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William Bradley

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The Return of Jerry Brown

Posted: 04/11/11 06:42 PM ET

His first three months of his third term as governor of California have been uncharacteristic for Jerry Brown. He's been almost entirely behind the scenes. But now that his months of behind-the-scenes talks on solving the state's chronic budget crisis have come up short, the Jerry Brown we've known is mostly back. He's speaking out again.

Over the weekend, he told CBS in Los Angeles:

We are at a point of civil discord, and I would not minimize the risk to our country and to our state. It is not trivial. I've been around a long time, I'm a student of history, I'm a student of contemporary politics. We are facing what I would call a 'regime crisis.' The legitimacy of our very democratic institutions are in question.


Governor Jerry Brown formally broke off negotiations with Republican state legislators at the end of March.

What prompted that? Brown has solved half of the state's $26 billion budget deficit, the half that has to do with cuts. But he hasn't gotten Republican legislators to go along with extending some temporary taxes enacted in 2009 needed to avert even more draconian cuts in schools, higher education, and public safety, among other things. Bullied by ideologues, they are still stuck as the Party of No, something that Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, became all too well aware of.

The first three months of his governorship have been uncharacteristic for him, seeing him largely out of sight in private talks, playing the inside game while neglecting the outside game he has specialized in. I believe in inside/outside politics, that's why "Politics from the inside/outside" has been the New West Notes slogan since 2006.

It would have been preposterous to call Brown boring while he hunkered down close to home, engaged in countless hours of behind-the-scenes talks and negotiations, because he's always quite interesting. But the storyline of the chronic California budget crisis, and of endless negotiations, all too tediously familiar from the last few Arnold years, is, let's say, static.

Not unlike trench warfare in World War I. None of the island-hopping, or bold break-out moves of the next conflict. Or of Jerry Brown's more characteristic career, for that matter.

But now that budget negotiations have broken down, if they have, Brown is coming out from behind the curtain. And not a moment too soon.

Here's a saying for Brown, who rather famously likes this sort of thing: "Politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards, and anyone who seeks to do it must risk his own soul." Who said it? The great 19th and early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber.

His full-court charm offensive on frightened conservative Republican state legislators having come up short in terms of the only obvious solution to the state's chronic budget crisis, Brown is now playing the longer game, boring into the hard boards of California's highly dysfunctional political institutions.

While leaders of California's public university and college systems fanned out across the state Capitol to tell legislators the obvious -- yes, an all-cuts budget solution will decimate the schools they all claim to want to save -- Brown spoke to the annual California Medical Association legislative conference last Tuesday, visiting with reporters on the way in and on the way out.


Brown celebrated his 73rd birthday last Thursday in California's state Capitol.

He was sanguine yet realistic, and quite funny. It's too bad that California has had its two coolest governors back to back just as its dysfunctional constitution and hyper-partisan parties run into the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Brown is still talking to Republican legislators, but the pace has slowed, a development that's undoubtedly good for his liver. His next target date is mid-May, when he will come out with what is called, every year, the syntactically awkward "May Revise." That's when the governor presents another version of his budget proposal adjusted for intervening events.

Which in this case is that Brown has gotten the Legislature to deal with half of the massive deficit already. But not the other half, i.e., the tax extensions needed to avert the all-cuts budget.

Brown says he will produce another balanced budget. "One way or the other."

And what is his Plan B, now that his Plan A has come up short? Well, it's a lot like Plan A. To get Republican votes in the Legislature "straight up for a tax extension, subject to a vote of the people."

I haven't written the tick-tock and couldn't even if I knew it, which I don't, which is a major reason why I don't -- that and extreme irritation at the repetitive nonsense that passes for politics in certain quarters in recent years -- but Brown seems to have come close to forging a deal before. Maybe the ball will get punched in from the 3-yard line, given a little more time. And reality, which Brown will be bringing now that he is finally emerging from behind the curtain after the first three months of his third term as governor.

He's not going into campaign mode, exactly, he's just going to be doing a lot more public events, and speaking out more while things also go on in private.

If the votes don't emerge, Brown will have to go the initiative route. Which he's holding off on for now, as he doesn't want to lock in details. Which means he wants conservative interests to think about how scary populist such an initiative could be.

Brown was in deadpan comedic mode with the doctors inside the Sheraton Grand ballroom.


Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is clearly having a more enjoyable time than his successor, received the Legion of Honour medal last week in Cannes from French Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterand.

Things are great in California, a $2 trillion economy, great weather. There's just this $13 billion he needs to find. And so it goes.

Because there's this other thing: "Each and every Republican legislator I've spoken to believes that voters should not have this right to vote unless I agree to an ever-changing list of collateral demands."

Brown turned 73 on Thursday. I talked with him the night before and he sounded the same as he did about 30 years ago. High energy, philosophical, mostly upbeat.

I was on hand for his last speech at age 72.

Continuing to emerge from behind the curtain of private negotiations, Brown gave two speeches last Wednesday. In the morning, he spoke to the California Hospital Association at the Sacramento Convention Center. In the afternoon, he spoke to the California Association for Law Enforcement at the Sheraton Grand Hotel.

So, on this day before his 73rd birthday, the very energetic new/renewed governor spoke to hospital types in the morning and cops in the afternoon. I didn't see the former, but I did see the latter.

Incidentally, you couldn't see any of it, because Brown is saving a few bucks by eliminating almost all of the gubernatorial webcasts. Which may be a false economy.

Anyway, at the first speech, which I did not see, Brown urged people to "hug a Republican." Which he says is a positive thing to say.


California First Dog Sutter Brown is Jerry Brown's advance man for a state budget compromise.

In the speech to the cops, which I not only saw but filmed, Brown actually laid off the humor and laid out the set-up for why California has a budget crisis.

The keys, as I may have mentioned before, and as Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely mentioned before, are that California's revenue plunged a few years ago with the collapse of the housing bubble and the even greater collapse of the Wall Street derivatives market based on the housing bubble. Which caused the steep decline of wealth, and tax-derived revenues, at the high ends. Overall wealth plummeted by roughly a third (though, curiously, billionaires seem to be richer than ever).

On Friday and Saturday, Brown journeyed to Republican state Senate districts in Riverside and Orange County, with Republican law enforcement officials in tow to underscore the gravity of an all-cuts budget.

Brown discussed the issues and the intransigence of Republican legislators, who have not only refused to allow a public vote on tax extensions but also have generally refused to vote for even Brown's first round of budget cuts.

Brown notes that the all-cuts budget that Dutton and other Republicans are forcing will lead to major problems for schools and law enforcement. Which, very strangely, most legislative Republicans seem to deny. They wouldn't vote for Brown's first round of budget cuts, saying other things should be cut.

When asked what else should be cut, they had no plan.

They also continue to support what many view as the government boondoggles of redevelopment and enterprise zones. Which are big government programs that benefit their financial benefactors.

With Brown's return to public view, it should make for quite an interesting next few months.

Is California headed for a breakdown? Maybe. But as Brown has been putting it since last year's campaign, in which he won a landslide victory over billionaire Meg Whitman, "The breakdown can lead to a breakthrough."

And as former Governor Gray Davis reminded me just before Brown resurfaced, budget impasses usually look like they are going nowhere. Until they go somewhere.

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