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Assessing Jerry Brown's first 100 days

He's acting like an adult in Sacramento's bitterly partisan atmosphere.

April 07, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Gov. Jerry Brown addresses the media in Oakland after his 2010 election. Many observers give him credit for lifting the level of dialogue in Sacramento, especially concerning the state budget deficit.
Gov. Jerry Brown addresses the media in Oakland after his 2010 election.… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

From Sacramento -- The headline over a Times article about Gov. Jerry Brown's first 100 days in office noted a "New Spirit" at the Capitol.

Two high paragraphs read: "The new governor knows generally what he wants to accomplish in broad policy terms. He is having difficulty with the specifics.

"As a result, he is probing — sometimes groping — to find answers."

That was written 36 years ago by The Times' Sacramento bureau chief, the late Tom Goff. And it's still on the money today as Gov. Brown nears another 100-day mark. Next Tuesday will be his 100th day in the governor's office again.

The 100-day point has little relevance except for providing pundits a handy peg for grading a chief executive's initial progress. It all started with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days, which stand alone in history as a period of enormous achievement. FDR responded to the deepening Depression by maneuvering a cooperative Congress into creating what became known as the New Deal.

Republican legislators aren't exactly cooperating with the Democratic governor these days in Sacramento. They weren't best buds 36 years ago, either, but there was much more bipartisanship and far less ideological rigidity then.

"Everything worked," Brown recalled Wednesday with a smile, speaking to a firefighters' conference. "California was a golden state. A poppy bloomed on every corner."

Brown was 36 back then. He turns 73 today.

He told the firefighters that never again would there be someone "so foolish to do this in his eighth decade, when I should be in Palm Springs or something playing golf. But I don't play golf. I play politics. It's more interesting and it requires more skill and more patience."

Brown is a skilled politician but obviously doesn't know about golf.

The governor — whether version 1 or 2 — can't resist a quip, and the dry humor sometimes comes across as a bit smart-alecky. But that's OK. Any laugh is welcome these days in depressed Sacramento.

And that brings us back to the new spirit. Virtually everyone you talk to, at least privately, gives the guy credit for lifting the level of dialogue, especially concerning the easily politicized budget deficit.

He's doing his homework and speaking with knowledge. Staying away from hyperbole. Not talking down to people. Paying legislators respect.

Here's another sentence from that Times article of 36 years ago that still fits, this one regarding his relationship with the Legislature: "He acts … as though it is the co-equal arm of government it was intended to be."

All of this sharply contrasts with Brown's sometimes-cartoonish, sometimes-bombastic predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who tended to belittle the very people whose cooperation he needed to effectively govern.

Brown has been acting as a civil adult. And the importance of that cannot be overstated in this era of political polarization and hate-mongering.

But, of course, the new spirit and style have resulted in only partial success so far. He's still probing — groping — for an answer to what began three months ago as a $26-billion budget deficit.

His answer is half spending cuts, half taxes, but he couldn't cajole or coerce enough Republicans into putting the tax question on a special election ballot in June. Both sides finally called off negotiations.

"Jerry did the right thing by giving the Republicans a time-out," says veteran Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

Brown made his biggest mistake long before he took office, back when he was campaigning and promised to give voters the final say over any tax increase. Without that pledge, the governor and Legislature could have extended the current tax rates on their own.

The governor would have had more flexibility in dealing with Republicans on taxes. He wouldn't have needed to run the "reforms" the GOP demanded — public pensions, spending, business regulations — past the labor unions that would be bankrolling his tax election campaign.

But give Brown credit for coaxing most of his proposed budget cuts through the Democratic-controlled Legislature. In all, the lawmakers whacked more than $8 billion from programs — Republicans even shied away from supporting all of that — and also found another $3 billion in deficit reductions, most of it by shifting funds.

I also give him credit for cancelling a terrible Schwarzenegger-negotiated sale-and-leaseback of 24 state buildings that ultimately would have cost taxpayers billions.

Brown's still chatting with some Republicans about a possible tax election in September or November.

He could have been doing a better job selling the need for taxes to a divided public, using interest and civic groups as forums.

On Tuesday, for example, Brown spoke in Sacramento to 500 leaders of the California Medical Assn. He was somewhat entertaining, but not very informative. He missed an opportunity to articulate how the state got into this mess and the dire consequence of closing the deficit only with cuts.

Ad-libbing all the way, seemingly without preparation, Brown meandered into a discussion of prison costs. It was probably about the last thing these physicians cared about.

"The room was curious," the CMA's chief executive, Dustin Corcoran, told me later. "It wanted to hear about solutions. He was humorous, but seemed to make light of the situation. These were 500 medical leaders who could have taken his message back to their community chambers and Rotaries."

Brown says he's now headed out on a selling mission.

"Give him an A for effort and an incomplete for result," says Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former national GOP official.

"It's too early to appraise the harvest. The seeds have just been planted."

True enough. But I'll give Brown an overall B for his first 100 days.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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