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THE INAUGURATION | PREPARATIONS

Experience Overrated, Ex-Governors Say

Schwarzenegger's success will depend on his knowing what he wants to accomplish in office, Brown and Wilson contend.

November 17, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Between them, former Govs. Jerry Brown and Pete Wilson have close to 50 years' experience in elected office in California. Better than most, they understand the perils facing a novice such as Arnold Schwarzenegger as he assumes the governorship today.

Their advice? Don't worry about the lack of experience. It isn't so important anyway.

"Most governors don't know that much about the workings of state government," said Brown, now the mayor of Oakland, in a telephone interview. "They figure it out. They have bevies of aides that are running around doing talking points and issues memos."

A strong moral compass will steer a governor far straighter than years of experience, Brown added. "You have to stand for something," he said. "You need to be able to exercise moral stature at critical moments."

Wilson, who has been a close Schwarzenegger advisor, recalled a conversation with then-President Reagan before Wilson's inauguration as governor in 1991. Reagan, he said, noted that the two men were elected governor at similar ages, but that Wilson -- a former assemblyman, San Diego mayor and U.S. senator -- had vastly more experience.

"He said, 'I came up, I had none. I came up, I was green as grass,' " Wilson recalled, also in a telephone interview. "I said, 'Mr. President, with all respect, you came up with something far more valuable than experience. Experience is terrific; it's a genuine help. But experience is no substitute for knowing why you ran and what you want to do with the office.' "

It would be hard to find two California political figures who are, at once, more alike and more different than Wilson and Brown. Each served two terms as governor; each has been the mayor of a major California city; and each flirted with a campaign for president. Wilson, a Republican, is loathed by many Democrats for, among other things, his support of Proposition 187, which called for reductions in benefits for immigrants. Brown, a Democrat, is loathed by many Republicans for, among other things, his initial opposition to Proposition 13, the property tax reduction measure.

Both were willing to discuss their advice for Schwarzenegger, who takes office after ousting Brown's old chief of staff, Davis, with the help of Wilson and his team of advisors.

Former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian declined to offer any public suggestions to the new governor. Deukmejian said he would be willing to counsel Schwarzenegger privately, but added, "I think it's kind of presumptuous for a former governor to be giving advice to an incumbent governor publicly."

Brown, who like Wilson and Deukmejian planned to attend Schwarzenegger's swearing-in, said that by appointing Democrats to his administration, the new governor has already made a good start toward breaking the partisan gridlock that has threatened to paralyze government in Sacramento.

"The fact that he's reaching out, that's good," Brown said. He added that Schwarzenegger has an opportunity to reinvigorate the Republican Party in California by making it more moderate. "If he can move the Republican Party to the middle, the Democrats will be in big trouble," he said.

To succeed as governor, Brown said, Schwarzenegger will have to articulate and champion broad themes -- for example, reforming the tax system, reforming prisons, improving the business climate. In the course of the next three years, Brown said, Schwarzenegger will probably sign 3,000 bills, few of which will have a broad impact on people's lives. What is important is how he tackles the big issues and responds to crises, Brown said.

Should Schwarzenegger live in Sacramento or, as he has suggested, be a commuter governor? Brown said it doesn't much matter.

"Gray didn't spend a lot of time there, did he?" he asked. "Governors increasingly want to spend time in L.A. You've got to be in the Southland."

At the same time, he suggested that Schwarzenegger move his family into the old governor's mansion in downtown Sacramento, where Brown spent part of his childhood as the son of Gov. Pat Brown -- the last governor to live in the Victorian mansion. Reminded that the house is now a museum, he shot back: "Demuseumize it."

Wilson, who, as governor, lived in the same suburban Sacramento home as Deukmejian and Davis, said Schwarzenegger should do whatever "is necessary ... to do the job to his satisfaction." Even if he lives in Sacramento, Wilson said, the new governor needs to spend a lot of his time traveling, both around the state and around the world. As governor, he said, "There is no precast formula for where and how you spend your time."

Wilson agreed with Brown that Schwarzenegger had made a good start toward toning down the partisanship in Sacramento. But, he said, the onus is now on Democrats in the Legislature to cooperate with the new administration. If they don't, he said, Schwarzenegger should follow through on threats to use the initiative process to bring issues directly to the voters.

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