THE BLOG
12/05/2012 01:25 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013

Observations on Jerry Brown's Prop 30 Win: From the Notebook

The dust is still settling from Governor Jerry Brown's big win with his Proposition 30 revenue initiative. As the California vote count heads to its conclusion, Prop 30 has a nearly 11-point lead, 55.3% to 44.7%.

While it may be premature to say that the Prop 13 era has given way completely to the Prop 30 era, this is clearly a very big deal, with ramifications that will play out over a period of years.

In the meantime, there are a number of interesting items related to Prop 30's big win that I haven't written much, or at all, about yet. They're notebook items, in the old journo or operative parlance, though these days that notebook is a notebook computer. Have Mac, will travel. Each item can be its own piece. But why wait?

* Who was really behind the No on 30 campaign?

Late last spring, while talking with a prominent Republican, I was told that the No on 30 campaign -- then struggling as Brown worked hard to neutralize potential opposition (he actually won major business support) -- would have many millions in funds to run TV ads attacking the initiative.

And that the money would be put together by someone other than the folks fronting the No on 30 campaign, which was chaired by professional anti-tax/small government advocates Joel Fox (head of the "Small Business" Action Committee re-branding funnel for funds) and Jon Coupal (director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which Fox previously ran).

This is evidently exactly what happened. Fox's small business committee of one, which raised all of $60,000 in the first half of the year, suddenly took in tens of millions of dollars, most from Munger Jr. but quite a lot from other mega-rich folks. That money quickly flowed into the No on 30 and Yes on 32 campaigns.

While it was a boost for No on 30, the funky circumstance of having a supposed small business group front for mega-rich interests was problematic for its cause. That only intensified to a fever pitch when the operator behind Fox pulled the trigger on the biggest anonymous political contribution in California history, $11 million from an otherwise nondescript Arizona super PAC.

This was intended to be the kill shot against Prop 30. Instead, it was a boomerang for No on 30. Especially when the Republican majority California Supreme Court forced the revelation that the Arizona outfit was itself a laundry for a laundry, funneling money to California that had already been funneled through not one but two Virginia super PACs.

We still don't know the real source of the funds. But the mystery of it all may have worked even better for Prop 30.


* What was up with the Mungers?
Molly Munger and Charlie Munger, Jr., children of longtime Warren Buffett business partner Charles Munger, each spent more than the biggest-spending union power in the state, the mighty California Teachers Association.

Munger Jr., who previous to this in his relatively brief time in politics was best known as a political reformer financing redistricting reform and open primary initiatives, poured his megabucks through the Small Business Action Committee to oppose Prop 30 and support the Prop 32 initiative to hamstring public employee union campaign spending.

His sister, who I'd never heard of before, spent her $50 million on the notion that she suddenly knew better than Brown how to make policy for the state in the form of her DOA Prop 38 income tax hike-for-nearly-all to fund school wish lists. She got a measly 28% of the vote for her trouble, though her consultants made out like bandits.

While she was undoubtedly misled by her, er, advisors -- you can always tell, when a figure insists that his/her private polling, which flies in the face of all other polling, not to mention common sense, is really the truth -- she had to be either relentlessly dumb, relentlessly arrogant, or relentlessly something else.

Her spending millions on attack ads against Prop 30, at the same time her brother was financing the same thing from the seeming other side of the political spectrum, would seem to suggest the latter.

* Why did Jerry Brown start campaigning so late?

Ever since Brown won his third term as governor, I've been describing him as going in and out of "stealth mode," in which he largely eschews public appearances. He obviously knew he couldn't win passage of Prop 30 without a lot of public campaigning. But after a few false starts, he was late in getting things rolling in this campaign.

What was the big hang-up?

Well, Brown does have a theory about avoiding becoming over-exposed as governor, something he believes happened to Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this, he has a certain echo of his old friend Warren Beatty, who took his insistence on avoiding over-exposure to such an extreme that my younger girlfriends of recent years didn't know who this classic Hollywood superstar was.

Brown's not that extreme, but there have been long stretches of time in which he's been essentially invisible in Southern California.

Then there's Brown's very hands-on approach to being governor. While he may not be in the office, he is most assuredly working away wherever he is. (Brown was a very early adopter of personal computers.) Not much happens that he isn't working on himself.

That's why he doesn't have a chief of staff. Or a chief strategist. Or a communications director. Aside from himself.

Once he worked his way through all the legislation sent to his desk, it was time to campaign. And focus. Which was another matter to be worked out.

* The new vote.

This deserves its own piece, but it's important to note that the Brown family was at the center of the big shift of Latinos to the Democratic Party. In 1994, Kathleen Brown, Jerry's sister and then the state treasurer, won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination but went on to lose to incumbent Republican Governor Pete Wilson.

She would have been better served to ignore advice from those, like me, who urged her to become California's first woman governor sooner rather than later. As it turns out, it is very hard to defeat an incumbent governor. More so when one is still getting ready to take that big next step. 1998 would have been an ideal year for the emergence of Governor Kathleen Brown.

And it's especially difficult when the incumbent governor seizes on a potentially very popular issue and rides it to re-election.

That was 1994's Proposition 187 anti-illegal immigrant initiative. Though it was popular, Kathleen Brown decided to make a big stand against it, aligning her campaign and the Democratic Party squarely on the side of the Latino community.

This was very controversial on the Democratic side, a story in itself, with some major figures opposed to the move. Yet, while it helped Kathleen Brown, who was going down to defeat in any event, not at all, her stand -- which brother Jerry strongly supported -- proved to be a turning point in California politics.

Ever since then, the internal politics of the state's Republican Party has seized fatefully on echoes of Prop 187 (which was thrown out by the courts as overly draconian). And the Latino community has moved heavily into the Democratic column.


* The cast of characters.

Though he's had many able folks, then and now, I long ago lost track of Brown's staffers, most of whom I never spoke with. It's all part of the moveable feast that is the Brown political circus.

In addition to his staff of the moment, Brown has a cast of characters in his orbit that I call the Network. It's something of a kitchen cabinet, minus the kitchen. And the cabinet. Since it's largely virtual, existing in Brown's phone and computer, it's never entirely clear who is in it and how current one may be.

Very recent members include original Brown campaign manager Tom Quinn, old friend and moderate Democratic strategist David Townsend, Republican consultants Don Sipple (a principal Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson strategist) and Jack Flanigan, former Democratic legislator and Coastal Commission chairman Rusty Areias, and on and on. To attempt to make the list any lengthier will only emphasize who I neglect to mention.

Brown is a sponge for intelligence, which he then synthesizes and utilizes as he sees fit. (The "as he sees fit" part of that being the thing that gives many political consultants, who are used to managing clients, fits about how Brown does things.)

While there have been some who, for a time, induced Brown to play the conventional pol role of submitting to controlled messaging, it never lasts.

The best way to influence Brown's thinking on a sustained basis is to give him interesting and useful information, letting him figure out what it means for him, intervening only when clearly needed, in non-scripted fashion. Some folks get it, some don't.

Steve Glaser, working under First Lady/Special Advisor Anne Gust Brown, was Brown's day-to-day campaign manager in 2010 and continues as an advisor.

Consultant Ace Smith, in a similar arrangement, did the honors in Brown's 2006 campaign for California attorney general. They had all worked well together until Smith, who went on to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, got it in his head that the next governor of California would likely be LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Oops.

But, after a false-starting pro-Brown independent expenditure effort supporting Brown's gubernatorial campaign -- despite the fact that it did not take off, Brown admired some of the work -- Smith returned to the Brown fold to manage Prop 30, working closely with the first lady and the governor. The results were pretty darn good.

* End of the chronic budget crisis.

California has major outstanding pension obligations and a "wall of debt" from infrastructure projects -- the latter being largely a function of how public works projects are funded -- so it's premature to say that the state's financial problems are solved.

But new revenues resulting from the passage of Prop 30, coupled with previously enacted big state budget cuts, mean that with regard to general fund operations the state's chronic budget crisis is over.

It had lasted for a decade, following its genesis in then Governor Pete Wilson (looking to atone for raising taxes early on) slashing the car tax in the late '90s, a move that caught up with California when the dot-com boom ended early in the Noughties. The state was still spending money and cutting taxes as though revenue from the boom would last forever, leading Democratic Governor Gray Davis to, very reluctantly, raise the car tax his Republican predecessor had cut. He knew it could trigger a popular initiative to repeal the move.

After Davis was recalled, new Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger immediately cut the car tax, to popular acclaim. Notwithstanding a series of complicated moves which will not fit in this sentence, the budget crisis waxed and waned but never went away, finally becoming truly alarming when the great global recession slashed general fund revenues.

Now, through a combination of cuts and taxes, the constant fiscal flu is over.


* The challenge.

The end of the chronic budget crisis does not cue the playing of the old Franklin Roosevelt theme song/Democratic Party anthem "Happy Days Are Here Again."

Brown has to keep pursuing reforms of a public pension system which is generating a large future overhang. And he needs to find ways to streamline regulation while preserving its purpose so the economy can keep growing.

At the same time, even as Democratic legislators appear to understand that having just won a big tax increase does not cue more tax hikes, Brown can't dash the hopes of his core supporters. So he has an interesting balancing act ahead.

Somehow, I suspect that the inventor of "the canoe theory" of politics -- paddle some to the left, some to the right, and right down the middle -- has a feel for this dynamic. Especially since his sense of the middle is a creative center/left politics in line with most Californians are.

When he ran for state attorney general in 2006, he pitched his campaign at the state's burgeoning ranks of independent voters. He's done nothing but continue that ever since.

* A big agenda.

Meanwhile, Brown has a big ongoing agenda of his own, of governmental realignment and reform, dealing with climate change, promoting renewable energy, and developing what is now the only high-speed rail project left in the wake of the havoc wreaked by Tea Party America.

Brown blazed the path for California on much of this his first time round. His former chief of staff, Gray Davis, revived it. Then Arnold Schwarzenegger ramped it up dramatically.

Schwarzenegger, incidentally, is joined by his old friend director James Cameron and several others in producing Years of Living Dangerously, a limited run series on climate change to appear in late 2013 on Showtime. The series will have six to eight hour-long episodes, and will be narrated by Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and Alec Baldwin.

* The re-election.

Unless he is hit by a proverbial bus, Jerry Brown is going to run for and win another term as governor of California.

Brown has not announced his intention to run again. But he has talked publicly about what he needs to do in what would be his fourth term.

Brown did a round of network TV interviews in the wake of winning Prop 30 last month. In the course of that, he appeared on CNN's State of the Union.

On the show, Brown indirectly discussed his next term as governor
, saying that it will be up to the legislature and himself to act responsibly over the course of the new temporary tax hikes. Which will run through what would be his fourth term as governor of California.

Unless something extraordinary were to happen, Brown will be elected. I wrote that early on when he was running last time -- actually before he got around to announcing that he was running -- and if anything he is in a much stronger position now. He's developing a broad governing coalition and, really, there is no one else.

No Democrat could possibly challenge him. As for a Republican, or a Republican masquerading as an independent, well, that's non-serious.

Brown crushed the biggest spending non-presidential campaign in history in 2010, mounted by the billionaire former CEO of one of the most popular companies in America. And I don't see another super-rich movie superstar hankering for the non-stop fun, haha, of the Golden State's governorship. Even though Brown is going to be having a much better time from here on out than most of the folks who've been governor since his first time round.

* The, ah, successor generation.

What Brown going on for Term 4 means is that there is a sizable group of notably ambitious big-time Democrats who have to delay their plans for self-promotion, once again. Folks who were shiny, (relatively) young, and new.

They're not feeling so new now. And some of them will pass, with the eternal Jerry Brown dominant once again, well into middle age as the decade rolls on. Which I think -- given the multiple personalities and ambitions in play for folks like outgoing LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, former state Controller and greentech venture capitalist Steve Westly, hedge fund billionaire and enviro initiative proponent Tom Steyer, and more -- cries out for a not especially brief piece all its own.

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

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