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The State of Jerry Brown's Status: After the State of the State

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There is no shortage of kudos now for Governor Jerry Brown, who with his State of the State address last Thursday tied the late Governor-turned-Chief Justice Earl Warren for the most such addresses in California's history. Does he have things sewn up politically in the battered but brightening Golden State?

The answer is, thanks to his smashing victory on the Proposition 30 revenue initiative, yes. For now and, barring serious mistakes, the rest of his current term. But mistakes can always happen, and there are still long-term issues regarding difficult public pension commitments, a battered social safety net, and a less than roaring economic recovery.

"Jerry stands like a Colossus bestride ... whatever it is you bestride in that quote," declared a former high-ranking California official, humorously spoofing his inability to channel the classics-spouting Brown, after having scanned various headlines and newscasts, reactions from politicians and interest groups, and the general flow of things.

Governor Jerry Brown delivered a sweeping State of the State address at the California State Capitol last Thursday. "This is my 11th year in the job and I have never been more excited," declared the third term governor, who has not officially announced a re-election campaign. "Two years ago, they were writing our obituary. Well, it didn't happen. California is back, its budget is balanced, and we are on the move. Let's go out and get it done."

Ironically, given how they have fought and vilified him over the years, Republicans are helping Brown now, wittingly and, well, mostly not. Much more about that at the close of this piece.

The California Labor Federation and the California Chamber of Commerce both have fulsome praise for Brown's message. The Sierra Club is less positive; they love Brown's agenda on energy and climate but don't like the big water conveyance program he is proposing and are not thrilled at the prospect, vague or not, of streamlining environmental regulation. Even most Republican politicians were largely positive about Brown's speech, which you can read in its entirety, absent ad libs, here.

That may be in part because they see no realistic alternative to Brown, their party notably lacking in any remotely serious candidate. (A far right state assemblyman who founded the Minuteman group in California and forgot he was carrying a gun when he tried to board an airliner is running.) But some Republican operatives, perhaps sensing another big payday for poor advice with another rookie politician like billionaire Meg Whitman, who broke all non-presidential campaign spending records in American history only to be buried in a Brown landslide, are talking up the idea of another super-rich candidate. Which doesn't strike me as a serious proposition.

Someone will run, of course, because someone always does. Not that Brown has said publicly that he's running, mind you. But he's hardly pulling a Hitchcock here when it comes to suspense. I've written from the beginning that he'll run again and have seen nothing to indicate anything else.

Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who tried to run against Brown last time and carelessly positioned himself as an occasional irritant, has acceded to the obvious, delivering a praise-filled Brown introduction.

Which seemed to bring a smile to his great fan, First Lady/Special Advisor Anne Gust Brown.

Brown's speech was in his inimitable fashion, brimming with often classically-based philosophical and historical references, bristling with challenge for the future and family heritage-infused pride in California's history and prospects. In an unusual move, this master of jazz improv speechifying had prepared text available in advance of his address, though of course he was furiously writing on the speech the day and night before his 9 AM appearance, and considering ad libs as he delivered each section.

"The message this year," he averred, "is clear: California has once again confounded our critics. We have wrought in just two years a solid and enduring budget. And, by God, we will persevere and keep it that way for years to come. Against those who take pleasure, singing of our demise, California did the impossible."

Well, nothing that was impossible with a combination of budget cuts and new revenues. The trick, of course, was finding the way to make it work and then executing the plan.

The front end of that, as readers know, consisted of big budget cuts in 2011; the back end, of the landslide passage of Brown's Proposition 30 temporary tax hike initiative. While the former came as something of a surprise to many observers, the latter came as a big surprise. But the victory was there to be won (the undecided voters were more persuadable for Brown than the No on 30 crowd, as even the USC public poll showed weeks in advance), it was a matter of doing, and in the end, Brown did, as I explained here two days after the election.

The passage of Prop 30, as Brown says, has brought a new day in California. If it's not a rollback of the Prop 13 era, it is certainly a massive rebuke to the reflexive no-tax doctrine. And it does solve the chronic crisis which has afflicted the state's general fund, though other fiscal challenges, notably in public pensions, still await down the line.

Brown acknowledged that reality with a biblical parable, and went on to say: "The people have given us seven years of extra taxes. Let us follow the wisdom of Joseph, pay down our debts and store up reserves against the leaner times that will surely come."

In other words, he will resist efforts to imagine that hard-won new revenues mean that the public suddenly trusts the still-derided legislature to unleash a tsunami of new spending and taxing.

Then he pivoted to California's promise and prospects, its customary role at the edge of history.

"In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt said: "There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny."

"We -- right here in California -- have such a rendezvous with destiny. All around us we see doubt and skepticism about our future and that of America's. But what we have accomplished together these last two years, indeed, the whole history of California, belies such pessimism."

After running through a very neatly-rendered 300-word version of the history of the Golden State, Brown spoke of California's leadership role: "This special destiny never ends. It slows. It falters. It goes off track in ignorance and prejudice but soon resumes again -- more vibrant and more stunning in its boldness.

"The rest of the country looks to California. Not for what is conventional, but for what is necessary -- necessary to keep faith with our courageous forebears."

And that, as I've written many times before, leads into Brown's big futurist agenda. It's an agenda -- renewable energy and energy efficiency, climate change, high-speed rail, bioscience, cutting edge research, water conveyance and conservation, regulatory reform, reform of education financing -- which he intends to keep California in its familiar position at the edge of history.

Brown didn't say this in his State of the State address, but his ability to pursue much of that agenda is dependent in large measure on actions taken by his predecessors, Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis. I discussed this at the beginning of January in "California's Futurist Agenda: A Tale of Three Governors."

Fortunately, there has been a sense of future-oriented continuity amidst all the fiscal distress and hyper-partisan tumult which marked the last decade here.

For one example, while Brown pioneered renewable energy in the 1970s, that course of action languished under succeeding Republican governors. Then Brown's former chief of staff, Gray Davis, renewed the renewable course, and Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, ramped things up dramatically, turning the path into a superhighway. Brown, naturally, is continuing that.

There's been a similar pattern with other issues, including high-speed rail, with all three governors playing steadfast and crucial roles.

Brown appeared on PBS News Hour to discuss California's recovery and national trends.

Brown is able to pursue what I've called this Think Big agenda even more so now because the state's chronic budget crisis has been taken care of.

To make a long and complex story short, the California Legislative Analyst Office, a sometime critic of the Brown Administration, concurs in Brown's assessment that he has produced a balanced state budget. "The state has reached a point where its underlying expenditures and revenues are roughly in balance."

And prior to the State of the State, Brown got good news with California revenues running far ahead of forecasts. Why that is so remains a bit unclear.

So he's able to pursue these things, as well as a newer agenda of reforming the state's public university system. Brown is pushing for online education, more classroom involvement for professors, and holding the line on tuition and fees, taking his drive into lengthy meetings this month with the boards of the University of California and California State University system, winning support in particular on online education.

Which is actually a back-to-the-future "new idea" of Brown's. He championed online education -- then known as distance learning -- in the 1980s through his National Commission on Industrial Innovation.

Meanwhile, as Brown presents himself as the renewed philosopher prince of politics -- while he's always interested in ideas, he really is the author of his own stuff -- the Republican Party continues in its deep crisis.

Now down to 29% registration after ignoring Arnold Schwarzenegger's prescient 2007 warnings to return toward the center, with no one in statewide office and its "super-minority" blocking status gone with the advent of two-thirds Democratic majorities in both legislative houses, the GOP is belatedly trying to address its encroaching irrelevance.

But not especially cleverly.

Former California Senate and Assembly Republican Leader Jim Brulte is going for the chairmanship of the troubled state GOP at its convention the first weekend in March in Sacramento and seems to have no serious opposition. His will be a "nuts and bolts chairmanship."

I've know Brulte for years. He's a very smart guy. However ...

Unfortunately for the Republicans, their problems are far deeper than the "nuts and bolts." No, I won't take the cheap opportunity for a pun there.

While Brulte will be new to the party chairmanship, it's not an unfamiliar role. In the early Bush/Cheney years, Brulte held a sort of co-regency position over the state's fractious Republicans by White House designation with super-rich financier Gerry Parsky, who was California chair of the Bush/Cheney campaign.

He's largely a tactician, his instincts are insider instincts.

Already the rebooting California Republican Party is committing a major unforced error.

Then former Governor-turned-Attorney General Jerry Brown formally announced his candidacy for governor in March 2010 in this video message. Saying that he brought an "insider's knowledge" and an "outsider's mind," he laid out the themes of his governorship then yet to be.

For Brown is getting another boost with Karl Rove as the keynote speaker at the California Republican Party convention the first weekend in March.

Rove, the "architect" of George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns, more recently heads up two big super PACs which avail themselves of a lot of secret money.

All the better for Brown's Democratic allies to remind that the biggest anonymous contribution in California history -- $11 million to the No on 30 effort funneled through Virginia-based outfits with Rove ties -- still remains secret despite the intervention of the Republican majority California Supreme Court.

I never cease to marvel at the moves of the California Republican Party.

For all his acclaim now as the master of Californian politics, Brown himself knows that things can go wrong. As he points out from time to time, he's lost plenty of elections. Most of those happen to have been presidential primaries, of which he's also won quite a few, but he knows that triumph is not a given in life.

In fact, Jerry Brown has been an outsider for much of the time I've known him, with many of the same sorts of people saying how great he is now all too quick to dismiss him and, more importantly, his ideas.

He also knows that over-reach can turn the prospect of victory into defeat. Having rolled into the decisive 1992 New York presidential primary with a sudden lead, and Bill Clinton on the ropes, rather than keep on doing what was working, he over-thought the situation. And over-reached. Declaring that Jesse Jackson would be his running mate. Brown's New York lead turned into a third place finish, and the guaranteed nomination of future President Clinton.

Sorry to introduce something as a telling aside which should be a piece in itself.

Which is not to say that Brown is not a brilliant long-range planner.

In that regard, one wonders about California's chronic budget crisis: Was Brown playing a "long game" all along?

For the first half of 2011, he tried and failed to get a handful of Republican legislative votes just to place on the ballot an extension of the temporary taxes enacted by Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders in 2009. The truth is, that budget deal -- heavy on sales taxes, with a big corporate tax break in the bargain to win legislative passage -- was never popular. I remember spending a weekend going through polling on it while Schwarzenegger tried to extend the package in a special election. While victory was not exactly impossible, it also was, let's say, not apparent.

Had Brown gotten Republican legislative votes to place an extension on the ballot, his best selling point, aside from the obvious disaster scenario, was that most Californians didn't notice the taxes as it was so why not keep them? Which, paradoxically, is not something you want to remind someone of.

But Brown got tremendous credit with the people for doing exactly what he promised he would do as a candidate, i.e., try hard to work with Republicans and don't do the tax increase without a public vote.

And in the end, he had a substantially more popular program to sell.

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

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