Bay Area News Group: Politics Professor Comments on Governor Brown’s First Year Back

California Gov. Jerry Brown gets mostly B grades from analysts for memorable, though ultimately disappointing first year back

Published by the San Jose Mercury News Dec. 28, 2011

By Steven Harmon

SACRAMENTO — From his early courtship of Republicans to the witty vetoes he penned to his end-of-year decision to pursue a tax initiative in 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown’s first year back in the governor’s office was lively, offbeat, memorable, but perhaps ultimately disappointing — and just a prelude to possibly an even more volatile year ahead.

That’s the assessment of political observers whom we asked to play teacher and grade Brown’s return to power 28 years after his last stint as California’s governor. They examined five significant aspects of his performance: the vision he brought; his courtship of Republicans; the budget; the bill-signing period; and his final act of pulling the trigger for $1 billion in cuts and announcing his plans to run a ballot measure on tax increases.

To be sure, our pundits’ grades may reflect their political leanings. But there were instances that defied stereotypes. Bill Whalen, a speechwriter for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, gave Brown a strong B for his attempts to court the Republicans, for instance.

Brown earned a B overall in his first year. But our batch of picky professors found room for improvement in his sophomore year.

The Vision: From the day he was elected, Brown spoke of bringing California together, asking voters to show loyalty to the state over party. He also laid out, in a series of public talks, the dire situation facing them: a $26 billion deficit that he vowed to close without the typical kick-the-can-down-the-road gimmickry.

Given the tough task handed him, Brown presented a “limited, realistic vision, more honest than what we’ve seen,” said Ethan Rarick, program director at the Robert Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at UC Berkeley. “It’s much easier to have a vision when there’s money to be spent.”

But Brown failed to show a vision of a California a decade hence, said Whalen, who is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He needed to do so not just in fiscal terms, Whalen said, “but with a forward-looking, imaginative vision you’d expect from a creative thinking guy like Jerry Brown. It just ain’t there.”

Grade: B (2.90 Grade-point average)

The Courtship: The governor poured most of his early energies into wooing the GOP, hoping to get a bare minimum of four Republicans to agree to put a tax extension on the ballot. He attended Republican Party New Year’s receptions, popped in to GOP caucus meetings, and held private meetings in his office. Perhaps he was naive about the hyperpartisanship at the Capitol or overconfident in his ability to charm, but he could not get the Republicans to budge.

Brown had little chance of winning GOP support for anything to do with taxes, said Jack Pitney, a government and political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

“Given his Jesuit background, he was making a Hail Mary pass,” Pitney said. “He was sincere, gave it his best shot but the differences were just too great to bridge.”

But if he didn’t win over Republicans, he may have won the support of voters for trying, said Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State.

“The more that olive branch has the appearance of being extended, the more the voters say this guy’s done everything he could,” Gerston said.

Grade: B (2.90 GPA)

The Budget: Having already committed to $11 billion in cuts to show good faith in early spring negotiations with Republicans, Brown was forced to close the remainder of the deficit through a series of fund shifts, internal borrowing and other cuts when his tax efforts fell short. He vetoed one budget that Democrats sent to him, saying it was laden with gimmicks that he had sworn to avoid.

But in a move that allowed lawmakers to leave the Capitol for summer recess without facing pay cuts — which a new law would have required if they hadn’t completed it on time — Brown put out a final budget that assumed $4 billion in extra revenues that few believed possible, and never fully materialized.

His strongest suit has been his singular focus on the budget, said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant.

“He’s given voters a strong dose of reality and honesty about the budget,” Maviglio said. “His veto was a surprise even to Democrats. He stood up to Democrats and labor on a lot of things nobody expected.”

His budget couldn’t be seen as a total success, though, because Brown failed to get the revenues it was predicated on, said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant.

“When he didn’t get a tax measure on the ballot, it really set him back by two years before he could get something before the voters,” Stutzman said.

Grade: B (2.97 GPA)

Bill signings: Brown promised that legislators would be “singing the veto blues” as he prepared to handle the 600 bills sent to him at the end of the summer session. But he proved to be less exacting with his blue pen, vetoing only 17 percent of bills sent to him last summer. His veto messages, however, were must reads.

“Not every human problem deserves a law,” he wrote in one, summing up his cranky mood.

Brown was tough on friends, stinging farm workers and labor unions with a few hard-line vetoes, said Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State.

“They’re well thought out,” she said of his explanations on bills. “He really did vet the bills.”

You couldn’t get much past Brown, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst at USC.

“He really takes a detailed, hands-on approach to government,” she said. “Every veto message I read indicated he’d really done his work on evaluating the implications.”

Grade: B-plus (3.36 GPA).

Final Act: When the revenues, as expected, failed to materialize, Brown had to pull the trigger on $1 billion more in cuts, an emphatic ending to a disappointing first year. But the cuts played into the narrative that he hopes to carry to voters next year: The state needs money, and he’ll be asking for more of it through a tax initiative.

After providing a sobering approach to the budget, Brown has done a good job of preparing voters for next year’s tax fight, said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College.

“He’s done it in a way that makes the public see this as necessary,” Michelson said. “More Californians are aware of budget problems and may be ready to raise taxes. To a large extent, it’s Brown’s leadership that brought the public to this point.”

Brown kept his word, said Patrick Dorinson, a libertarian radio commentator.

“He said there would be cuts if certain things didn’t happen, and he didn’t try to wheedle out of it,” said Dorinson, a former state GOP spokesman.

Grade: B-plus (3.3 GPA)

Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Twitter.com/ssharmon. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.