Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Jerry Brown assumes political ownership of drought

America’s political executives – presidents, governors and big city mayors – are often judged by how they respond to unanticipated crises.

Thus, then-President George W. Bush’s popularity soared after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the nation, then plummeted four years later after an erratic response to deadly Hurricane Katrina.

Closer to home, Gray Davis was recalled from the governorship in 2003, less than a year after winning a second term, due to his mishandling of budget and energy crises.

Jerry Brown knows the syndrome well.

He had two major crises during his first stint as governor 30-plus years ago, a severe drought early in his governorship and an invasion of Mediterranean fruit flies near the end.

Brown reacted quickly and suffered no political damage from the first, but botched the second, initially declaring that he would not order aerial spraying to kill Medflies, which threatened the fruit industry, then reversing himself after hitting stiff legislative opposition.

“I’m getting bugged by this bug,” Brown declared as he changed his mind. “It’s got a lot of politicians panicked or foaming at the mouth.”

Brown’s Medfly debacle contributed heavily to the failure of his U.S. Senate campaign a year later.

That experience may explain why Brown was clearly reluctant to declare an official emergency over the current drought, which he finally did last week after saying earlier, “Governors can’t make it rain.”

Having issued the declaration, Brown now owns the drought politically, and while he needn’t necessarily worry about its affecting his all-but-certain re-election bid this year, the situation complicates his policy agenda.

It comes as Brown is attempting to clear the way for what he hopes will be a landmark accomplishment, the construction of twin tunnels to carry Sacramento River water to the head of the California Aqueduct, thus completing the state water project that his father began more than a half-century ago.

Water interests and legislators have been working on a water bond issue that wouldn’t directly pay for the tunnels, but would finance some ancillary aspects of the project. The drought ramps up pressure for political response to the state’s precarious water supply and that, legislative leaders seem to be saying, means they should place a revised water bond on the ballot this year.

However, Brown apparently doesn’t want a water bond on the same ballot as his re-election.

A water bond could become a drought-colored referendum on the tunnels and undercut his posture as a governor who cuts state debt, not increases it.

Brown also doesn’t want a school bond that education groups are seeking, arguing that the state should no longer be the primary source of construction financing. But were he to accede on a water bond, it would weaken his school bond position.