Budget, lawsuit collide: Jerry Brown’s mayoral role may haunt him

The stresses and tensions of the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial campaign have popped up in the state Capitol in the oddest place: the Senate Republican caucus. And it’s Jerry Brown who put them there in a legal and political move that reflects a departure from his actions as mayor of Oakland.

GOP Leader Dick Ackerman and his colleagues, angered at a greenhouse gas emissions lawsuit filed against San Bernardino County by the state Attorney General, demanded as part of any budget agreement that Brown be brought to heel and that limits be placed on his office’s use of such suits. Republicans said Brown, a Democrat, former two-term governor and a likely statewide candidate in 2010, seeks to block development and gain political mileage by positioning himself as an environmental enforcer.

But Brown himself, as mayor of Oakland, sought earlier to make an end-run around CEQA, championed then what he opposes now, and sought exemptions from some state environmental rules in order to boost development in downtown Oakland. Then, Brown argued that overly stringent environmental rules throttled development–similar to the position that Republicans are arguing now. He was not immediately available to comment on the issue to Capitol Weekly.

In fact, Brown was the driving force behind AB 436, a 2001 bill carried by former Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, D-Oakland, that eased CEQA environmental restrictions on city development and, among other things, speeded up the approval process. Builders and the League of Cities joined Brown in backing the bill, which was approved unanimously in both the Assembly and Senate, and later by the Oakland City Council. “I haven’t seen any spotted owls or snail darters in downtown Oakland,” Brown noted, according to a February 2001 San Francisco Chronicle article.

Targeting a community for doing what he himself did six years earlier rankled Republicans. In fact, few politicians are as adept at pushing Republicans’ buttons as Brown.

“The fact of the matter is, as mayor of Oakland he was happily pursuing development. Now he is talking about limiting development, and limiting development means no more highways, no more infrastructure being built because it all contributes to global warming,” said Republican political consultant strategist Kevin Spillane.

“They (the Republicans) are using the budget to trim Brown’s sails,” Spillane added. “He’s learned how to market himself. Now he’s trying to be the liberal environmental advocate running for governor. This is all about the governor’s primary in 2010.” Other candidates are likely to include San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Treasurer Bill Lockyer and state schools superintendent Jack O’Connell.

“We’ve already had letters from people all over the state, in the business, related to this thing, saying if you don’t do something about Jerry now, he’s going to stop you from spending those bond proceeds,” Ackerman said on a KQED broadcast forum that included Senate Leader Don Perata of Oakland. In the 40-member Senate, split between 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans, at least two Republican votes are needed to reach the magic number of 27–the two-thirds required to approve the budget. As of Tuesday, the negotiations remained stalled. The Assembly has already approved the spending plan.

The Republicans’complaints track the view of their traditional constituencies–the state Chamber of Commerce, builders and the manufacturers’ association, among others–who contended there was nothing in the state’s carbon emissions law that allows the state to force local officials to consider greenhouse gas rules when deciding local projects. Brown’s challenges “have the potential to stop or significantly delay thousands of new homes from being built,” they wrote to the state’s political leaders.

Environmentalists were not persuaded.

“It’s a very clever tactic,” said Gary Patton, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League. “The only place Republicans hope to get traction is during the budget debate. They use this leverage in the budget process to try and get something that nobody in their right mind would agree to.”

Brown filed the lawsuit to force the fast-growing Inland Empire county and its agencies to factor in global warming when they consider development. The suit contends the state’s principal environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, and AB 32, California’s greenhouse gas emissions law, require local authorities to consider global-warming impacts and include them in their General Plan, the county’s principal growth-management document. Brown also urged seven other counties to consider greenhouse gas emission impacts, although thus far, he has not filed suits.

San Bernardino County believes Brown’s lawsuit is without merit.

“Our general plan complies with every existing law,” said San Bernardino spokesman David Wert. “If you read AB 32, it says the ARB (Air Resources Board) shall create rules and guidelines, and they haven’t done that yet.”

“Our main concern about this litigation is that the county is going to have to spend in the neighborhood of $1 million to defend itself,” Wert added.

But Brown’s lawsuit resonates in the environmental community, which generally has supported the former governor over the years. And they draw a distinction between Brown’s activities in Oakland, where he sought to revitalize an urban core, with attempts by builders, the business community and local governments to make it easier to build large residential developments.

“He was trying to do something for inner-city urbanization projects where the environmental impacts are a lot less than when you go plow under thousands of acres of Placer County for a new subdivision. The Republicans want to give developers a free pass from global warming rules for the next five years,” Patton said.

Democrats, too, are suspicious of Brown. And they note that there is peril in antagonizing the former governor.

“Well, those of us that have found Jerry Brown over the years realize that he’s far better brought in and made part of the discussion than to threaten to him that we’re going to create laws that will impinge upon his ability to do his job,” Perata said at the KQED discussion.

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