As the young 'uns preened on a national stage in Charlotte, Gov. Jerry Brown stepped out of his Sacramento loft and into his Pontiac a few minutes before 9 the other morning. He was focused on the issue that matters most to him, an initiative that would raise taxes by $6 billion a year.
No matter how liberal they are, politicians who think they have a bright future generally don't wrap themselves around tax hike proposals. But Brown's horizon doesn't extend much beyond Nov. 6, the day that voters will decide Proposition 30, and likely determine the success or failure of his third term as governor.
On Thursday, Brown's first stop was The Bee's editorial board, where he sought an endorsement of Proposition 30. It's a tough sell. Proposition 30 would raise sales taxes by a quarter percentage point, or $1 billion a year for four years, and soak couples' earnings in excess of $500,000 with higher income taxes, generating $5 billion a year for seven years.
This initiative wasn't his first choice. But it's the one that he thinks voters will accept. The alternative would be ugly, $6 billion in cuts mostly to public schools and universities. Brown knows voters might perceive talk of looming reductions as a threat. But he is at a loss to explain it in any other way.
"There is no exit here. It is either the taxes, (or) the cuts," Brown said.
As he dwelled on California issues, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Attorney General Kamala Harris, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Speaker John A. Pérez rubbed elbows and speechified at the Democratic National Convention.
Newsom told reporters that he intends to run for governor in 2014, if Brown steps aside, but of course would support Brown if he decides to seek re-election. Villaraigosa wants to run, too. The influential SCOTUS blog speculated that Harris would be an "ideal nominee" for the U.S. Supreme Court if President Barack Obama wins a second term.
Brown knows the national stage well, having run twice for president. But this year, he scarcely watched the Democratic National Convention. He was busy deciding whether to sign or veto 700 bills approved by the Legislature last month, and overseeing his unusual campaign.
Brown needs to persuade voters to approve Proposition 30 in a year muddied by two other tax measures, one of which is Proposition 38.
On its face, Proposition 38 might seem to solve Brown's problem. It'd raise income taxes by $10 billion annually and send most of the money directly to schools. But nothing about state finances is simple. Brown and his aides say Proposition 38 would blow a hole in the state budget, at least in the first year, necessitating the deep cuts he's trying to avoid.
In any campaign, there is an element of he-said-she-said. In this instance, the "she" is Molly Munger, a wealthy Los Angeles civil rights attorney who has put $19.9 million into the Yes-on-38 campaign.
Munger is convinced her initiative will transform California's public schools by infusing them with billions, while also funding preschool, creating programs to care for infants to 3-year-olds, and preserving the state budget by earmarking $3 billion a year to pay down debt.
But complicating the politics of it all, if voters approve Propositions 30 and 38, the one with the most votes would nullify the other. That means Brown and Munger must persuade people to vote for their measures and against the other proposition.
Munger dances around the issue of whether she will go negative on Brown's measure. But she clearly wants to win, and when she came to The Bee seeking its endorsement, she said Proposition 30 is "too hard on the kids, and it doesn't invest in our future in the way we need to."
Brown doesn't need to attack Munger's initiative. That task falls to Sacramento consultant Jason Kinney, who is organizing a campaign against Munger's measure.
Brown isn't often is at a loss for words. But at his stop at The Bee, he paused, thought and searched for an answer to the basic question of what he plans to do after November, if voters approve Proposition 30.
"What am I going to do the next year? It's very hard," he said. "What am I going to do the year after that, and then am I going to run for re-election? What am I going to do in that campaign? What am I going to do during that four-year period as I approach my 80th birthday?"
He listed several issues: water, the Delta, public schools, renewable energy, and the promotion of California business and jobs. But he wasn't particularly convincing.
"To tell you the truth, I am a little more present-focused," the governor said. "I'm starting to reach, to think of what it might be. I definitely am thinking between now and November."
That's it. His future is now. Though not for lack of trying, Brown's shadow hasn't extended much beyond California. For better or worse, voters in 58 days will determine the mark he leaves.