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A Seasoned Style, Green Record as Gov.

Reagan's populist approach worked well in Sacramento, where environmental protections were an enduring achievement.

June 07, 2004|Jordan Rau, Carl Ingram and Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writers

"He was in a position where he could pretty much do what he wanted to as long as he stuck to the basics," said Stuart Spencer, Reagan's former gubernatorial campaign manager. "The basic for Republicans in those days was anti-communism, and he had great credentials."

A part of Reagan's legacy was his skill in winning over blue-collar Democrats through attacks on the party's more liberal elements -- something GOP politicians often aspire to today. Reagan identified the approach even before he was elected, when he incorporated into his gubernatorial campaign criticism of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley.

"I remember during the campaign of '66, he started talking about campus unrest in Berkeley," Spencer said. "We were in Fresno, and I said, 'Ron, that isn't even a bleep in our research, campus unrest.' He said: 'It will be when I get through.' He was right."

That approach -- more than his on-and-off battles with the university over budgets or his role in establishing a tuition -- helped win him support among Californians. They came to share his view that, as the Sacramento Bee put it in 1974: "Reagan, in short, made Berkeley a symbol of all that was wrong with what he viewed as an overfed and otherwise overindulged society."

When it came to smaller government, Reagan failed to cut state spending by the 10% he had promised when he came to Sacramento. Instead, he presided over a $1-billion tax increase that year, at the time the largest of any governor in the country's history.

When he left Sacramento, the state was spending more than $10 billion annually -- more than double what it spent when Reagan took office, although much of that was due to inflation and local property tax relief measures he enacted.

Indeed, by today's standards, Reagan's California record might not be considered conservative. Education spending increased substantially under his watch.

His restrictions on welfare benefits, which he touted as his proudest achievement, glossed over the fact that he agreed to an unprecedented automatic cost-of-living increase for welfare mothers sponsored by one of California's most established liberals: then-Assemblyman John L. Burton (D-San Francisco).

"I don't think the California imprint is anything like the imprint he made on the nation," Burton said Sunday.

One of Reagan's most significant failures in office was his bid to permanently impose spending limits on state lawmakers. The vehicle he embraced in 1973 was Proposition 1, a constitutional amendment so convoluted that he told a television interviewer that the average voter "shouldn't try" to comprehend it, adding, "I don't, either."

Cannon said that if the measure had been successful, Reagan might have forestalled the much more severe Proposition 13, which voters approved in 1978. "At the time, Democrats were saying how draconian it is, but look how tame it is in comparison to Proposition 13," he said.

But even if those efforts fell short, they turned out to be pioneering ventures that had a lasting effect on the direction of California politics.

"He kind of changed the debate so that it was proper, it was respectful, to challenge the basis of postwar California," said Bill Boyarsky, a former Times reporter and editor who has written two Reagan biographies. "He didn't eliminate much welfare but it became legitimate to challenge the basis of welfare. By that rhetoric, he really cleared the way for what happened later on, both here and in the rest of the country."

Reagan "opened the door to the citizen politician," said Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who succeeded Reagan as governor. "He showed you didn't have to be a professional politician to run for governor."

Like Reagan, Brown said, "Arnold has a presence, a sense of humor and timing. That is very important. It conveys credibility and authenticity."

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