08/01/2011 05:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011

Jerry Brown Makes Some Moves

This time around as governor, the irrepressible Jerry Brown has been unusually reticent, spending most of his time behind the scenes working on California's chronic budget crisis. He didn't get his dearly hoped for grand compromise of big cuts and new revenues, but most of the problem was solved by the time he signed the budget, following a first-in-history veto, at the end of June.

Since then, following a vacation hiking trip in the mountains, he's appointed a highly regarded, nationally controversial law professor to the state Supreme Court, given speeches to potentially restive allies in the run-up to next year's critical elections, hosted a major conference on renewable energy, played a role in brokering the nation's new fuel economy standards, signed a portion of the "Dream Act" for illegal immigrant students, dashed the hopes of labor allies for control over local government employment, approved Treasurer Bill Lockyer's clever plan to preserve the state's cash flow amidst the chaos in Washington, and pondered a favorable new poll.

Brown had been remarkably quiet since signing the state budget at the end of June, even by the terms of his rather quiet new/renewed governorship. He returned on July 22nd from Yosemite, a cherished childhood vacation spot, and his Sierra Nevada Mountains hiking trip with First Lady/Special Counsel Anne Gust Brown with a burst of activity.

First he appeared at a California Teachers Association conference held at one of his old stomping grounds where he attended retreats during his first administration, the Asilomar conference center in Pacific Grove near Monterey. CTA is a key ally for Brown, albeit one he doesn't always agree with. Good communication is central as the 2012 elections unfold. They could be a kaleidoscope of state ballot measures and candidacies in new districts created by the Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Then Brown addressed the 102nd annual national convention of the NAACP at the LA Convention Center. The nation's oldest civil rights organization is another key component of any Brown-affiliated coalition going forward, especially when Brown has had to institute painful budget cuts. Brown said that while overt racism is no longer accepted, a "soft bigotry" still exists.

On July 25th, Brown kicked off his renewable energy conference at UCLA, focused on getting 12,000 megawatts of renewable power from distributed, non-centralized sources, frequently personal sources.

But the other 8,000 megawatts of renewable power Brown aims to secure by the end of 2020 is to come from centralized sources. And Brown, like former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been pushing for years to end bottlenecks and roadblocks to this power generation.

So on his first day back, he'd announced the filing of a brief in federal court asking the court to deny a lawsuit filed by the Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group which claims that a major solar power project in the Mojave Desert should be stopped because it invades the habitat of the desert tortoise. The Ivanpah solar thermal project, initially championed by Schwarzenegger, will generate enough power for 140,000 homes.

"California has set a bold course for its march toward reliance on renewable energy and the Ivanpah project is a very important step in this effort," Brown wrote.

Brown blazed the original path on renewable energy and energy efficiency during his first two terms as governor of California in the 1970s and 1980s.

The path then lay relatively fallow, especially with regard to renewables, until his former chief of staff Gray Davis became governor at the end of the '90s.

Davis refurbished the path, then Schwarzenegger turned it into a highway.

On Tuesday, Brown appointed UC Berkeley Law Professor Goodwin Liu to the state Supreme Court. Liu, 40, was previously nominated by President Obama to serve on the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But he was forced to withdraw his nomination two months ago after a determined Republican filibuster.

Prior to joining the Berkeley faculty in 2003, Liu was an appellate litigator, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was a top aide for the U.S. Department of Education.

A member of the Stanford University Board of Trustees, Liu was born in Georgia, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, and grew up in Sacramento. He received a bachelor's degree in biology from Stanford and a masters in philosophy and physiology from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

Like Brown himself, Liu is a Yale Law grad. Like First Lady Anne Gust Brown, he is also a Stanford grad. Brown is a UC Berkeley alum. Assuming confirmation by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, Liu will replace recently retired Justice Carlos Moreno.

His appointment is interesting in a number of respects, not the least of which that he is replacing the only Latino on the Court. Many had expected a Latino appointee from Brown.

But Brown enjoys confounding popular expectations. He also likes very smart people, and the national controversy over Liu did not repel him.

Liu first became controversial on the right for his opposition to the appointments of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. He supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and some elements of affirmative action and is a critic of waterboarding and other uses of torture in interrogation. He also supports charter schools, a particular cause of Brown's.

Not all conservatives opposed Liu. Former Whitewater special prosecutor Ken Starr endorsed Liu's nomination, as did former California Congressman Tom Campbell.

Now California poised to join Hawaii as one of only two states with an Asian-American majority on its state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, with the federal government teetering on the verge of default, Brown's longtime ally, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, has completed his shrewd move to lock in cash-flow for the state government in advance of any roiling of capital markets.

Lockyer completed the sale in private markets of a $5.4 billion "bridge loan." California will reportedly pay less than quarter of one percent in interest.

While Lockyer was working on that, Brown signed a portion of the so-called California Dream Act which will allow illegal immigrant students to avail themselves of private financial aid while attending California colleges. The move will not cost the cash-strapped state government. Brown pledged to do this during his campaign last year.

He also vetoed labor-backed legislation which would have made local civil service commissions consist of one-half elected official appointees and one-half public employee union nominees.

In a media conference call Friday morning, Brown reacted with pleasure to Obama's announcement of big increases in federal fuel efficiency standards for vehicles.

"This is a banner day," Brown declared, as First Dog Sutter barked occasionally in the background. (Get that mutt a bone!)

"It's an amazing agreement," he said of the accord which will raise national fuel efficiency standards by more than 50% by 2025 from what they are for 2016. "This is the brightest light I've seen shining in Washington in many years."

Brown noted that, in his experience with such issues, going back to the early '70s, there has usually been a prevalent feeling that California was going off in the wrong direction, even as the country was forced to move at least somewhat in the state's direction on the environment and energy.

In the end, he noted, intelligent regulation always resulted in a forcing function for technological innovation, giving rise to new industries and efficiencies.

As governor the first time around, Brown pursued many such policies. As attorney general, he sued the Bush/Cheney Administration and the auto industry to protect California's more stringent regulations; namely the greenhouse gas reduction program championed by then Governor Schwarzenegger.

Now, he said, the rest of the country is following in California's direction.

California Air Resources Board chief Mary Nichols joined in the call from Washington, where she had been negotiating with Obama Administration and auto industry officials late into the previous night.

"We think this is a very good deal," she said.

As a result, automakers now have a fuel economy target for their combined fleets of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Obama, in his Friday morning remarks, called the accord "the single most important step we've ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," translating to nearly $2 trillion in combined fuel savings for the country.

But automakers had concerns that California would scuttle the accord midway if it decided to pursue even more stringent measures to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction standards. The deal is that California won't go farther so long as the program moves forward.

While Brown was making all these moves, a new poll was coming out, albeit one taken while he was in the Sierras. It had some good news for Brown.

The new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll has 48% of voters approving of Brown's performance as governor and only 30% disapproving. But most voters think the new state budget is unfair to them.

Not surprising, since it relies heavily on major cuts, which increasingly affect everyone. Yet they are not outraged. Only 34% say the budget is fair to them, while 55% say it is unfair.

But economic times are tough. Especially so, ironically, in the Central Valley, which is disproportionately opposed to Brown.

More than one in three California households -- including nearly half of non-white households -- are making the tough choice to cut back on essential purchases in order to make mortgage payments.

Most voters favor a bill by state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg which would allow local governments to pursue their own increases in various taxes, pending voter approval. But Steinberg will hold the bill, which has passed the Senate and is excoriated by many business leaders, back as Brown, he, and others works on trying to form a grand alliance to finish balancing the state budget in next year's elections.

That's another of Brown's moves in the political chess game. We'll see how it's working next year.