Under the cover of darkness (at dark bars) or in broad daylight (before a… (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press )
Reporting from Sacramento — Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's first major test is coming down to this: his ability to win over four Republicans, the minimum number he needs to pass his spending plan.
To persuade them to support his proposal for closing California's $25-billion budget gap, he has been bar-hopping with lawmakers, crashing private dinners and even braving a karaoke party (leaving the singing to the legislative branch). If lawmakers balk, fiscal crisis could continue to paralyze the Capitol.
So Brown showed up at an annual Republican duck feast at an old Capitol haunt last month, turning heads as he and his wife, Anne, took seats at the head of a long table. They ordered wine and stayed for the better part of three hours.
"God, he can talk to you about any subject on the planet, from religion to water," said Assemblyman Bill Berryhill (R-Ceres), one of the organizers. "Whether I agree or disagree with his policy, I respect his style."
He meets more reluctant Republicans under cover of night in dark bars.
"I meet with them all the time, night and day," Brown said.
In Sacramento, where interaction between the governor and the Legislature had recently become as rare as a balanced budget, that kind of engagement marks a sea change — one Brown clearly hopes will pay off. So far, no Republicans have emerged to support his call for an extension of billions of dollars in sales, vehicle and income taxes. Still, lawmakers are basking in the attention.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger doled out little of that, even to fellow Republicans. In fact, he knew so few GOP legislators that they once wore name tags to a rare caucus meeting he attended. And before Schwarzenegger replaced him, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis had infamously said the Legislature existed to "implement my vision."
Today's 72-year-old governor leverages his experience to make small talk, peppering conversations with obscure facts about lawmakers' districts and their parents, some of whom held elected office during his first stint as governor. He even trots out the "first dog," a 7-year-old Pembroke Welsh corgi named Sutter, as part of his charm offensive.
"He's a good Irishman," said Assemblyman Martin Garrick (R-Carlsbad), a former GOP leader. "I look forward to having a beer with him. But we'll continue to disagree on the path to solving the state's problems."
Indeed, Brown's progress hit a bump last month as two-thirds of the Legislature's Republicans took a public stand against the tax extensions. It stalled this week as five other GOP lawmakers — whom he has wined and dined in his downtown loft — declared an impasse in a letter to Brown that was published on their websites.
The group said the governor had refused to make sufficient policy concessions. An accord, their letter said, would rest on Brown's willingness to address big-ticket items such as an overhaul of public pensions, an easing of business regulations and a cap on state spending.
"These issues represent the tough medicine you've said our state needs," the group wrote. "… Sacramento must first prove that we are serious about correcting the excesses and dysfunction that has brought California to this moment."
Brown has met with the five again since then, and both sides have promised to keep talking. He still hopes he can find the votes he needs among the rank and file to put the tax issue before voters in a special election.
"There is a lot of fear that the entire machinery of the more conservative elements will be turned against anyone who votes to put this on the ballot," the governor said. "I'm thinking about what I should tell them. I'm reaching into my box of great ideas to find something."
Meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties praise Brown for operating more like the 121st legislator than the aloof chief executive that he was three decades ago. Even they concede the challenge of dealing with the egocentric Legislature.
"It's a tough job," Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) said. "We've got 120 legislators who think they're on a first-name basis with Jesus Christ."
Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) was invited to Brown's office after grilling him about his education appointees in a GOP caucus meeting. The two chatted while Brown unpacked boxes of books and arranged his library.
"The governor is not someone hung up on protocol or position, and I think that's what people find refreshing," said Huff, who signed a no-tax pledge but has made no public declaration against Brown's budget proposals. "Relationships are very critical. Sometimes we don't get to the policy of something because we can't get beyond the person making the pitch."
In December, after new lawmakers took the oath of office, Brown stopped by a dinner celebrating the ascent of Connie Conway of Tulare to Assembly GOP leader. Brown was expected to stay for a quick glass of wine; instead, he ordered salmon and lingered to discuss policy.
In January, after delivering his State of the State speech challenging Republicans to go along with his budget plans, Brown walked across the street and mixed with GOP legislators at their annual back-to-session bash.
And last month, in a show of humility, Brown became the first governor in at least half a century to testify before a legislative committee.
Focused on the budget, Brown is not distracted by the "in-the-clouds" ideas or White House ambitions that gripped him the first time he was governor, said Bob Naylor, who sparred with him as Assembly GOP leader in the 1980s and is now a lobbyist.
"He's running the government," Naylor said, "and I don't think he really ran the government the first time."