Jerry Brown admits past errors, vows not to repeat them if elected again

09/12/2010 12:00 AM

09/04/2011 12:16 PM

The first time around, Gov. Jerry Brown won both praise and derision as a political pop star who expanded collective bargaining rights to state employees and adamantly opposed the death penalty.

This year, as Brown seeks a sequel to his first gubernatorial stint, he's reliving that history while promising to do better.

"I'll probably make some new mistakes," Brown told technology executives in June. "But I'm not making any old ones."

Brown plays up what he considers his accomplishments as California's chief executive, including a tight-fisted approach to state government spending.

But he also acknowledges several miscalculations of enduring impact during his two terms in the Governor's Office, from 1975 to 1983.

Now he has the benefit of hindsight and a chance to try again. What Brown says he learned offers a glimpse into how, at age 72, he would govern differently from his younger self.

The Medfly

The mistake with perhaps the greatest political impact on Brown's career was his controversial 1981 decision to forgo aerial spraying against the Mediterranean fruit fly, which was threatening California's important agriculture industry.

The 43-year-old governor ignored the warnings of federal regulators and instead followed the advice of a UC Berkeley entomologist who assured him that the flies would die off once winter set in, said James Carey, a UC Davis entomology professor who has extensively studied the pest's history in California.

That prognosis proved wrong, and Brown finally OK'd spraying after several states and nations threatened quarantines on certain California produce.

By that point the damage already was done. Brown's 1982 U.S. Senate campaign went down in defeat, and the Medfly has remained a major threat to California agriculture since its appearance in the state in 1975, the first year of Brown's governorship.

During his administration, Brown often touted what he called "creative inaction," a concept derived from Taoist ideas about choosing the right time to act.

In the case of the Medfly, Brown has admitted that he should have taken a more proactive approach to the threat.

"My strategy on the Medfly was denial," Brown said in June. "We waited, and pretty soon they're all over the place. If I see a Medfly, I'm going to spray that sucker. I'm not waiting this time."

Carey gave Brown a bit more credit, saying he was right to listen to an on-the-ground expert, who unfortunately gave bad advice.

"I actually don't fault him," Carey said of Brown. "He's not an expert. Eradicating pests is an enormous challenge."

The peripheral canal

Brown suffered another setback on the environmental front when voters in 1982 repealed legislation he had signed that would have built a peripheral canal delivering water from the Sacramento River straight to the start of the California Aqueduct in Tracy.

The canal plan immediately ran into opposition from a powerful and unlikely coalition of farmers and environmentalists whom Brown had failed to woo, said former Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, who headed the Central Valley campaign to repeal the peripheral canal legislation.

Isenberg now chairs the state's Delta Stewardship Council, which is studying ways to preserve the fragile region.

A similar array of potent interests has haunted governors tackling the issue after Brown, Isenberg said.

"The history of California suggests that all fights about water are deeply controversial, are regionally based and are, at least judging by three ballot measures that dealt with water issues, passed narrowly," Isenberg said.

Nearly 30 years later, the state has yet to build such a canal, and fish stocks, water quality and other environmental factors in the Delta have only worsened.

Brown has stayed mum on whether he would support a similar canal in the future.

Instead, Brown has stressed the importance of involving all interest groups in negotiations.

"I've learned my lesson: You've got to bring everybody on board," Brown said in an interview with The Bee in July. "The last time, I thought we had everybody because we had the Republicans and we had the farmers, but we didn't get them all."

In fact, that emphasis on bipartisanship and cooperation has become the main message of Brown's current campaign. If elected, he has promised, he would unify legislators around the common purpose of fixing the state.

"I feel that everything I've done in my life," Brown said, "has prepared me to go back to Sacramento in this stage in my life, call it the way I see it, act independently but work not in an adversarial, divisive way but in a way that engages the Republicans and the Democrats in the exhaustive but transparent process to resolve the conflicts that are holding us back."

Former Republican Assembly leader Paul Priolo said Brown struck up a good relationship with him during the five years they worked together despite constant policy disagreements. The results were budgets that came in on time and markedly less partisan bickering, Priolo said.

"We were definitely coming from different places," Priolo said. "I appreciated the fact that he was available and I could talk to him. And if I didn't persuade him, I don't think that was his fault. That was my fault."

On the campaign trail, Brown says one of the most important lessons he's learned as he's grown older is the unintended consequences of well-intentioned legislation.

"I am very skeptical and careful before adding new laws," Brown told The Bee after announcing his candidacy in March.

Unexpected prison growth

Exhibit No. 1, according to Brown, was the state's "determinate sentencing" law, which scaled back judicial discretion in prison sentences. Brown now says he didn't foresee its dramatic impact on the growth of California's prison population and has called for revising the law.

That was followed in 1994 by voter approval of the "three-strikes" law, requiring stiff sentences for repeat offenders. Overall, the state's prison population has jumped five-fold, from 34,640 in 1982 near the end of Brown's administration to 171,161 26 years later. Prison spending accounts for about 11 percent of the state budget.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the state law in 2007, forcing the Legislature to give judges more flexibility in sentencing.

"The prisons started building up about the time I was leaving," Brown said in the recent interview. "But they didn't stop. They just kept on going. We see now that the determinate sentence, which I signed, needs substantial revision."

Robert Gnaizda, a chief deputy under Brown in charge of prisons, job creation and other matters, said he had tried to talk Brown out of approving the measure by arguing that it would cause the state prison system to balloon.

"That's where we disagreed," Gnaizda said. "I think he now understands that a huge prison population is a big mistake."

During his 1978 presidential run, Brown had blustered, "Prisons don't rehabilitate very well, but they punish pretty good."

This year, one line of Brown's new education plan reads: "We must also reverse the decades-long trend of transferring state support from higher education to prisons. We can do this without sacrificing public safety."

Brown said he's seen other laws – such as the California Environmental Quality Act and the launch of the state Fair Political Practices Commission – take similarly unpredictable paths.

"When I step back, I really have a sense that when you write a new law, you have to be very careful what that law is going to look like after five or 10 years," Brown said. "They evolve, they mutate, and they become something that the author could not even envision."

While Brown says his experience taught him valuable lessons, his Republican rival Meg Whitman is using his time in the Governor's Office as fodder for her attacks on him.

Brown, however, isn't conceding any of the points Whitman's raised.

"You can look at my record," Brown told a labor rally in Sacramento. "There are things, warts, you get a little scar tissue as you do things in life. But I'm a real person."

One Whitman ad, for example, slams Brown for appointing "liberal judges who fight the death penalty," a reference to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other justices, whom voters ousted in 1986.

Brown has touted his appointment of Bird as evidence of his commitment to choosing women and minorities for state posts.

The ads also accuse Brown of raising taxes as governor and leaving the state with a big deficit.

"As governor, Jerry Brown increased state government spending by 120 percent," Whitman told the state GOP convention last month. "And he left the state with a budget deficit. He took a $6 billion surplus and turned it into a $1 billion deficit."

In fact, the state racked up that deficit to compensate cities and counties for lost tax revenue after voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978 and capped property taxes. It's a point Brown makes repeatedly on the campaign trail.

Proposition 13 critics such as New America Foundation senior fellow Joe Mathews often blame Brown for hoarding a budget surplus even while a backlash was growing over rising property taxes, creating an environment that led the initiative to pass.

"He didn't deal with the tax revolt, and the surplus was fuel to the fire," Mathews said. "Here your property taxes are going up, and the state has all this money it doesn't need."

Brown, however, continues to defend Proposition 13, which he originally opposed but embraced after its passage.

Former Gov. Gray Davis, who was Brown's chief of staff, argues that Brown deserved credit for building that budget surplus in the first place.

"Thank God he didn't use that surplus," Davis said. "What if he had used that and Proposition 13 had passed anyway and the state went down the toilet?"

As California struggles to emerge from recession, Brown has said voters can expect more of the same penny-pinching ways if he returns to the Governor's Office.

"I am very frugal, very efficient, lean, and I am going to run this campaign in a way that every dollar counts," he said in June, "and that's the same way I'm going to run the state of California."

Editor's Note: This story was changed Sept. 15 to delete an incorrect statement that an upcoming water bond would fund a peripheral canal.

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