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How Jerry Brown Pulled Off the Big Prop 30 Win

11/08/2012 10:22 pm ET | Updated Jan 08, 2013

How did Governor Jerry Brown pull off the strikingly sizable victory for his Proposition 30 revenue initiative? Think three words: Focus, foundation, and fortune.

Going into the weekend before the election, the media had mostly written off Brown's initiative. One supportive analyst even took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times the Friday before the election to write that Brown had to jettison the hard-won and historic high-speed rail project to win the initiative, which consists of a temporary tax hike on the wealth and a temporary quarter-cent sales tax hike.

But in reality, Brown had already righted the campaign ship, as I wrote here at the time.

In so doing, he won one of the most important victories in recent California political history, reversing the post-Proposition 13 anti-tax dynamic at the ballot box.


Governor Jerry Brown declared victory for his Proposition 30 revenue initiative Tuesday night at the Sheraton Grande Hotel in Sacramento.

After what many decried as a meandering campaign message, Brown focused in on the essentials of his argument and placed it in the context of both his mission as governor and the the historical dynamics of California itself.

After suffering from a run of bad luck, Brown aggressively capitalized on some late-developing good luck.

And Brown and his campaign team, led by consultant Ace Smith and, of course, first lady/special advisor Anne Gust Brown, skillfully utilized a powerful foundation for politics in the Golden State in the form of the Democratic/labor coalition. That operation, which Brown also helped with, had already mobilized into high gear under consultant Gale Kaufman's direction to defeat the Proposition 32 move to hamstring public employee union campaign spending.

* FOCUS

Many Democrats and other observers felt that Brown was dilatory in going on the campaign trail and lacked clarity in his comments, which sometimes tended to the intellectually intriguing and colorfully discursive.

Brown has a theory about the need to avoid over-exposure. There's something to it, but it can be taken to extremes.

Brown, a nice though driven guy, also has a bit of a temper, and his frustration came out two weeks before the election in a confrontation with an in-your-face LA TV reporter, who was very excited about his hidden camera investiation showing CalTrans employees, their state cars taken away by Brown's order, renting big pick-ups on the state dime and buying booze on state time. This was aggravating to Brown, who is personally rather ascetic and has cracked down on all manner of extraneous spending by state workers.

Clearly, Brown needed to be more Zen master and less Jesuit pugilist. And he had to focus.

To succeed in promoting Prop 30, Brown had do three things:

1. Capitalize on public support for the schools, community colleges, and public universities and opposition to cutting them further.

2. Explain how the initiative was essential for his plan to continue the California Dream of expanding opportunity and leadership in innovation for the future, even in tough times.

3. Capitalize on popular support for taxing the rich without blowing up the broad governing coalition he is assembling.

Brown emphasized the first and second points, focusing in ways that he had not until the last two weeks of the campaign, though elements of the message had always been present.

He had shied away for a long time from the third point. Brown is putting together a broad governing coalition and didn't want to turn off hard-won allies in the business community. So he hit on a formula for pointing up the tax-the-rich message in his public appearances while not hitting it over the head in the populist TV ads that many urged on the campaign.

Brown combined religious homilies about sharing with pointed humor about what really causes rich people to relocate (divorce rather than higher marginal rates). It worked, as his high-profile appearance before the Silicon Valley Leadership Group demonstrated.

* FOUNDATION

In a way, Brown had a big problem in the presence of the anti-union Prop 32 on the ballot. That guaranteed that Prop 30 would not be labor's top campaign spending priority in the election. That was yet another reason, in addition to his governing coalition imperative, why Brown had to work so hard to neutralize and in some cases win over key elements of the business community for Prop 30.

But the presence of Prop 32 on the ballot was an advantage in another way, which I don't believe that anyone has written about but which Brown understood extremely well.

Prop 32 was an existential threat to labor in California. And as Brown knew very well, his father was elected in another year in which labor faced an existential threat, the Prop 18 right-to-work initiative of 1958.

Organized labor is never as monolithic as Republicans and other outsiders imagine it to be, as I noted again when I monitored the labor independent expenditure TV ad program helping Brown while he conserved his resources in the summer of 2010 against national record-setting spender Meg Whitman.

In 1958, labor was even more disunited, with the AFL and the CIO then separate organizations in California. But the threat of annihilation brought them together. The mass mobilization also helped elect Jerry's father, then Attorney General Pat Brown, to his first term as governor. The mass mobilization that Prop 32 caused in the labor movement helped Jerry win his initiative.

The existential threat of Prop 32 generated vast numbers of troops to turn out the vote. By the time the election rolled around, the No on 32 advertising program had essentially killed the initiative, but much of the vote still needed to be turned out, that portion which was less likely to vote.

Most of those voters were undecided on Prop 30. The big operation assembled to sound the death knell of Prop 32, for which Prop 30 was a secondary focus, could now bring their force to bear.

Private polling had indicated this path to victory, as did the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

On an October 25th conference call, the poll crew led by USC Unruh Institute director Dan Schnur said that most of the undecided voters on Prop 30 were young people, Democrats, people of color, and Obama voters. Brown himself was very popular with the undecided voters.

This year saw the start of online voter registration, which Brown signed into law and which led to nearly one million new voters, most of them young.

This is why Brown spent so much time campaigning on college campuses in the last few weeks of the campaign, as I noted at the time.

* FORTUNE

Contrary to the old Latin proverb, fortune does not always favor the bold. At least in the short run.

Brown had a run of very bad luck over the summer. The state legislature in its vast wisdom raised salaries, a cache of hidden money (dating back, I'm told, to the early '90s) was discovered at the state parks department, deceptive PR and soft reporting created the false impression that the high-speed rail program would be paid for out of the state's general fund. (It has its own pots of money, as I wrote in July.)

There was also the competing tax measure, the DOA Prop 38 from heiress Molly Munger, muddying the waters badly even before she showed her true colors with millions in No on 30 attack ads in the fall, when she joined brother Charlie Jr., already attacking Prop 30 from the right, in the most bizarre sibling display of politics I've seen.


Brown expressed optimism at 7 AM on Tuesday morning after voting near his home in the Oakland hills.

She had to be put back in her box, and she was, as Brown helped generate a wave of criticism from education advocates and editorial boards -- most of whom were so outraged already by her actions that they didn't need all that much encouragement -- and she dropped her attack ads. She kept on spending, though, up to about $50 million, and got a humiliating 27.7% of the vote for all the trouble.

Charlie Munger Jr. and a few other mega-rich folks funneled their money through the so-called Small Business Action Committee into the No on 30 effort, generating attack ads that had an impact.

But there was good fortune for Brown here, too, because the hide-the-money mode of the No on 30 campaign created an impression of bad faith about the effort.

Then Brown had some very good fortune, indeed.

The No on 30 campaign turned into the political equivalent of a matryoshka doll. That's one of my favorite Russian gifts, consisting of nested dolls, one within another, in a lengthy chain of hidden identity.

The biggest anonymous political contribution in California history, $11 million, was funneled into the campaign via the Small Business Action Committee headed by career anti-tax/small government lobbyist Joel Fox, campaign chairman of No on 30. Where did it come from?

Well, we've learned a lot about the shady doings of super PACs and the ones involved here in particular, yet we still don't yet know who actually provided the money beyond the bland names of mail drop super PACs in Arizona and Virginia.

But it provided Brown with the opportunity to have an absolute field day at the expense of the No on 30 crew, hammering against the massive subterfuge in the closing two weeks of the campaign.

I recounted here on my New West Notes blog the dramatic action over last weekend when the Republican majority California Supreme Court -- in a 7-0 vote -- ordered the Arizona super PAC which funneled the money into California to reveal where it came from.

Brown hit five cities on Monday promoting Prop 30. At each of his events during the day, Brown said of the hide-the-funders No on 30 campaign, "There aren't more than a handful of willful men" funding the drive to kill the budget-balancing initiative which would raise their taxes.

Brown said of the secret $11 million contribution that "the money is so dirty that it was laundered five times and they still can't clean it."

So where are we now?

The No on 30 campaign, spearheaded by Brown's personal campaigning, won by a sizable 54% to 46% margin, driving the numbers upward in the closing days from the 48-38 of the final Field Poll. Which is unheard of in California for a tax-hike measure.

Brown also finds new two-thirds Democratic majorities in the state Senate, which was expected, and the state Assembly, which was not expected. He is signaling that the flood gates will not be opened on spending and taxes.

In other, not unrelated, action, Prop 32 (hamstringing public employee union campaign spending) went down big, 44-56. Prop 31 (a themeless potpourri of various governmental reforms) lost 40-60. At some point, more reforms to the state's dysfunctional governance system have to be pursued. But that is going to require reformers with a better understanding of politics.

Prop 33 (a billionaire-funded auto insurance measure) went down 45-55, Prop 34 (death penalty abolition) lost 47-53. Props 35 (anti-human trafficking) and 36 (softening the three-strikes sentencing system) won with huge votes. Prop 37 (regulating genetically modified foods) went down 47-53. Prop 38 (heiress Molly Munger's rival tax measure) was blown out 28-72. Prop 39 (ending a corporate tax loophole to fund renewable energy and a state budget patch) won 60-40, and Prop 40 (which has the effect of maintaining the new state Senate districts) won 71-29.

President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney here, 59% to 39%, and Senator Dianne Feinstein crushed Republican Elizabeth Emken, 61% to 39%.

The Standard & Poor's ratings agency, in a thumbs up for the Prop 30 victory, calls it "the linchpin to the governor's broader, multi-year strategy for reversing the state's negative budget position."

For the first time in many years, California politics is not dominated by a chronic budget crisis.

And the Republicans?

Well, the California Republican Party's ideological commissar, Flash Report publisher and former state party vice chairman Jon Fleischman -- who constantly undermined the moderating impulses of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- acknowledges the Republican loss of "super-minority" blocking status in the legislature in a depressive assessment of the state of Republicanism in California. Naturally, being a hard right ideologue, he doesn't fault the party for its extremist reputation.

All they lack, Fleischman says, is a governor or president to make their ideas popular. Unlike Schwarzenegger, who won two landslide elections as governor in 2003 and 2006 but warned Republicans in 2007 not to keep sliding to the right.

That sort of ludicrously locked-in hard right thinking was a big problem for Brown last year when he tried so hard to make a deal with a handful of Republican legislators to move forward on revenues and reforms. Now, with the Republicans declining further -- their registration here is down to 29.4% and is on trajectory to be passed by independents later in the decade -- it's not nearly the problem it was.

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