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  • HECTOR AMEZCUA / Bee file, 2011

    Gov. Jerry Brown, with his wife, Anne Gust Brown, third from left, visits Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, after the swearing-in ceremony in the Capitol in January 2011. Newsom has said he could solve the state's budget woes and claims Brown lacks a "vision for greatness."

  • Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.

The Conversation: Why can't Brown close the deal?

Published: Sunday, Apr. 15, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 9, 2012 - 11:09 pm

Join the conversation: How do you view Gov. Jerry Brown's first 15 months in office? To write a letter, go to or to comment online, go to our Facebook page.

Back in August, I authored an essay for these pages asking why Jerry Brown seemed a less vivid, less ambitious version of his colorful past. "Vanilla" was the word I chose – a gubernatorial style too bland even for ulcer-ridden California's tastes.

Eight months later, California's governor has indeed embraced some big concepts – pension reform, renewable energy and high-speed rail, the latter seemingly ambitious in its intent and a fool's errand in its implementation.

Still, something seems … amiss.

Since taking office 15 months ago, little has come easy for Jerry Brown. Love may be lovelier the second time round, as the song goes, but not so for a governor returning to a job he held 28 years prior. California's labor market won't fully recover until 2016. Lawmakers are balking at his proposed spending cuts and second-guessing his slimmed-down budget for high-speed rail. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the poster boy for tamed hair and untamed restlessness, claims the governor, whose job he covets, lacks a "vision for greatness."

And don't forget Molly Munger, the Pasadena attorney, tax initiative sponsor and Gov. Brown's co-star in Sacramento's answer to "The Hunger Games" – like the box-office hit, a man and a woman in a televised death match presumably coming your way this fall.

Collectively, it would seem the fates have conspired against California's 39th (and 34th) governor – suggesting that Shakespeare had it wrong when Cassius told Brutus that "the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves."

Only, that would be letting Brown a little too easy. Yes, the deck may seem stacked against this, his second first term. But consider how Brown's played the hand he's been dealt.

Not that life always imitates art, but there's an easy way to understand the job of governor of California. It's Blake, Alec Baldwin's character in "Glengarry Glen Ross," whose idea of salesmanship is: "A-always, B-be, C-closing. Always be closing! Always be closing!"

And Brown's success at closing the deal?

• He failed to cut a spending-and-tax deal with legislative Republicans.

• While he did cut a deal with the California Federation of Teachers, merging two tax initiatives into one, he couldn't win over Munger.

• And if voters reject his initiative, thus returning the budget muddle to a Democratic Legislature that is none too happy about "trigger cuts" to education? Potentially, another swing and a miss.

In fairness, Brown warned us to be patient, well before he raised the curtain on this second act. In fact, the day after he launched his 2010 campaign, then-candidate Brown told reporters that the state budget deficit would "take certainly two years – maybe longer" to fix. And he added, "But I will be patient as needed, and I will tell the truth in ways (that hasn't happened) in years past."

So perhaps part of the problem is that Brown had it right all along – our instant-gratification society wants to measure progress in nanoseconds; in dysfunctional Sacramento, break out your sundial.

Only there's a concern with the other part of that campaign promise: telling the truth.

More recently, Brown has tried to sell his initiative as a "Millionaires' Tax" – misleading advertising for a measure that goes after incomes beginning at $250,000, not four times that amount. To his credit, Brown said last week that he won't be relying on that misleading piece of class warfare to promote his ballot measure.

And he told reporters that "100 percent" of the taxes in his initiative will go to education – as does the Munger initiative, after four years of splitting revenue between schools and state debt – when in fact revenue under the Brown-CFT scheme would serve a variety of budget needs, not just education.

At the risk of coming across as a nag and a scold – one of those pesky "declinists" and "dystopian journalists" the governor lambasted in this year's State of the State address – slippery fast talk isn't befitting a leader of Jerry Brown's pedigree. It's not in keeping in the spirit of a no-frills, no-spin governorship.

Is there a more effective way to get things done in Sacramento? Unfortunately, the Glengarry model doesn't hold up. In that film, the sales reps were browbeaten and threatened: "first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado; second prize is a set of steak knives; third prize is you're fired."

And as Gov. Brown knows all too well, if there's a problem with Sacramento, it's that the folks getting in the way never get fired. Lawmakers float between offices and never seem to leave town, despite term limits; special interests likewise never go away; every election produces another Molly Munger willing to dump millions into a ballot knife-fight.

But there is a more honorable course – one that might give the governor's consultants palpitations. Here's hoping the 2012 incumbent reverts to the 2010 candidate and returns to the straight talk that worked so well in his last campaign for office. That version of Jerry Brown enjoyed considerable success – it's worth noting, against a woman of means (Meg, not Molly) who stood in the way of his political ambition.

A second piece of advice (not that he asked): Give as good as you get.

When Tom Torlakson, California's school superintendent and a former Democratic legislator, rips into Brown's education "trigger cuts" as unfair, why not a feistier governor pushing back, asking for the Supe's big fix.

When Gavin Newsom says he can solve the state's budget woes posthaste ("You give me your finance team, give me the controller, and give me your department heads, and give me 48 hours, and I'll come up [with a solution]"), maybe the governor should call the "lite guv's" bluff. Let him sit a couple of days behind the big desk. Jerry can benefit from a brief vacation; Gavin can benefit from a reality check.

Campaigns are built on risk, and the governor's political team might deem it too risky for Jerry Brown to return to his old no-nonsense self. But considering that Brown was a Jesuit seminarian before following his father's path to Sacramento, one wonders what this governor's inner Ignatian is telling him: Better to seek a dishonest advantage, or preach a more honest gospel?

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