Brown’s progress report: A tough slog to affirm the vision

As a candidate for governor, Jerry Brown sold himself as a can-do, been-there-done-that political veteran – eight years in the Capitol’s corner office already under his belt – who could “knock some heads” and get the J-O-B done.

Any number of times, Brown said he knew how Sacramento worked and how it should work.

“I have the preparation, know-how – and the independence – to challenge the status quo and get our legislators to work together as Californians first, not just members of the Democratic or Republican parties,” he said in his primary election victory speech last year.

But while the 73-year-old former seminarian routinely mentioned California’s “dreamers, doers and pioneers” on the campaign trail and “green jobs,” he didn’t articulate a vision for the Golden State much beyond stressing the importance of ordering its fiscal chaos.

That’s a common rap on the Democratic governor by California Republican Party Chair Tom del Beccaro: “Jerry Brown is a manager. We don’t need a manager. We need a leader. With a vision.”

Brown says he has kept true to his campaign pledges.

“The governor said he would be honest and speak the truth. He said he would deal with the budget without smoke and mirrors, not raise taxes without voter approval and move government closer to the people. He’s done what he said he would,” Gil Duran, Brown’s communications director, told Capitol Weekly.

Is that vision, though?  

“Brown has helped himself by lowering expectations. He never pretended he was going to lead some miraculous turnaround. He never pretended he had magic answers to the state’s problems,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh School of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“Basically, Brown said, ‘I know how to slog through and gradually get things heading in the right direction.’ “

Brown has had his share of tough slogging over the past nine months.

Most recently, during the final hours of the legislative session, Senate Republican balked at the governor’s tax incentive plan for small businesses.

On the budget itself, Republicans refused to grant him the votes to place before voters his initial proposal to extend for five years $11 billion in temporary taxes.

The budget the Democratic governor eventually signed was more reminiscent of what his GOP opponent Meg Whitman would have proposed.   

It was balanced mainly through spending scale-backs including a $1.4 billion whack on higher education and $4 billion for health and human services programs.

“He came in with one goal and failed to get there. He needed four Republican votes and got zero. He hasn’t succeeded in pushing Democrats to the middle either,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.

“An all cuts budget was not what he campaigned on which makes him, at least at the moment, the governor of a state that’s not moving in a direction he wants.”

It is a budget long on long-term savings that’s shorter on sleight-of-hand and one-time quick fixes than most in recent memory.

A budget that leaves state support for public schools largely untouched after three years of reductions totaling more than $14 billion.

A budget that shifts more than $5.5 billion in criminal justice and public safety functions to counties.
And a budget signed before the beginning of the new fiscal year, only the sixth time in 20 years.

Brown – and the state’s taxpayers — were rewarded with tempered atta-boys and lower borrowing costs by the rating agencies and lenders of the temporary billions the state needs to cover its short-term cash flow obligations.

The Democratic governor also did a good job of selling his austerity plan by reducing the number of cell phones and vehicles used by state employees, curtailing travel, flying Southwest and reducing the governor’s office budget.

Combined, the reductions are budget dust but “it gives the public something real to latch onto and clearly communicate what his administration is about,” said Kousser.

Currently, Brown places a goodly chunk of the blame for not achieving what he initially sought on the intransigence of Republican lawmakers.

“He had to have been surprised by what he encountered when he got here,” said A.G. Block, associate director of the University of California Center in Sacramento and former editor of California Journal.
“He saw that same mindset back when he came to office the first time but, back then, he could look around and find statesmen on that side of the aisle with enough gravitas or persuasive ability to work with him. There’s nobody there now.”

While Brown has neutralized several potential political enemies – signing, for example, a labor contract with the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association after the union went three years without one – he remains as garrulous, idiosyncratic, flighty and irascible as he was more than 30 years ago when he first held the job.

“There’s no change in him except now he spends more nights at home with the wife and less nights at the bar.” said Bill Leonard, whose 24-year legislative career started at the beginning of Brown’s second term in 1978.
“I couldn’t tell you what his vision is. I haven’t seen anything longer-term than ‘what-are-we-going-to-do-next-week?’ “

One thing is different, though. Brown’s primary focus is the job he holds and not, like the last go-round, Wisconsin or some other presidential primary state.

“Hell, if I was younger, you know I’d be running again,” he said in his first debate with Whitman at UC Davis.

“I now have a wife, I come home at night, I don’t try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California,” Brown said, echoing Leonard’s comment. “I’m going to spend more time in Sacramento and get it done. I’m in for the duration here.”

Says Duran: “The governor is quite engaged. He takes very seriously his responsibility to make decisions in an informed manner. He’s got a hunger to be into this job.”

But – if polls are to believed – many Californians could care less whether their chief executive is persnickety, probing or politically ambitious.  

The most recent Public Policy Institute of California survey shows Brown with positives lower than those of the Field Poll.

More telling though is that among the state’s adults, 31 percent don’t know whether they like or dislike the Democratic governor.

Among voters, 25 percent say they don’t know either. That’s 1 percent more than the number of Brown’s own party who don’t have an opinion. Twenty percent of likely voters say they don’t know.

Almost 30 percent of independents, who decide statewide races, say Brown is a cipher.

“For many people, the governor has been flying under the radar,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the public policy institute.  “He hasn’t been playing a highly visible role and, as a result, he hasn’t disappointed.”

At a time when the view of most voters toward politicians is negative, it probably is a plus to be unknown, Baldassare and others say.

“Every day Washington’s budget and not California’s is on the front page is a good day fo
r Jerry Brown,” said Schnur.

“For most voters it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind. In a bad recession, that’s not a bad place to be at all.”

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