09/22/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jerry Brown: Gearing Up a Campaign at Last?

It's been a fairly quiet campaign season so far in California with the exception of Proposition 32, the effort to rein in campaign spending by public employee unions by taking away their ability to have automatic paycheck deductions from union members. That effort, of course, is not led by workers upset about the deductions, but by union critics upset about union clout.

It's a big spending campaign, mostly on the No side, and will likely result in another defeat for the initiative proponents, with a new Field Poll showing it losing as I've been suggesting on my New West Notes site.

Why has the campaign season been so quiet? Well, Governor Jerry Brown's m.o. -- a lot of what I've called "stealth mode," not always to the governor's great pleasure -- has a lot to do with that. He is still going through the raft of legislation produced this year. And there are some deeper reasons, which I'll get to in a few moments.

Governor Jerry Brown, speaking in San Diego's Barrio Logan, talks about the overhaul to the state's $16 billion workers' compensation reform system he signed into law this week.

Brown has rolled out the Proposition 30 revenue initiative, which raise income taxes on high-income folks and sales taxes (to the tune of a quarter cent) on all on a temporary basis, on several occasions now. Yet the campaign has never been especially sustained, either on the yes or no side.

Now, with just over six weeks to go, the rubber must meet the road at last.

There's a new Field Poll showing Prop 30 holding a 15-point lead, 51-36. That's down a few points, which is within the margin of error of the poll, which was taken over an inordinately long period of time, nearly two weeks. Which means the undecided has gone up slightly.

The result comes after a spate of bad publicity for the initiative highlighting the state parks controversy and the controversial high-speed rail program. Which, as readers know, has its sources of funding separate from the state budget, not that that gets properly reported or anything.

Despite the controversy, Brown's job approval rating has actually improved slightly, back up to the high 40s, with a 47-38 edge over those disapproving.

Intriguingly, the initiative, which is backed by more independents than oppose it is more favored, is more favored by relatively well-off voters than by lower income voters. That's because it has an Achilles heel, in the form of the slight rise in the sales tax.

Absent the sales tax hike, Prop 30 would sail through.

So Brown is going to have to convince people that a little bit of shared sacrifice is necessary to avert a bad result for all.

Will he get out of stealth mode to do that?

Despite a subterranean $4 million from the Koch brothers interests, the Prop 32 initiative to remove public employee union ability to deduct political campaign funds from their members' paychecks is trending rapidly down to defeat. This despite a cleverly constructed hook making the measure appear to be evenhanded in clamping down on corporate and labor spending, causing many observers to believe that the initiative would finally pass after two earlier failures. That means labor and the rest of the Democratic Party coalition can focus in on Brown's temporary tax hike measure, Prop 30, which has been ahead all along.

But there is an intriguing wild card factor.

You already know about heiress Molly Munger's role, spending mega-millions to promote her essentially stillborn Prop 38 initiative to impose an income tax hike on nearly all Californians to direct more funding to schools.

Now her brother, who is a physicist at Stanford -- she's a lawyer in LA -- is in the game with a $4.1 million contribution at the beginning of the week to a shadowy outfit called the Small Business Action Committee (SBAC). Both Molly and Charlie, as he is known, are the children of billionaire investor Charles Munger, Warren Buffett's longtime business partner.

True Cali political junkies know what the SBAC outfit is, but here it is for the rest. It's a political action committee run by career anti-tax/small government activist Joel Fox, former director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. He runs a blog called Fox and Hounds, almost entirely written by conservatives to very conservative activists and lobbyists, and gets involved, usually on the far right side of things, in California campaigns.

In 2010, he used his Small Business Action Committee -- of which I see no real evidence of small business involvement, aside from the committee itself -- as a vehicle for nearly $2 million in attack ads against Brown. They were supposedly issue advocacy ads, so Fox refused to divulge the actual contributors.

But you can bet they weren't small businesses. No one other than Fox himself is cited as a current member of the Small Business Action Committee on the entity's web site.

No board of directors is cited, no board of advisors, well, you get the picture. I believe that James Lacey, a well-known hard right political lawyer, is the SBAC legal counsel. So that would make two members I know of.

In the first half of 2012, the Small Business Action Committee PAC raised about $60,000. Since then, it has raised about $4.75 million from three sources: Munger's $4,091,499.84, (Interesting number, no?) $300,000 from Otter Capital, which is a private equity firm, and $350,000 from the New Majority PAC, a high-roller Republican fundraising group.

And not a small business among them.

Before his sister emerged from relative obscurity -- I'd never heard of her before she surfaced as a big initiative proponent -- Charlie Munger, as he is known, was the younger Munger of note in California political circles. I've met him a few times. He seems a nice guy.

His involvement in California politics has been decidedly on the mod Republican side till now. He only began in politics eight years ago as a volunteer in future former state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner's 2004 Assembly race in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is before Poizner went hard right in his run for the 2010 gubernatorial nomination.

Munger then became a big backer of political reform measures, notably redistricting reform.

So what he is up to now?

That's unclear.

Brown responded to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's attack on him prior to the East Coast pol delivering his distinctly underwhelming keynote address to the Republican National Convention.

Munger may have been motivated to try to clip the wings of public employee unions with Prop 32, which the SBAC, which is to say Joel Fox, is a longtime supporter of. But that is going to lose.

Fox, an amiable fellow I've known a long time, is one of the three co-chairs of the No on 30 campaign, along with the guy who replaced him as director of the Howard Jarvis group and another right-winger who has also made a career of opposing taxes. And that campaign has languished. The California Chamber of Commerce is formally neutral and Prop 30 has some major business support, as well as the staunch backing of labor and the Democratic Party.

Does Munger want his money to go to try to tip the balance on Prop 30? Does he want to change his image from amiable reformer to something else?

With Prop 32 now losing, the California Teachers Association has just given $3.5 million to Prop 30. That means its warchest is closing in on $20 million.

How would it look for a few really rich people to try to fund the case that voters should vote down a quarter cent sales tax hike when the great bulk of the tax hike is on rich people like themselves?

Some questions answer themselves.

Meanwhile, Brown has worked to demonstrate reform and increased governmental efficiency as he asks Californians to approve temporary tax hikes.

He signed a major update to the workers compensation system at events in San Diego and LA, joined by business and labor leaders. (Left in the lurch in this bipartisan legislative biz/labor kumbaya are lawyers and doctors in the work comp system.)

He was joined by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Assembly Speaker John Perez, and business, labor, and community leaders including state Chamber of Commerce president Alan Zaremberg and state Federation of Labor chief Art Pulaski.

Brown got major credit in the Los Angeles Times for his last minute intervention to push through the bill revamping the workers compensation system, again groaning, eight years after being reformed by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, under the weight of threatened rate increases and complaint about insufficient payments to injured workers.

Brown worked with legislators of both parties in a late-developing drive to fend off impending rate hikes for businesses and to increase payments to injured workers. Both things were accomplished by cutting administrative procedures and costs and economizing on medical costs.

The bill passed by overwhelming margins in both houses, 64-4 in the Assembly and 34-4 in the Senate.

Before that, Brown signed a public pension reform law with legislative leaders on hand. It deals with a good chunk of likely future shortfalls, adding to earlier reforms from Schwarzenegger, but even Brown acknowledges that it is only part of what he wanted. It is, as he puts it, what he could get.

Given the confused state of voter perceptions on the pension question -- it's not nearly so pressing an issue as pension reformers would like to think it is in the minds of many voters, and there is a lot of support for state and local government workers to get what is in their contracts -- the bill may be enough to check off the reform box for most. At least for now.

Brown shot some hoops at an LA area public school which will see big cutbacks in its schedule if the Proposition 30 revenue initiative does not pass.

I think that, absent some surprise attack, Brown wins the initiative. President Barack Obama has moved to a huge lead in California, 58-34 in the Field Poll. A big Obama win over Mitt Romney, whose protege Meg Whitman was crushed by Brown in 2010, may portend another bad election for conservatives here.

There was a stealthy attack from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Californian governance which in turn makes false attacks about supposedly hidden accounts in state government. As the Sacramento Bee points out, there is no such reality as "bureaucrats put $37 billion in hidden, unaudited accounts."

I do know that the U.S. Chamber evaded the responsibility to report the actual contributors by pretending this was an informational issue ad rather than an attack on Brown's Prop 30 revenue initiative.

I also know that the U.S. Chamber did the same thing in 2010 with ads attacking Brown in the guise of informational issue advertising.

The official No on 30 campaign put up a radio ad which does connect directly to the initiative.

But it's not very good, either. And perhaps even more to the point, the buy appears to be small.

Of course, this assumes a full-scale campaign from Brown. Which hasn't emerged yet.

Which is not to say that the night is not still young. Oh, wait, the night is not still young. This endless and not especially edifying campaign season is going to be over in 45 days.

Brown believes that Schwarzenegger was over-exposed as governor. But he may have taken the desire to avoid over-exposure to an extreme.

He discusses his take on that in an intriguing Pacific Standard interview with my old colleague Marc Cooper.

Though I don't always agree with Marc (with whom I worked in the LA Weekly days, and in projects with Arianna Huffington helping run Shadow Conventions 2000 and the Warren Beatty for President exploratory effort), he does a nice job of drawing Brown out on his approach to practical politics, which goes against the campaign professional grain in a number of respects. Especially when it comes to the usual panoply of "messaging" efforts.

I think Brown makes some good points, but has gone too far in the other direction.

So what's about to come? Stay tuned.

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

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