10/25/2013 04:08 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Jerry Brown Heads East, Talks West

Governor Jerry Brown headed east on Wednesday for a featured speech Thursday in Washington to talk up his now ballyhooed successes out here in the west. Naturally, he left Washington and returned to California not long after his appearance as the luncheon speaker of the Center for American Progress's 10th anniversary policy conference. Rather than point to his, ah, unique leadership, Brown pointed to changes Californians enacted through a series of recent initiatives to account for California governance suddenly becoming so much more effective than Washington's tattered brand.

The Center, founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff Tony Podesta, has become arguably the most influential left of center Democratic think tank around, with strong ties to the Obama Administration. According to all reports, with Washington gridlock having devolved into a truly pathetic state, the crowd was hungry for success stories and looked to Brown for that, the state having enacted an array of economic, social, and energy measures of late. He didn't disappoint. But he did say that it was actually Californians themselves "who broke a decade of dysfunction and laid the foundation for a government that actually works."

Brown cited five key initiatives of recent years -- raising taxes mostly on the rich, reforming redistricting by placing it in the hands of a citizens commission, creating an open primary encouraging pols to broaden their appeal in order to make a "top 2" run-off in which no party has an assured slot, lengthening legislative term limits, and enabling a simple legislative majority to pass a budget -- as keys to the end of gridlock in Sacramento.

"These five changes in governance," he said, "have opened up incredible possibilities that have now been seized in California."

While it's good politics for Brown to talk up the role of Californians in reforming their own system, it leaves a few things out, such as the fact that the Democrats now control all statewide offices and two-thirds of both houses of the legislature. And that Brown himself has unusual sway with his own party. (To a point, of course.) And that Brown enacted a series of major budget cuts before balancing the budget with his tax initiative. (And that California still has some big problems.)

Before his speech Thursday, which saw the two-time Democratic presidential runner-up rubbing elbows with the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry, former Vice President Al Gore, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, California and Brown had been getting more good press as a big government that works, in contrast to the only government bigger in the U.S., that of the, er, U.S. itself.

Stories in the New York Times and LA Times both point out what I've pointed out for many months, that California is working while Washington is a mess.

Both stories single out the role of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in championing moderating political reforms in the form of the open primary and redistricting reform initiatives.

While neither immediately transformed politics, each militated against hyper-partisanship.

Then of course there is the Brown effect, with the wily governor moderating his already somewhat moderated legislative party through his own power and superior knowledge base while pushing forward progressive-oriented reforms he thinks can do best in the political environment.

The effect with Republicans is less clear-cut, in large measure because they have been largely defeated in California in the wake of their far right lurch.

Brown certainly didn't find any moderated effect among Republicans in 2011, when he spent six months searching for a handful of votes to extend the temporary taxes initially passed by Schwarzenegger and some bipartisan legislative leaders, the Republicans among whom rather promptly lost their positions.

But over time, there does seem to be a more moderate tendency among Republicans again, though it was little in evidence at the latest state convention.

Before his rare turn in the sunrise East -- and no, I'm not starting to work around to a Brown for President metaphor -- Brown made some more moves in the sunset West.

Brown wrapped up his bill signing for the year last Sunday. He vetoed 11 percent of the bills sent to him. While Democrats were relatively happy with his choices, he reined them in with respect to several labor, environmental and social policy areas, notably bids to gut initiatives, block fracking, and enact some more stringent gun controls, though he also approved some bills in the latter vein.

The big San Francisco Bay Area transit strike, which Brown had blocked through various maneuvers for months before it flared up again, ended early Tuesday. The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit district) breakthrough reportedly came when union negotiators, who had already obtained impressive wage increases, gave way some on work rules.

Brown also moved to shut down an AC transit bus strike in San Francisco.

Brown on Monday endorsed former Republican rising star Nathan Fletcher for mayor of San Diego in November's special election to replace the thankfully departed Bob Filner. At last an example of a big-time politician who talks some about bipartisanship/post-partisanship actually endorsing a member of the other big party? Well, no. Fletcher, a moderate conservative when I met him as a state assemblyman, of course became an independent when he ran for mayor last year, then switched all the way over to Democrat after. But Brown has gone against the official Democratic Party endorsement. Fletcher has a very competitive shot in the polls.

And Brown has a few big things coming up, including a multi-state alliance promoting zero emission vehicles.

And a Pacific Coast alliance with Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to coordinate action on climate change and renewable energy/energy efficiency policies.

Brown points out that the Pacific Coast combine amounts to the world's fifth largest economy.

While Brown was gone, the Fair Political Practices Commission released its report on a matter very close to his heart -- the big anono donations scheme in last year's campaigns for the anti-labor Prop 32 and against Brown's Prop 30 revenue initiative.

The FPPC ordered record fines of $1 million on the Koch Brothers-affiliated Virginia outfits where the money entered the system, $11 million on Joel Fox's Small Business Action Committee laundry, and $4 million on another laundry used earlier in the game last year.

As I'd heard early on, the two Republican operators pulling the strings, Jeff Miller and Tony Russo put together a lot more money than the $11 million which triggered the scandal late in last fall's campaign. Some $28 million, according to Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain.

But when Brown and friends raised the alarums, the operatives pulled back on much of the money. Things had gotten too hot.

Where did the money come from originally? That's still not clear. But several names of secret contributors to the Virginia outfits have emerged. Bearing in mind they may have contributed for other purposes, those names include San Francisco investor Charles Schwab, Gap chairman Bob Fisher and other members of the Fisher family, who ironically had long employed California First Lady Anne Gust Brown as a very senior Gap executive, and Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, who publicly supported Prop 30.

Needless to say, there will be more to follow on that, as well.

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

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