-thirds legislative vote to raise or extend taxes -- these are the temporary taxes enacted in 2009 under Schwarzenegger -- but only a majority vote to cut taxes. Democrats have big majorities, but need two Republican votes in each house.

And even though the Republicans won't say what to cut if the taxes aren't extended, and have actually mostly voted against the cuts that have been enacted, Brown hasn't had any more success than Schwarzenegger in getting Republican votes. In fact, you could say that he's had less, since Schwarzenegger was finally able to get a budget compromise passed in 2009, albeit one with smaller cuts than Brown has gotten through.

Brown's plan should have worked, because the logic of the situation is clear and he is a very capable advocate and negotiator. But rationality is in increasingly short supply.

It's a bizarre situation, in which California's institutional dysfunction is more than matched by hyper-partisanship in both parties, especially the Republicans.

Like many, Skelton believes that Brown should drop his campaign pledge to have a public vote on tax extensions and simply deal for the votes in the legislature. It may come to that, since the Republicans have blocked all efforts to hold a June special election, following the bizarre reasoning of the state party's seemingly unlikely guru, a Beltway lobbyist (Grover Norquist) who equates a vote to allow the public to decide with a vote for taxes. Now it's too late for the June election, though taxes could be extended by the legislature and voted up or down in a later election.

Brown also has a big new renewable energy bill as a major accomplishment in his first 100 days, giving California the biggest renewable energy requirement in the country. More about that in a moment. But first, why did Brown so uncharacteristically avoid public events in favor of strictly private negotiations for the first three months of his new term? Which, not incidentally, has probably caused his job approval rating to significantly under-perform his landslide election margin over billionaire Meg Whitman. After all, out of sight, out of mind. And with an operation that is geared to supporting him rather than driving a message, only Brown can properly frame the choices before the state.

The reality is that Jerry Brown is his own chief of staff, his own chief strategist, his own communications director, his own media director, his own chief negotiator, etc. His staff exists to serve him, not to create subsidiary power centers. He is so hands-on that he doesn't like to run around the state making appearances. He is so hands-on that only he really knows the state of budget negotiations, because he frequently has not allowed others to be part of his conversations with legislators.

Brown signed the biggest renewable energy bill in the country last week. "I didn't get my name 'Governor Moonbeam' for nothing," he noted. "I earned it, by advocating ideas that were not popular."


Enmeshed in his negotiations, much of it face-to-face, Brown opted not to give speeches or travel around the state. On my blog, I set up every morning with what President Obama is doing and what the governor of California is doing, and for the longest time had only this to report on Brown's schedule: "He has no scheduled public events as of this morning."

Brown not infrequently rolls without any staff. Fortunately, he was convinced to have a proper security detail, something he was resistant to early on as he didn't want to be seen as having an entourage.

Some believe he's trying to set up a contrast with Schwarzenegger, who traveled in motorcades and had a fairly large staff. And certainly there is an element of calculation to what Brown does. He is, after all, a politician.

But the deeper reality is that this is how he operates. At least since the first time he was governor.

After his father died in 1996, the California Democratic Party held a lengthy commemorative ceremony honoring the great Democrat at its April convention in Los Angeles. Brown, so clearly in distress at his father's funeral less than two months earlier at San Francisco's St. Cecilia's Church that his speech was somewhat distorted by his standing too close to the microphone, had been spending time mulling this milestone in life.

I called Brown before the convention and arranged to meet him nearby. We went and found his sister, former Treasurer Kathleen Brown, and then walked into the convention for the ceremony, at which both of them spoke. That was the entourage.

There had been a much chronicled awkwardness in the relationship between Governor Pat and Governor Jerry, as some called them. They were different kinds of politicians, with Pat Brown very ebullient and respectful of insider politics and Jerry Brown more the outsider and intellectual provocateur, albeit one who could deliver as realpolitik an assessment of a situation as one can imagine.

But after his father died, Jerry Brown began to talk about "the family business," with a new appreciation for the nitty-gritty of politics and even for politicians.

His father, who I knew, said that he didn't quite understand his son all the time, but admired his ability to do things that he could not. And he was very proud of Jerry, even when he angered establishment Democrats.

In 1992, not long after Jerry Brown's insurgent presidential campaign put several big scares into eventual President Bill Clinton and garnered the runner-up spot in the Democratic nomination race, my first wife and I went on vacation with Kathleen Brown, her husband Van Gordon Sauter, and Pat and Bernice Brown. On one evening, Kathleen held a dinner party for Pamela Harriman, then the great doyenne of Washington Democratic society.

In a matter of months, Bill Clinton would appoint Harriman to be the U.S. ambassador to France. She had not, let's say, been a fan of Jerry Brown's presidential campaign.

That didn't stop Pat Brown from staunchly defending his son's campaign and its sometimes controversially confrontational tactics. He was clearly proud of Jerry's talent and moxie, and wasn't at all shy about showing it. It made for a lively dinner party.

Brown attended the 100th anniversary of the California Cadet Corps earlier this month in Orange County. Brown has a long association with the youth arm of the National Guard, having founded the Oakland Military Institute as a charter school.


Jerry Brown is very aware that he has done something his father did not, which is to say win a third term as governor of California. Pat Brown, running for a third consecutive term in 1966, was beaten by some actor named Ronald Reagan, whom he had taken very lightly at first.

Yet through working the inside game, Pat Brown won enactment of major programs yielding much of the state's water, highway, and university systems.

Jerry Brown had hoped, through incredible focus on the inside game, arguably reminiscent of his dad, to have forged a grand budget compromise by now.

But the outside game is also necessary, both to retain popular strength in the wake of a landslide win over the the biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history -- something which is a major asset in the inside game -- and to properly frame the debate both inside and outside.

Now he's only partway there.

Brown cut back the communications staff in the Governor's Office by about 80%. Of course, Schwarzenegger's staff, which was probably bigger than it needed to be, also dealt with the demands on a global icon. Brown, while long famous, is not one of the most famous people in the world. But Brown cut back too much, making planning and implementing an aggressive strategy very difficult.

After eliminating Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial webcast in an economy move, Brown is finally bringing it back. (It was a false economy, as the equipment was already paid for, the camera operator hardly needs to be full-time, and it makes it far easier to keep up with what the governor is doing, especially with the state's much-diminished press corps kept on a short travel leash.)

So what's Brown been communicating in the past week?

"Four people are basically holding your future in their hands," Brown said in a visit to schoolkids, educators, and community leaders last week in Stockton, referring to the four Republican legislators he needs to avoid an ultra-draconian budget. "I'm not here to put pressure on these people. I want to persuade them. If we could get them here to listen, I think they would vote for this."

Brown and First Lady Anne Gust Brown attended a Sacramento fundraiser on Wednesday night for several Republican legislators whose heads have been figuratively featured on pikes for having been identified as negotiating with the governor for a state budget compromise.

The vibe was reportedly encouraging.

As his successor was calling a halt to budget negotiations with Republicans on a June special election at the end of last month, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was in London for the gala honoring his friend Mikhail Gorbachev's 80th birthday.


Earlier, Brown appeared with law enforcement leaders from around the state, including the heads of California's police chiefs and sheriffs associations, at a Capitol press conference to push for tax extensions and for his budget realignment plan, which among other things would redirect lesser offenders from state prisons to local jails.

The law enforcement leaders, most of them Republicans, said that they back Brown's tax extensions and budget realignment plans.

Brown noted that the state's overcrowded prison system, which he calls the most efficient hotel system in the country "where there's never an empty bed" and where federal courts have mandated a much higher level of spending per prisoner, has a 70% recidivism rate.

Notwithstanding the firepower of the state's law enforcement leaders, Republican legislators oppose the plan, claiming that shifting lesser offenders would somehow trigger a bloodbath. And the California Republican Party derided it as "hopey."

Brown also appeared at a new solar manufacturing plant in Milpitas, where he signed legislation requiring that 33% of California's electric power come from renewable resources by the end of 2020. The bill's author is state Senator Joe Simitian of Palo Alto.

"Instead of taking oil from thousands of miles away we're taking the sun," said Brown, who was joined for the signing ceremony at SunPower's new solar manufacturing facility by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steve Chu and Silicon Valley leaders. "This is about California leading the country, and America potentially leading the world."

Schwarzenegger issued an executive order for a 33% renewable portfolio standard in 2009, but did not sign previous legislation, figuring that the earlier version didn't provide enough flexibility to allow for cheaper out-of-state power. Both Brown and Schwarzenegger have worked to make it easier for needed transmission lines and solar and other renewable power plants to exist.

The current standard of 20% renewable power by 2010 has not quite been achieved. Schwarzenegger accelerated the requirement, which had been 20% by 2017, signed by then Governor Gray Davis in 2002, after Schwarzenegger came into office.

"While reaching a 33 percent renewables portfolio standard will be an important milestone, it is really just a starting point -- a floor, not a ceiling," said Brown. "Our state has enormous renewable resource potential. I would like to see us pursue even more far-reaching targets. With the amount of renewable resources coming on-line, and prices dropping, I think 40 percent, at reasonable cost, is well within our grasp in the near future."

It's not entirely clear to me how much this will cost, as the Public Utilities Commission has recently downgraded its estimate of California's electric power use in 2020 and the very ramping up of new technology will bring down unit costs of delivering renewable power. But there will certainly be tens of billions in one-time capital costs, for transmission lines and generation facilities and equipment. Of course, aging power plants have to be replaced anyway.

The legislation does have flexibility to allow much of the power to be acquired from sources elsewhere in the Western states power grid if it is cheaper than California-generated power.

It was actually Brown who blazed the renewable energy path during his first two terms as governor as California became the world leader, only to see the renewables path lie dormant with two succeeding Republican governors. Davis, Brown's former chief of staff, cleared the brush from the path and widened it, and Schwarzenegger turned it into a highway. Now Brown is taking over again, seeing this, as he's told me, as the most important bill he has signed in his first 100 days as governor.


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes.