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Jerry Brown as writer: Pithy, acerbic, droll, concise & brusque

“This issue has been studied and studied and studied.”

Just another of Gov. Jerry Brown’s sometimes pointed – often clipped – veto messages.

Brown’s one-sentence wonder is directed at a bill mandating an appraisal of the availability of childcare.

The measure’s author is GOP Assemblyman Jerry Lewis who has been Rep. Jerry Lewis since 1979. Brown vetoed Lewis’ bill in September 1976 – more than 35 years ago.

This year, the Democratic governor won the attention of lawmakers, lobbyists and the media for – what a novelty! – actually penning his own veto messages.

“If you’re vetoing legislation and want people to understand the reasons why, writing in a compelling way makes it far more likely it will appear in the newspaper or on television,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh School of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“The second, and probably more important, benefit is it’s very cathartic. Sitting in a room alone with several hundred bills, there’s nothing wrong with venting every once in a while.”

Brown has been brusque, pithy, candid, acerbic, droll, trenchant, and even a tad persnickety – sometimes all in the same veto message.

His penchant is brevity, simplicity and precision in word choice.

“He’s a writer. He pays very careful attention to what he’s saying and how he says it,” said Gil Duran, Brown’s communications director. “Why use a word with three syllables when you can use another with only one?”

Sometimes Brown can’t help himself:

“Let’s keep our powder dry on amendments until the court case runs its course,” he said in an Oct. 9 veto of a bill to change the state’s currently litigated handgun ammunition statute.
Several long-time Capitol denizens sniff that despite the polished prose Brown sometimes sounds like a “grumpy old man.”

A cursory look at his past vetoes quickly shows that if Brown is a surly septuagenarian then he was an equally testy tricenarian and querulous quadragenarian.

A closer examination reveals a lot about his political acumen and philosophic foundations. For the most part he isn’t being crabby, either. He’s being forthright and, sometimes, instructive.

“Some things have changed but he has always been very engaged with the substance of legislation,” said Diana Dooley, Brown’s Health and Human Services cabinet secretary and, from 1978 through 1981, his legislative secretary.

“He reads the bills. He looks at the various points of view. Just as he did 30 years ago, he’ll get someone on the phone to explain the reasoning behind their position. What’s more central to governing than deciding what ideas should become laws?”

Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross reports being phoned by Brown on a Saturday to discuss a bill’s merits.

“He must have had 40 questions,” Ross told Capitol Weekly. “‘Is this needed?  Is there a better way of doing it? Who’s the beneficiary? Who gets hurt?  Do we have existing authority?’ “

Over nine years as governor, Brown has vetoed 653 bills, 528 of them between 1975 and 1982.

It’s scant consolation to the current crop of lawmakers who found themselves on the wrong end of Brown’s ballpoint this year but, back in the age of the IBM Selectric, he did the same thing to hundreds of other legislators, with varying degrees of diplomacy.

“This bill would allow local governments throughout this state to use bond financing to pay on-going insurance costs. The tradition in California has been to limit such bond financing to capital projects,” Brown wrote in 1977 of a bill by then Assemblyman Ken Maddy, a Fresno Republican.

“Those cities in the East which have yielded to the temptation of paying current expenses by floating bonds have reaped the whirlwind of fiscal chaos. That is not what I want for California.”

By no means does Brown’s body of work remotely rival Marcel Proust, Alex de Tocqueville or G. K. Chesterton, one of his favored authors.
But his writing presents an easily recognizable voice and a number of well-turned phrases:

“This bill would tend to accelerate the alarming rush to the courts for almost every grievance,” he wrote in 1977.

“The marriage relationship should not so quickly be dissolved,” he said in 1982.

Again from 1977:

“Social Security has its problems but they are small compared to those created by a mobile and restless society which fails to develop a portable pension system.”

The message also offers a window into his biases and thought process.      

A common theme – then and now – is separation of powers.

Routinely, Brown will say an issue is more properly the purview of the courts than the Legislature or lawmakers are treading on executive branch turf.  

This year, Brown said the “courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case-specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizures protections” in vetoing a bill by Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, to overturn a California Supreme Court decision allowing warrantless searches of cell phones.

From a September 1981 veto of a bill giving the Legislature the ability to appoint a majority of members of the California Advisory and Appeals Board.

“I believe it is fundamental to respect the separation of powers.”

As Brown often brags, he has always been tight with a buck. This from 1976:

“In an era of limits, hard choices have to be made about allocating scarce public monies. Although the objectives of the bill are good, I am not prepared to spend the money required in light of other budget demands.”

Nor has he shown eagerness to expand the state’s role in licensing.

“Unless it is really clear that state intervention is needed to protect the public, I prefer to leave the judgments required to be made under this bill with those closer to the problem,” Brown said in a Sept. 30, 1976 veto of a measure by Assemblywoman Leona Egeland, a San Jose Democrat, relating to the certification of occupational therapists.

“I have serious reservations about the excessive licensing activity engaged in by the state.”

Or of a 1976 bill by Fresno Democratic Sen. George Zenovich: “I have reservations about the wisdom of the state injecting itself into the family and marriage counseling business.”
While a major pledge of Brown’s 2010 campaign was returning more government functions to local jurisdictions, doing so isn’t exactly a new veto message theme.

“This bill deals with matters best left for local determination,” he wrote in September 1976. A 1975 bill requiring Los Angeles County to keep separate statistics for the San Fernando Valley earned a nearly verbatim sentence.”    

Brown’s classical education – a degree in Greek and Latin studies from the University of California at Berkeley – is readily apparent.

This year, he branded two bills a “siren song,” evoking the seductive strains of the bird-bodied women of Greek mythology who lured sailors to their doom with promises of boundless knowledge and deep wisdom.

Brown’s vocabulary is prodigious. “Turgid mandates,” whose lilt seems more Penthouse Letters than veto message, was one of several c
riticisms leveled at one of the “siren song” bills.

Vetoes from his first two administrations are housed at the State Archives. Each is accompanied by all other documents in the folder on that particular legislation.

There are analyses of the bill by affected agencies and the legislative unit in the governor’s office, correspondence and telegrams for or against and suggested veto messages, which, in most cases, are significantly longer than what ultimately left Brown’s hand.

Many of the drafts are line-edited by Brown. Sentences, clauses and paragraphs are struck. In one draft message he replaces “currently” with “already” and “maladies” with “infirmities.”

The proposed veto message of the Lewis childcare bill was four paragraphs long. Brown condensed the following into his one sentence veto:

“It is clear the unmet need for child day care far exceeds the resources available to meet that need. However, in view of the numerous prior studies which have been made, I believe it would be more appropriate to expand our energies and monies on direct service and in finding new and lower cost approaches to the delivery of child care services.”
Sometimes, however, Brown channels his inner Tolstoy.

Combined, the three proposed veto messages for 1982’s SB 1738 – a measure by then Senator and now Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, a Biggs Republican – totaled seven relatively short sentences.

Brown instead wrote a one-and-a-half page epistle. Besides making California a “a follower, rather than a leader” in championing pollution control technologies, Nielsen’s bill was “unclear, confusing and ambiguous.”  Some of its provisions would “invite contention and litigation.”

The veto message also proves even the most conscientious editor is fallible.

On the second page, there’s a typo: “Resolution” instead of “regulation.”

In fairness to the governor, Spellcheck – had it been invented – wouldn’t have caught it either.


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