Commentary

11/04/2010 by Alex Raksin

For California, Jerry Brown might just be in the right place at the right time

It's hard to argue with the decisive majority (54 to 41 percent) of Californians who chose Jerry Brown as their next governor Tuesday.

After all, setting aside Whitman's numerous virtues as a person, her campaign—far from sturdy—often felt as topsy-turvy as a carnival house of mirrors. Whitman would begin a speech, for instance, by stressing that “I can’t win without the Latino vote,” then go on to alienate that demographic by glibly dismissing even the most pragmatic plans to legalize some immigrants. Worse, there was what the L.A. Times on Tuesday called Whitman’s “ruthless corporate persona,” exemplified by the way she handled questions about why she fired her nanny of nine years. (See Endnote 1 below in case you missed the brouhaha.)

None of this is dismiss the serious and irrefutable concern—shared by a wide range of Whitman supporters, from the California Chamber of Commerce to former Gov. Pete Wilson—that Brown will merely become a shill for unions and other Democratic interest groups whose intransigence and self-interest is at least partly to blame for the state’s $19 billion deficit.

Here are two of Whitman’s top concerns about Brown that voters should relentlessly press their new governor to disprove:

WHITMAN CHARGE ONE: Brown will only dig the state deeper into bankruptcy, while driving up its already shameful 12.4 percent unemployment rate. Whitman unfortunately failed to substantiate this charge by specifying how she would go about accomplishing her oft-stated mission to “clean up the spending mess in Sacramento.” Her most concrete proposal was “establishing a ‘Sunset Commission’ to cut wasteful spending.”

Brown, in contrast, is far more fiscally conservative than many of those who voted for him may have realized. After becoming governor in 1975, Brown’s first move was to declare an end to the “Gold Rush mentality” that had enabled his father Pat Brown, California governor from 1959 to 1967, to build colossal institutions such as the University of California. “We must enter,” said Brown back then, “a new era of limits.” Recognizing that in the midst of a deep recession, government spending can be more salutary than government cuts, Brown also has an audacious but temporally sensible proposal to create half a million jobs over the next decade by expanding the state’s lead in “green,” renewable energy production. Anyone closely following the rapidly growing global demand for clean technologies knows there’s nothing fanciful (aka Gov. MoonBeam-ish) about this plan. Brown’s green thumbs are likely to be nimble given voters’ rejection Tuesday of Proposition 23, a measure that would have suspended state laws that encourage green energy, as well as voters’ approval of Proposition 25, which lowers the hurdle required to pass state budgets from two-thirds to just over 50 percent of the state assembly and senate.

WHITMAN CHARGE TWO: Like most of his budget-cutting proposals, Brown’s pension reform plans don’t go nearly far enough. Here, Brown often failed to refute Whitman.

During the campaign, for instance, Whitman proposed replacing the state’s “defined benefit plan” for new hires with a more flexible “defined contribution” plan. Brown, by contrast, did little more than suggest that he would tinker with state spending on workers’ retirement benefits—by, for example, increasing employee contributions and raising the retirement ages for new hires. Until Brown proposes seriously curtailing retirement benefits for public unions in the state, most voters, whose benefits aren’t nearly as generous, will have a legitimate reason to be irked by his leadership.

In my last blog for CA Fwd, I faulted both Whitman and Brown for failing to give voters enough specifics to understand how they’d govern. At least one person read my blog (thank you Peter Golio!), countering that in California “voters’ judgments rely on broader strokes, such as assessments of candidates’ biographies and practical experience [and]… evaluations of character and competence….” Golio is right, of course. But I would argue that Californians should pick at least one issue they care about, pressure Brown to keep them in the loop about any back-room deals related to that issue, and of course, give him hell if they think he’s struck a bad bargain.

The issue I plan to follow mostly closely is prison reform. With every passing day, California’s Department of Corrections has become increasingly unable to accomplish its nominal mission—rehabilitation. California’s “recidivism” or repeat offense rate has become one of the highest of any state, in fact, even as the CDC’s consumption of the state’s general fund grew from just 4 percent in 1994 to nearly 11 percent today.

Brown was strongly endorsed by the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the prison guards union that all but runs the CDC. Whitman, of course, wasted no time in using that endorsement as evidence that Brown is little more than a union shill.

But after covering California’s prison and parole systems for over a decade for the L.A. Times, I have to acknowledge that the CCPOA’s recently released “Blueprint for Reforming California’s Prison System” repeatedly asserts, almost exactly as I did in my 2003 prison series, that every day “thousands of inmates…are being released without the education, job training, or basic life skills needed to function in society.”

I take this as a sign that the CCPOA may have finally realized—as the state teachers unions did in 1999 when they grudgingly agreed to follow California’s new Public Schools Accountability Act, which requires schools to public report their performance in return for increased funding—that Californians are becoming increasingly unwilling to fund public institutions whose performance they can’t measure. For all I know the CCPOA’s view may not be that sharp, but that’s why the public has to remain vigilant, forever pushing Brown not to cave. (Whitman fingered one of the system’s innumerable failings when she pointed out last month that, “California spends twice as much to provide health care to prisoners compared to other large states.”)

Throughout his campaign Brown alluded to, rather than hammered, his most obvious strength—unprecedented political experience. Even then, the 72-year-old pol usually went out of his way to poke fun at his seniority—joking on Monday Nov. 1, for instance, that, “Even Meg Whitman came to California, because she was sitting there somewhere back on the East Coast, where the snow was falling, and she looked at California and said, ‘Boy that young governor out there, noy what a job he’s doing.’”

Brown’s self-mockery was partly strategic (experience, thanks to the rhetorical toxins spilled by spin doctors, has become a dirty word) and partly Oedipal (Brown has always shunned the limos and other trappings of power that his dad embraced). But Brown’s self-effacing tone was probably somewhat disingenuous too, because I think he truly believes he’s got the very characteristics—intelligence, experience and independent-mindedness—that California needs more than ever today.

Public interest in politics inevitably plummets after an election, because, as Jon Stewart said at the end of his D.C. rally last weekend, “Most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats or Republicans or conservatives or liberals. Most Americans live their lives as if they are just a little bit late for something they have to do.”

But if Americans have time to keep an eye on only one of Brown’s traits, it should be his arrogance. However nimble he may be at wangling deals behind the curtains, Californians should demand that he keeps them in the loop, giving them enough information about those deals to be able to decide whether he has or hasn’t struck the right bargain in voters’ name.

I have no clue as to which proportion of the 54 percent of Californians who elected Brown were voting for him or against Whitman. All I can say from personal experience is that I once edited a book review he wrote for me at the L.A. Times. After I phoned him at his then-home on the outskirts of Tokyo, Japan, he approved or rejected every one of my proposed editorial changes with a quick wit and seriousness of concern that was striking given the relatively insignificant nature of our piddling enterprise. So I carry no doubt that Brown was sincere Tuesday when he said that he will “devote my full attention” to the job. But will his energy be well spent? That depends on the public.

Sure, Jerry Brown will do fine without constant populist guidance: the sort of training wheels that a neophyte politician might need to steer a moderate and centrist course. But if I’ve realized anything in the two decades I spent covering California for the L.A. Times, it’s that without constant public vigilance, guidance, criticism and support, even the most muscular and energetic political leaders eventually lose their direction and drive.

**

ENDNOTES FOR FURTHER READING

(1) Here’s a précis of Whitman’s “Nanny-Gate”: Up until mid-Oct. 2010, Whitman vehemently asserted that she fired Nicky Diaz Santillan, her “friend,” housekeeper and nanny for nine years, in 2009, right after realizing that Santillan was an illegal immigrant. When Santillan’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, produced a letter showing that the Social Security Administration had informed Whitman seven years earlier that Santillan may have been an illegal immigrant, Whitman initially said “it’s very possible” that Santillan stole and trashed the letter. “She might have been on the lookout for the letter,” Whitman explained. “It would pain me to believe that that’s what she might have done but I have no other explanation.” But Whitman never blamed Santillan again after Oct. 14, when Allred showed that her husband, Griff Harsh, had actually responded to the letter by writing “Nicky, please check this, thanks.”

Alex Raksin, editorial director of the social media firm Creative-Connectors.Org, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog by our guest columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of California Forward or our Leadership Council.

Categories: Governance Reform, Jerry Brown, Budget Reform, Budget Reform, Governance Reform, Jerry Brown

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