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Jerry Brown tries to sell optimism to a battered state

To get voters to share his view, he needs to restore at least some faith in government.

January 09, 2011|By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times
  • Flanked by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, Jerry Brown leaves Sacramento Memorial Auditorium after he was sworn in as governor of California
Flanked by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, Jerry Brown leaves Sacramento Memorial… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

With a muted flourish in tune with the troubled times, Jerry Brown became governor again last week and proved that everything old really can be new again.

In a speech delivered in Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium, he was thoughtful and optimistic, even elegant — traits not always in evidence in his decades in public life. He spoke movingly about his family's long history in the state and closed with a well-received line from the old Al Jolson song: " California here I come, right back where I started from," evincing a sentimental streak that had been missing in some of his earlier crusades.

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The speech by the 72-year-old governor, half a lifetime removed from the first time he was sworn in to the office, also featured Brown trying to sell Californians on two concepts that would appear to be swimming upstream against public opinion: Government does good things. And there is reason to be optimistic about California.

Those concepts may seem eye-rolling in a government-despising, economically battered state. But they are also key to Brown's future success — and, arguably, California's.

Monday, the new governor is expected to release his first budget, one that he already has said will be depressing even by recent standards. The second part of his one-two punch is expected to be a special election that will present restorative options, including extensions of taxes otherwise due to expire. If Californians cannot be convinced to shrug off their pessimism and embrace government, even minimally, Brown's effort would appear to be doomed, and with it his architecture for solving the looming $28-billion budget gap.


Brown is certainly no stranger to taking office in troubled times.

"Today, unemployment in this state is well above the national average," he said. "It is not just a statistic; it is a reality. Men and women whose futures are uncertain, whose families are anxious, will look to us for answers."

Brown uttered those words in January 1975, when he first took office. This year's struggles arguably were in play even then, as a government that had seemed so useful when California was building up under Brown's father, then-Gov. Pat Brown, began to feel like a yoke around many of its residents' necks.

Last year, almost every campaign event in the long race for governor featured voters railing about their sour perceptions of Sacramento. So it was notable when Brown defended government in the text from which he read.

"Yes, government wastes money — and I will be doing a lot about that, starting this week — but government also pays for things that most people want.... They cover the spectrum from universities, parks, healthcare, prisons, income assistance, tax incentives, environmental protection, firefighting and much else."

Later, as he praised the "pioneering spirit" of the state, he also singled out government workers, whose pensions and pay have been blistered in campaigns here and elsewhere. Californians, he said, "give hope for an even more abundant future. And so do our teachers, our nurses, our firefighters, our police and correctional officers, our engineers and all manner of public servants who faithfully carry out our common undertakings."

In making the sale, Brown's biggest problem will be his buyers. Poll after poll has shown that Californians do not know where the state's money comes from nor where it goes, leading to fundamental misunderstandings about where savings can be had.

A poll conducted by The Times and the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences after November's election found that Californians objected to raising taxes to fix the budget deficit and wanted the gap closed by spending cuts. But they also opposed cuts — and even preferred more spending — on items that make up 85% of the state's general fund obligations.

That means Brown will have to convince voters that the only way they can get what they want in terms of programs will be to finance the government they hate. He must do so in a state that rarely pays much attention to anything a governor says. Add in another necessary component: convincing them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that the optimism with which Brown spoke on inauguration day was not misplaced.

According to one long-term Brown watcher, it is a tall order.

"To be blunt, voters are the source of most of the problems," said Ethan Rarick, the author of "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown," a biography of the governor's father.

"Most of the things that most people would say we need to do, the voters won't do, at least not now, and many of them were caused by voters," he said, referring to the plethora of ballot measures that have tied budgets in knots, among other things. "Voters clearly want something for nothing; they want to see services without paying for it.... I hope there is an opportunity for him to change people's minds, but I'm dubious about it."

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