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Memo to Jerry Brown: Tell it like it is

The cagey political veteran needs to do more than toss out stock cliches and vague feel-good statements in his run for governor. He needs to tell people why they need to vote for him.

September 08, 2010|Steve Lopez

My alarm went off at 6:45 a.m. on Labor Day, but I was already awake. I didn't want to miss a minute of Jerry Brown's big event. His campaign staff was promising a "significant announcement," and Brown himself was going to be at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles to make it.

Finally, I thought: Something significant in the race for governor. This would be a first, whether it came from Democrat Brown or his GOP rival Meg Whitman.

But what would it be? And could the location of the event be taken as a clue?

Maybe Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, would kneel at the altar and pray for God himself to freeze Whitman's assets. Then maybe he could get a few commercials on the air before the former EBay executive pulls another $100 million out of her purse.

Or maybe the big surprise would be Cardinal Roger Mahony stepping out from behind a curtain to endorse the attorney general.

Actually, Brown's probably not hard up enough yet to solicit an endorsement from a man whose archdiocese is the subject of a grand jury investigation into molestation by priests.

The banquet room at the cathedral was jammed when I arrived, with several hundred union members enjoying a Labor Day breakfast and waiting for the big moment. As a warmup, local union leaders and dignitaries were introduced.

The strangest part of the ceremony, if you ask me, was the introduction of state legislators by Assembly Speaker John Pérez, with applause for each of them. You'd think that with such an embarrassing legislative session having just ended with no budget agreement in sight, no legislator would leave home without a bag over his head. Unless, of course, they were Democrats attending a labor rally.

Notably absent from the party was L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has fallen out of favor with labor, and who once thought he'd be the man of the hour when the governor's race got serious. Another also-ran, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, did show up to take a bow as the labor choice for lieutenant governor. Here's a guy who was bold enough to legalize gay marriage with a pen-stroke, stoking a national frenzy, and he's now groveling for a job so irrelevant, the last headline out of the office was when Cruz Bustamante went on a diet?

Finally, up to the stage strolled Jerry Brown, and as he began meandering, I suspected he was saving the "significant announcement" for his big finale. He made one thing clear from the start, though: He wouldn't be announcing a plan for rescuing California:

"It's not about a plan."

It's not?

Look, I'm aware that politicians are loath to offer up details in the midst of a political campaign for fear of being held to promises or being picked apart by opponents. And Brown no doubt would prefer to hammer Whitman for seldom having voted, for being in bed with Wall Street's worst villains, for trying to buy the governorship and, of course, for not having a plan of her own other than cynical and non-specific promises — such as her vow to eliminate 40,000 state jobs.

But after rolling out of bed at the crack of dawn on a holiday, I would have liked some clue as to how Brown intends to fix the structural deficit, restore pride to public education and give the unemployed some hope of finding work. If it's not about a plan, what's he here for?

"It's about action," Brown said in his speech. "Working together and getting things done."

He repeated that he doesn't like the word plan because it sounds like "wheel-spinning." He prefers the word "strategy."

OK, fine, call it a strategy. Does he have one?

You be the judge.

Brown said he would make the "tough decisions," and that we have to "live within our means." But the "real thing" is that we have to "reconnect to people" and, by George, "we're going to come back again if we all pull together."

Yippee-ki-yay.

So, you're wondering: What was the "significant announcement?"

Simply that the Brown campaign has begun airing a TV ad in which Brown tells voters the state needs to live within its means, vows that there will be no new taxes without voter approval, and says power and decision-making will return to the local level.

That's all a very safe way of saying that he's not going to be the spendthrift Whitman claims he'll be, and that in the future, he'd rather have you blame your mayor than the governor when public services deteriorate.

"I don't have a hundred people scripting me," Brown said at Monday's rally. "I'm not an advertisement. I'm a real person who's lived in this state all my life."

Then act like it.

I happen to like Jerry Brown, mixed record and all. I like his energy and his politics, his sharp intellect and quirky conviction that we're collectively better than we're showing ourselves to be.

But I don't want a safe, calculating Jerry Brown who spouts 25-cent cliches, whether it's at a pep rally or in a debate. He's in his 70s, for crying out loud. What's there to lose in ditching the political playbook and telling us what we need to hear and can realistically expect?

Come on, Jerry.

Give us a better reason to get out of bed on election day.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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