Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Has Jerry Brown found secret to governing California?

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

By happenstance, the 10th anniversary of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sensational election as governor coincided, almost to the day, with the moment his successor, Jerry Brown, became the state’s longest-serving chief executive.

Bodybuilder and movie star Schwarzenegger, it could be said, was the consummate political outsider, while 75-year-old Brown, with more than a quarter-century in office – plus three bids for the White House – under his belt, is the grizzled insider.

Both, tellingly, came into the governorship with promises to govern a state that many had concluded, with good evidence, had become ungovernable.

Schwarzenegger, who had promised “action, action, action,” wasted little time making good. Just minutes after being sworn in, he rolled back an unpopular, multibillion-dollar hike in property taxes on cars that had contributed mightily to the historic recall of his predecessor, Gray Davis.

However, that first act also turned out to be, at least in retrospect, his first big mistake because it exacerbated the state’s chronic budget deficits.

Schwarzenegger’s learning-on-the-job governorship was not successful. He squandered the huge momentum from his re-election, and turned out to be, despite his action-movie image, somewhat wishy-washy, wandering all over the ideological map. So, one might conclude, it was a mistake to elect an inexperienced amateur to the governorship of the nation’s most populous and most fractious state. Yet, Davis had also failed after winning the governorship on his claim of unmatched experience – including a stint as Brown 1.0’s chief of staff.

So experience didn’t succeed, nor did naivete and hubris. Perhaps the Davis-Schwarzenegger era proved that California was, indeed, ungovernable no matter whose name was on the office door.

Then Brown reappeared after a 28-year absence, defeating another aspiring amateur, Meg Whitman.

The one-time wunderkind of American politics, who had undergone several makeovers of image and ideology, recast himself again as a wily political centrist who could succeed where others had failed.

By Brown’s own account, he has succeeded in balancing the budget (thanks largely to a voter-approved temporary tax hike), reducing prison overcrowding, reforming school finance and workers’ compensation, and pushing landmark water and high-speed-rail projects.

It is, however, still much too early to declare Brown 2.0 a success. We don’t know what will happen to the substantial new spending on schools and “realignment” when the temporary taxes expire. School reform is too new to judge, and no one knows how Brown’s pet water and bullet-train projects will be financed.

We still don’t know, in other words, whether he has discovered the secret to governing California – or even if there is one.