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

Viewpoints: Brown, show some grit in dealing with Perry

Published: Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 15A
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 - 9:03 pm

The siege of the Alamo, which occurred this month 177 years ago, lasted 12 days. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who would have you believe he's laid siege to California's business community, was here for only four days this week.

Damage done? Far less than Gen. Santa Anna – odds are, very little in terms of California employers following the piper back to Austin.

Still, like the Texas shrine, this act of aggression (many politicians mock California; few actually taunt us on our home turf) prompts a new rallying cry: Remember … the economy!

Figure it this way: Perry came to the Golden State armed with all sorts of business-friendly talking points: low taxes, deregulation, a common-sense legal system.

California's response? Hey, we have great universities, scads of intellectual capital, really cool big-name companies, and we're close to the ocean.

And that laundry list of the ways in which Sacramento has come to the business community's rescue? It's like Homer Simpson trying to defend his job at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant:

"You've been safety inspector for two years. What initiatives have you spearheaded in that time?"

"Uh, all of them?"

This is why bullies pick fights – because they know the other side cannot or will not fight back. And make no mistake, dismissing a state's aggressive marketing and inter-regional economic competitiveness as only so much flatulence, as Gov. Jerry Brown did in reaction to Perry's parry, isn't fighting back.

That has to change.

Right now.

If, in theory, California's economy is on the mend, then it's time for a new mindset in the Governor's Office. After two years of playing defense – getting the state's fiscal house in order – it's time for our state's chief executive to play offense and start selling California's economic virtues.

This isn't a partisan view. Just ask Michael Rossi, Brown's $1-a-year "jobs czar." Last August, he told the San Francisco Commonwealth Club that the Golden State has "to be better at telling our story." As for states like New York, which last year recruited Robert De Niro as an economic pitchman (one reviewer's take: "De Niro's least convincing role since 'Frankenstein' "), Rossi admitted: "They're selling their state, we're not."

So what's stopping Gov. Brown from going all Hollywood on us?

For openers, it's a role that requires swaggering and showmanship and the desire to be the center of attention – skills more commonly associated with his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Maybe Brown, the former seminary student, prefers a more studious approach to his job. Still, there are other star turns for an ambitious pro-growth governor – say, a five-state tour of business development prospecting.

The problem, of course, is how Brown would convince out-of-state employers and investors with even a minimal knowledge of California politics that the business-deaf Legislature shares his passion for economic development. Two decades ago, Pete Wilson literally had to drag Democratic legislators to other states to hear for themselves outsiders' non-halcyon opinions of the Golden State's business climate.

Sadly, that mindset still exists. For Brown to introduce meaningful reform to California's business climate, he'll first have to figure how to work around lawmakers who think the state's economy takes care of itself.

Translation: Good luck trying to get Democratic ostriches to change their feathers.

What could Brown trot out if indeed he wanted to send a Bat-Signal to California's business community? Here are three more suggestions:

First, expand statewide the "Gold Team" business-retention program begun in Ventura County by Assemblyman Jeff Gorell. Second, given the backlash to the higher-tax climate created by Proposition 30, dust off the 2009 report by the Commission on the 21st Century Economy and begin a dialogue on personal income and corporate tax burdens. Third, create a competitiveness council; issue a report chronicling California's economic shortcomings and convert the suggested reforms to legislation. This was done two decades ago with Peter Ueberroth, the former baseball commissioner and Los Angeles Olympics organizer, chairing the original council.

My choice to lead its 21st-century version would be another Angeleno: Austin Beutner, the city's former jobs czar and a noted investment banker and philanthropist.

Why Beutner? He understands California's business climate and, during his time in City Hall, excelled at bringing together the Southland's disparate interests – educators, entrepreneurs and civic leaders – to foster job creation.

Would that Gov. Brown demonstrate the same grit.

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