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California and the West

GOP's Model Governor--Pat Brown

Leadership: Citing Davis' caution, some Republicans speak fondly of the liberal Democrat as builder, doer.

March 06, 2000|MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A student of history and practitioner of hyperbole, Republican firebrand Tom McClintock is fond of quoting Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" when describing the current state of California.

Once-gleaming roads and aqueducts lie in ruins. Once-proud universities deteriorate from neglect. The slide, the Northridge assemblyman said, came after California's last visionary governor left Sacramento.

"We are still living off his accomplishments," said McClintock, a candidate for state Senate.

Partisan praise for Republican Ronald Reagan? Try Democrat Pat Brown, the personification of postwar liberalism in California.

More than 30 years after he left office, and four years after his death at the age of 90, Brown has undergone a fresh apotheosis in the state capital.

As the years pile on after Brown's landslide loss to Reagan in 1966, his legend as a master builder of free universities, expansive freeways and canals only seems to grow. All the while, criticism of Brown as a free spender and "tower of jelly" soft on the death penalty has all but faded into the revisionist footnotes.

"Those who remember Pat Brown, they remember him fondly," said Jaime Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. "Others remember him more fondly than they did before, perhaps, because they have seen what happened to California, the way the state looks now."

Appreciation of Brown has been growing for years. But with California once again enjoying a budget surplus of a dimension not seen in years, talk has increasingly turned--especially among Republicans--to putting the shine back into Brown's old public works projects.

The latest Brown boom, some Republicans concede, is part GOP strategy to persuade Gov. Gray Davis--a Brown fan but an incrementalist politician--to address long-neglected needs by using more of the ever-expanding surplus to renovate and build schools and roads. And to cut taxes, because state budgets in Brown's day were smaller per person than today's, even after accounting for inflation.

"If we are trying to appeal to a Democratic governor, it makes more sense to do so by comparing him to a great Democratic governor," said Assembly Minority Leader Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach). "That's what you call a leader," he said of Brown. "What is your long-term vision? You'd better have one."

Some Democratic legislators also are making comparisons, frustrated by what they see as Davis' lack of Brown-like vision during a time of wealth and opportunity for California.

"It's time for a leader that is not plodding and prudent," said state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), who cut his political teeth as a Brown aide 40 years ago.

"Maybe it's nostalgia," he added, "but I think it is a realization that [Brown] was the kind of leader we are desperately seeking today, someone who is genuine and has that air of authenticity."

Davis loyalists say that in his own, careful way, the governor is thinking big by investing heavily in education and road building through his proposed budget. Davis' proposed budget does, in fact, include proposals to speed up freeway construction--so much so, in fact, that nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill took aim recently, saying Caltrans would not be able to hire and train people fast enough to complete them. Nevertheless, legislators from both parties have criticized Davis' efforts as insufficient.

"Pat Brown was the last great builder that occupied the governor's office before Gov. Davis came along," said Davis Communications Director Phil Trounstine. "I think Gov. Davis will be seen as someone who revitalized the education system and transportation system in California."

Although Brown accomplished much during his ambitious tenure from 1958 to 1966, his victories were no cakewalks. They were hard-fought expenditures of political capital--often pitting him against another legendary Democrat, late Assembly Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh.

The results, for which some credit Unruh as much as Brown, were impressive: More than 1,000 miles of freeway. The California Water Project, which moves water from the mountain country of the north to the arid megalopolis of the south. A 50% expansion of the University of California system and six new state colleges.

Some of Brown's moves cost him popularity. But they have been overshadowed by time.

Most notably, Brown, who was philosophically opposed to the death penalty, granted a reprieve to kidnapper-rapist Caryl Chessman, the notorious "Red Light Bandit." He later flip-flopped and dispatched him to the gas chamber--as he did 42 of the 63 capital cases sent to him--but the damage had been done. Brown was booed mercilessly at the start of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley as well as at the opening of Candlestick Park.

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