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From the start, Jerry Brown appears to have a big helping of realism

He knows he has a tough job to do, and he isn't planning to play games.

January 04, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

From Sacramento — The state Capitol appears to be back under adult supervision.

Taking the oath is the easy part, of course, and usually it goes downhill from there. But there were things about the new/old governor's swearing-in and no-nonsense inaugural address Monday that signaled he does know the route to California's salvation.

More important, Gov. Jerry Brown strongly left the impression that he's not afraid to follow that politically risky path. Perhaps the most important moment of the 72-year-old repeat governor's speech was when he said:

"At this stage of my life, I have not come here to embrace delay or denial."

That's just about all we've had in Sacramento for the last decade or more: delay in taking the painful steps necessary for the state to live within its means — a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases — and denial that both are needed to fix the state's ongoing deficit, now around $20 billion annually.

Brown learned all too well about delay the first time he was governor. He and the Legislature dithered over property tax relief. That led to the passage of Proposition 13 and its unintended consequences — loss of local control, more power in Sacramento — which Brown, the Legislature and the voters still must undo before California government can be permanently fixed.

Since his election victory, many politicians and pundits have commented that Brown is in for an abrupt awakening, that things have changed dramatically since he first was elected governor in 1974.

The population has nearly doubled. Term limits have weakened the Legislature and left members more politically antsy. They're also more polarized and partisan. Special interests are more powerful. Back then the state enjoyed a budget surplus; now it's on life support.

In short, it's much more difficult to govern now than it was the first time Brown held the office. And he didn't find it all that easy then.

But Brown's plenty smart. He understands all that. And he must know that, if played right, a weakened Legislature can result in a more powerful governor.

Toward the end of his address, Brown reflected on the past and seemed to demonstrate the kind of Zen musing that often characterized his governorship in the '70s.

"It is sobering and enlightening to read through the inaugural addresses of past governors," he commented. "They each start on a high note of grandeur and then focus on virtually the same recurring issues — education, crime, budget, water.

"I have thought a lot about this, and it strikes me that what we face together as Californians are not so much problems but rather conditions, life's inherent difficulties. A problem can be solved or forgotten, but a condition remains. It remains to elicit the best from each of us and show us how we depend on one another and how we have to work together."

The new Jerry's still the old Jerry.

Except the old Jerry would not have concluded with the new Jerry's tagline. From the lips of most politicians it would have sounded cornball. But from Brown on Monday it was fitting and funny.

"As our song says," Brown ended, obviously enjoying himself, "'California, here I come, right back where I started from.'" It brought smiles to the crowd of roughly 3,000 in Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium and resulted in one of the warmest ovations I've ever heard at a gubernatorial inaugural.

It was in sharp contrast to the merely polite reception Brown received at his first inauguration, before a joint session of the Legislature in 1975. The 36-year-old hadn't spent much time thinking about that address, probably about as much time as it took to deliver it: seven minutes.

On Monday, Brown hit the right tone with the right words — no labored attempt at inspiration, no bull.

And he repeatedly paid respect to his late father, Gov. Pat Brown — a graciousness lacking during his first tenure — while also adding some humor. The day was special, he said, "because I get to follow in my father's footsteps once again — and … even follow in my own."

But Brown was blunt about what to expect from his new reign.

He'll be guided, he said, by the three "principles" he campaigned on last year.

• "Speak the truth. No more smoke and mirrors on the budget. "

• "No new taxes unless the people vote for them."

• "Return — as much as possible — decisions and authority to cities, counties and schools, closer to the people."

Brown didn't say so in his speech, but those three principles, along with a $28-billion budget deficit over the next 18 months, point to a probable special election in June. Voters will be asked to make some difficult decisions concerning realignment of state and local responsibilities and, yes, tax increases.

But first the governor will need to persuade the Legislature to place his proposals on the ballot. And he had some sharp words for lawmakers and their partisanship.

"In the face of huge budget deficits year after year and the worst credit rating among the 50 states, our two political parties can't come close to agreeing on the right path forward. They remain in their respective comfort zones, rehearsing and rehashing old political positions."

He suggested that's why voters hold Sacramento "in such low esteem," adding: "Without the trust of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle. And democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void."

It was strong language in a simple setting: No other politicians on stage. A one-sentence introduction by his wife. A two-color program the size of a postcard.

Frugality in practice.

There'll be ample time in the future to criticize details and deeds. But today, after a brief glimpse at Gov. Jerry Brown II, there's hope.

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