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Gov. Jerry Brown is showing himself to be both the principled public official who keeps his word and the slick inside player who seeks to grease the November ballot in his favor.
Good Jerry. Bad Jerry. Both sides of the man have been on display lately as he dwells on high-speed rail, pensions and his initiative to raise taxes by $8.5 billion, plus a few side issues that attract much less notice.
Keeping good on one of his central campaign promises, Brown has remained the most out-front booster of high-speed rail, though some of his supporters sometimes wonder why.
Under the best of circumstances, the project will cost tens of billions and the first paying passenger won't step aboard for a decade, long after Brown has left office, presumably for good.
Polls show most voters believe the train is a boondoggle in the making. Many of his fellow Democrats scamper away from it. Without a doubt, the governor would please his political advisers if only he would abandon what critics deride as the train to nowhere.
But last week, after the Field Poll showed that voters were somewhat less likely to support Brown's tax hike initiative if the rail project proceeds, Dan Richard, Brown's top aide on the undertaking, was in the Capitol doing what he could to shore up legislative support for allocating the first $5.8 billion installment of the $68 billion price tag. He was there on Friday to congratulate Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg after the measure won final legislative approval, with a bare minimum of 21 votes in the Senate.
"This governor thinks it's our responsibility to prepare the state for the future, just like his father did," Richard told me.
High-speed rail retains significant support among the building trades, and that is an important part of Brown's base. The governor understands the importance of keeping supporters happy.
But he risks alienating some of his labor backers by pushing public employees to take pay cuts, while also trying to persuade Democrats in the Legislature to vote to roll back public employee pensions in an election year.
Brown's effort went askew last Sunday when Democrats in the Legislature gave him details of their plan to trim pension costs.
Evidently, what he saw wasn't pretty. Legislative Democrats were trying to limit local government's authority over their burgeoning pension costs, evidently. I say "evidently" because Democratic leaders haven't seen fit to release their plan. Clearly, there's something there they don't want the public to see.
The mayors of San Diego and San Jose learned about Democratic efforts to pre-empt voters in their cities who last month voted to scale back pensions of city workers. Both mayors sent letters to legislative leaders demanding that they stop trying to undermine their efforts.
"They're ever-creative in the Legislature and are trying to cause trouble," San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed told me last week.
Brown is siding with Reed and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, viewing attempts to limit local power to cut pension costs as a deal-breaker.
If there is a theme in Brown's third term as governor, it's that he believes the state tries to do too much. That is apparent as he dismantles state departments that oversee drug and alcohol programs and mental health care, and removes state subsidies for local redevelopment.
The issue plays out in small ways, too, like in the little-noticed veto of legislation by a Democratic ally, Sen. Ellen Corbett, related to child abuse investigations.
Corbett's bill zipped through the Legislature on votes of 79-0 in the Assembly and 36-0 in the Senate. It had support of the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, presumably significant for the former mayor of the Alameda County seat of Oakland.
But by spelling out which local officials should be part of units that investigate child abuse, the bill conflicted with Brown's view that cities and counties should have greater autonomy.
"(T)his bill would lock into statute specific requirements for these centers that may or may not fit with what local county leaders see as the best way to handle these sensitive cases," Brown said in his veto message last week.
Principles are important. But so is winning, as Slick Jerry made clear.
Knowing that propositions at the tops of ballots fare better than ones at the bottom of lengthy ballots, the governor monkeyed with election law in an effort to ensure that his tax initiative would appear first on the ballot this fall.
With co-conspirators in the Legislature, Brown pushed for a bill that says constitutional amendments, whether placed on ballots by legislators or by initiative such as his, would appear first.
To pull off this piece of legerdemain, Brown attached the idea to the budget. To make this stretch, he earmarked money, though not much because the budget is tight. The $1,000 appropriation covered the cost of moving his ballot measure to the top of the list. Clever guy.
Molly Munger is no pushover. The wealthy Los Angeles attorney is promoting a competing tax hike initiative. Represented by the international law firm founded by her father, who happens to be the partner of Warren Buffett, Munger sued to block Brown's maneuver. A Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear the case Monday.
Brown's desire to gain every advantage is understandable. His success as governor will be judged on whether he fixes California's budget mess. His November tax measure is integral to that effort.
His political advisers downplay the significance of having the initiative at the top of the ballot. They try to explain away the budget gambit as a simple clarification of the law.
But Slick Jerry changed the rules in the middle of a campaign to obtain the result he sought. Good-bad politician that he is, Brown understands that principles don't count for much if you lose.