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A Loner and the Legislature: California Becomes the Loser

July 31, 1988|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe directs the Study of State Legislative Leadership at USC's Institute of Politics and Government

SACRAMENTO — When Gov. George Deukmejian signed the state's new $44-billion budget on July 8, he praised California's lawmakers. "I would like to commend the Legislature," he said, "for making a serious effort to send me a balanced budget with a prudent reserve." It was a rare, conciliatory sop from a frequently contentious chief executive.

Politically the ride has been a little bumpy for Deukmejian lately. The so-called "Iron Duke" has sustained large chinks in his armor. What has happened to Deukmejian over the past year highlights a pattern of behavior fraught with political risks: playing "the loner" in public office.

In politics, as Sam Rayburn said, "to get along, go along." It is a lesson that Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee, seems to have learned. He lost the governorship in 1978, knocked out by a headstrong, uncompromising approach to government. Reelected in 1982, Dukakis made peace with the Legislature and traditional Democratic constituencies while broadening his appeal to business interests and fiscal conservatives.

Dukakis' first term failures taught him, according to a former adviser, "that the coalition-building aspects of government are as important as the issues for which he's fighting." That is a lesson Deukmejian seems unwilling to contemplate.

It doesn't have to be politically hurtful to be a loner in California. Governing in isolation is affordable when things are going well. Elected in a era of economic prosperity and protected by a Democratic Legislature, Edmund G. Brown Jr. proved that--until the Medfly, the Rose Bird court and the fallout of Proposition 13 began to interfere.

And Deukmejian had far less trouble in his first term when the Gann limits had not yet hamstrung government spending and the rancor in Sacramento hadn't reached fever pitch. But as the political and fiscal environment eroded, so have Deukmejian's political fortunes.

In the June elections, a major transportation bond issue, strongly backed by the governor, went down to narrow defeat. For Deukmejian, the loss underscored the pitfalls of going it alone. He never enlisted broad-based support from a major constituency, the business community. Deukmejian wanted his program on his own terms. He lost. Then he was handed another setback by a state Supreme Court that was supposed to be his--with five of seven justices appointed by Deukmejian. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the nomination of Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach), to replace the late Jesse Unruh as state treasurer, did not meet the constitutional test for legislative confirmation; the state Senate rejected the nomination.

The treasurer's post continues to remain vacant--as it has for almost a year of crucial debate over California's fiscal priorities and direction. And it again pinpointed the governor's stubborn approach to getting what he wants.

First of all, Deukmejian bypassed Sacramento to choose an obscure Long Beach congressman, who could do little to lobby his own appointment through the unfamiliar legislative maze. And Lungren didn't have much help from the man who nominated him.

A two-vote switch in the Senate would have filled the treasurer's post months ago--and there were Democrats just waiting to be asked. But Deukmejian did little except point out that anyone who wanted to talk to him knew where the telephone was. That is not the way to ask political favors. Once again, he lost.

Not only has the governor isolated himself from the alliances and compromises necessary to make policy, but his staff tends to be insular and unassertive. The small inner circle is populated by a coterie of like-minded aides who don't have the heft to challenge Deukmejian's decisions. And they're not always privy to the governor's thinking, so they're unable to head off mistakes. One legislator complained that he's seen staff commitments made in Deukmejian's name countermanded because they were not what the governor wanted in the first place.

There is no better example of the risks of playing political loner than the governor's peevish response to the recent budget shortfall. Last May, surprised by his Department of Finance's overestimation of state tax revenues by more than $1 billion, Deukmejian unilaterally proposed "temporary minimal adjustments" in state taxes (including a freeze on income-tax brackets). Then the governor abandoned his own program when the press labeled it a "tax increase."

Rather than risk his image as a tight-fisted fiscal conservative, Deukmejian ruled out any "actual or perceived tax increase" and steadfastly refused to work with the Legislature to effect a compromise to ensure a balanced budget without further retrenchment in education, health care, infrastructure and other areas of government funding.

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