The Governor’s Last Stand: California’s Jerry Brown- now pragmatic, but still profane-is banking on a last-gasp proposal known as Proposition 30 to save the biggest economy in the nation.
August 27, 2012
When California Governor Jerry Brown addressed the state chamber of commerce just before Memorial Day to gain support to raise taxes, he seemed to revel in admitting he was stuck in a box. This was precisely the dilemma that existentialist heroes relish: at a time when the word taxes had become dirty, he was more or less leveraging his political future, and the state’s, on a measure to broadly raise revenues. This seemed like the only way out for a government that was running up massive deficits while firing teachers, shuttering libraries, and cutting back support for the poor. But Brown embraces his image as one resolute man pitted against a cold and indifferent political universe.
“Aristotle’s poetics talks about three acts—the beginning, the middle, and the end,” he told the business crowd in what was considered a well-received speech. “We’re just beginning Act II. It’s true some politicians don’t have a third act. I hope I’m not one of them, because the third act is when it gets good. Act II is when the protagonist is under pressure to get out of the box he’s in,” he added. “You wait. We’re going to get to Act III very soon.”
Over the past several decades, the Golden State has become a dyspeptic brew of deficits, faltering services, and decaying schools—presided over by a government whose popularity rating barely clears the single digits. Californians are indeed waiting to see what Brown will do to get himself, and us, out of this mess.
A year and a half after taking the governor’s chair, three decades after serving two previous terms as governor, after three runs at the presidency, after two terms as Oakland mayor, after one term as attorney general (and while planning on another gubernatorial term beginning in 2015), the 74-year-old Brown is at his do-or-die moment: he came into office with an ironclad pledge that, with no higher political aspirations, he would deploy all of his accumulated political skills to solve, once and for all, the state’s perennial budget crisis and deficit. “At this stage of my life, I’ve not come here to embrace delay and denial,” he said during his January 2011 inaugural speech.
His timing couldn’t have been better—or worse, depending on how you look at it. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came to power in 2003 making similar pledges, left behind the smoking ruins of a $27 billion deficit. Brown had to close that gap with a quirky electorate that was even more grumpy and schizophrenic than ever: state legislators hate deficits almost as much as the taxes needed to end them.
Brown bolted out of the gate, vowing to engage the populace in a massive, straight-shooting “civic dialogue” that would do away with decades of empty political rhetoric and rationally approach tough fiscal realities.
And then he disappeared. “Frankly, he became invisible,” says a longtime Brown associate and admirer. “For the first six months, he was the most fucking boring guy in the state. It was really infuriating, and it was intentional.”
The governor wasn’t goofing off. He was cloistered inside the capitol, talking mostly with Republicans, a weak party that has just enough legislative seats (by four, to be exact) to block the absurd two-thirds majority vote required to raise taxes. Brown was sure he could use his powers of persuasion to peel them off and make a grand bargain: budget cuts and pension reform in exchange for tax increases. Or so he thought.
Instead, Brown hit a brick wall. “Jerry’s had sort of an Obama trajectory,” says Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the L.A.-based Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs, named for the governor’s father, the 32nd California governor. “At first, he spent more time with the Republicans than Arnold did. But like Obama, Jerry didn’t understand he could do nothing with them and get nothing from them. I don’t think he fully grasped the cynical dynamics of the current Republican Party.”
“It was probably a lost cause from the beginning, but he didn’t see it that way,” says Phil Trounstine, a copublisher of the Calbuzz blog and a former communications director for Governor Gray Davis. “It was a combination of underestimation and some hubris. People were telling him ‘Jerry, it isn’t that way anymore.’ But he was wasn’t willing to hear that, and he had an overwhelming sense of his own ability to get people together.”
Walking away empty-handed, Brown had to ruthlessly chop social spending so the state wouldn’t capsize. He slashed billions from already battered schools and health-care programs.
What Brown emerged with this year, finally, was a broad financial plan, one that he reluctantly—then enthusiastically—fused with a popular “millionaire’s tax” proposed by the smaller of two statewide teachers’ unions. The medulla of the plan is a four-year, quarter of a percent sales-tax increase, and a seven-year increase of one to three percent on incomes of $250,000 or more. If in November voters approve the measure, it would rake in about $9 billion for the next fiscal year, and it should significantly close the budget gap narrowed by Brown’s draconian spending cuts.
It should. Except this past May, deficit projections skyrocketed from $9 billion to $16 billion. Brown went before the press to warn that he would be forced to make yet another round of cuts to schools, medical programs, the courts, aid to the disabled, and child health care even if his tax measure passed—and more-catastrophic reductions if it didn’t.
“Jerry’s a very shrewd politician,” says Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a former communications director for Governor Pete Wilson. “He’s written the biggest ransom note in history. He’s telling voters: ‘Either pass this initiative or your kids are gonna get it in the head.’”…