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No longer on national stage, Jerry Brown addresses California's needs

His State of the State speech shows that he's a full-time governor without ambitions for higher political office. But the old 'Gov. Moonbeam' emerges to back the bullet train.

January 19, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

This is a first for Gov. Jerry Brown. And it puts California ahead of the game.

It's the first time Brown has ever been governor during a presidential election year that he's not darting off across the country on a quixotic race for the White House.

In fact, when Brown was governor the first time (1975-83), he was running for something in every election: twice for president, once for reelection and once for the U.S. Senate. He batted 1-for-4.

During Brown II, he'll most likely jump into only one political race, for reelection in 2014.

This taming of unbridled ambition occurred to me Wednesday as I watched the 73-year-old governor deliver his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature.

During this election year, Brown actually will have the time and energy — along with the overriding interest — to devote to the job Californians hired him for: mainly fixing the state's fiscal mess.

He pronounced himself "determined to press ahead" both with deep spending cuts and a proposed tax increase on the November ballot. "Neither is popular, but both must be done," he declared.

Both — especially the tax increase — will require a full-time, hands-on governor toting a soapbox up and down the state. In other words, a different Gov. Brown from the first version.

In 1976 — also the second year of a Brown term — he delivered an 11-minute State of the State speech, which, unlike Wednesday's 20-minute address, was not interrupted once by applause. It is best remembered for one depressing, if prophetic, line: "We are entering an era of limits."

Afterward, the Senate Republican leader, future Gov. George Deukmejian of Long Beach, said he was "extremely disappointed" that Brown had not even mentioned the need for property tax relief. Apparently, the governor had other things on his mind. He soon lit out for the presidential races.

Two years later, after long procrastination in Sacramento, Californians revolted and passed Proposition 13. State and local governments still haven't recovered.

In 1980, Brown interrupted campaigning in Iowa barely long enough to return to Sacramento to deliver a relatively lengthy 22-minute State of the State. The governor drew snide laughter when he asked fellow politicians to "try to subordinate our own ambition and our own individual egos to a much larger purpose."

Later, state Treasurer Jesse Unruh, once a powerful Assembly speaker, quipped: "It was the best speech he has made. It would have been better if he had ended it by saying, 'To submerge my own ego I am withdrawing from the presidential race.' "

That would take months. Brown flew east almost immediately to rejoin the campaign trail, stumbling awkwardly.

That was the young Brown.

The old Brown sat in his Cabinet room with some reporters last month and told a story about his late father, Gov. Pat Brown, when he was San Francisco district attorney and had his sights set on statewide office. Pat Brown was always staring out the window and somebody one day asked him where he was looking, Jerry Brown recalled. "He said, 'I'm looking to Sacramento.' "

"Well," Brown continued, "I look out these windows and I just see Capitol Park."

He used to see the Potomac.

Compared to the 1970s, Brown admitted, "I'm more focused on being governor and less on what might lie afterwards."

And we're all better off for it.

Brown's latest State of the State contained parts of both the old and new Jerry.

For one, he's still an oratorical Luddite, having never accepted the teleprompter. He prefers to ad lib. But if he must prepare ahead, Brown reads his speech, staring down into the written material. But that's OK. It comes across as sincere, especially when you realize he crafted every word, right down to the commas.

The old "Gov. Moonbeam" still exists. He got the tag for proposing that the state develop its own communications satellite. He still likes to be ahead of the curve — especially these days on high-speed rail.

He equated bullet-train critics with earlier skeptics of the Central Valley Water Project, the Interstate Highway System, the San Francisco Bay Area's BART rail system and the Panama Canal.

"The critics were wrong then and they're wrong now," Brown declared emphatically.

Time out!

What Brown didn't mention was that those water, highway and canal projects were all financed by Washington. BART was bankrolled with local taxes and federal grants. The bullet train is a $98.5-billion project that so far has generated only about $10 billion in state bond money to be repaid by all California taxpayers, plus $3.3 billion in federal dollars. Brown is still $85 billion short.

Vision without funding is fantasy.

Brown the Zen contrarian also was on display Wednesday.

"Since everyone goes to school," he said, "everyone thinks they know something about education, and in a sense they do." But he derided so-called reforms that change every decade.

"In a state with 6 million students, 300,000 teachers, deep economic divisions and a hundred different languages," the governor said, "some humility is called for."

He advocated more local control over education dollars.

The new Jerry is a lot more upbeat. And although much of the address sounded like a reelection stump speech — especially his insistence that "California is on the mend" — the tone was pleasantly optimistic.

"I see unspent potential and incredible opportunity," he asserted, railing against "declinists."

"Every decade since the '60s, dystopian journalists write stories on the impending decline of our economy, our culture and our politics."

Go ahead. Be just another politician blaming it all on the media.

Whatever. This Jerry Brown may be less exciting than the first version. But he's more attentive, wiser and preferable.

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