Cynics derided him as Gov. Moonbeam, reviving the tag applied in 1977 by the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who later apologized for it. They said he was too old at 72 to become governor again. Jerry Brown’s critics said he waged too passive of a campaign and didn’t hire enough campaign staff (when the going got serious around Labor Day, he had all of 12 paid staffers).
They said he ran off at the mouth too much and that he didn’t raise enough money (“only” about $35 million) to compete effectively with billionaire Republican Meg Whitman and her investment of almost 150 million personal dollars.
None of that mattered in the end. Despite the national Republican landslide of 2010, Jerry Brown won and now even the cynics and the Republicans and the folks who disliked him when he was governor previously in the 1970s and ‘80s will have to root for him to succeed. For if he doesn’t, California really might end up in bankruptcy, its children facing truncated school years and lessened learning opportunities. Many of the disabled and seniors could be out on the streets, infrastructure like bridges and roads and sewers might continue to crumble as they have for most of the last 10 years.
Will Brown manage to get Californians to pull together, to think more about the welfare of the entire state than about their own self-interest, as he advocated often during the campaign?
No one knows just yet, but we will begin finding out soon. For Brown almost certainly will follow through on the playbook he promised to use if elected. That included a promise to begin working on a state budget compromise instantly after the election, and working with legislators of all stripes and parties.
This will be easier for Brown than it might have been for Whitman, since she so frequently lambasted the Democratic-controlled Legislature as dysfunctional and incompetent, even calling for it to be reduced to a part-time body and vowing to veto any bills it might pass that didn’t pertain to the three subjects she thought most urgent. All Brown said about the lawmakers was he’d work with them all, and pronto, period.
He added that if he couldn’t get a compromise, he’d ask each party for its best effort at a budget plan, put together one of his own, and place all three before the voters next spring. A Brown plan most likely would involve both spending cuts and tax increases, as he left open the possibility of hikes if the voters agree.
Even though Brown was not noted decades ago for smooth relations with legislators, they now have nowhere else to go if they want to do their jobs. They must meet and negotiate with Brown as – barring the unforeseen – he’s the only governor they’ll have for the next four years.
One thing Brown definitely will not put on the table, as Whitman would have, is any notion of cutting out the state’s capital gains tax, which some of the wealthy consider more onerous than the federal version. No believer in trickle-down economic theory, Brown pointed out repeatedly such a cut would cost the state’s general fund $5 billion, and even if it created many thousands of jobs, as Whitman claimed it could, years would go by before that happened.
Meanwhile, thousands of teachers would lose their jobs, thousands of police and firefighters would be out on their ears, health programs would suffer, and much more.
Brown said he’d go back to the drawing board, look at every state program and commission and cut out what can go without doing harm. He did a lot of that during his last go-around, so this was a credible promise. But no one, Brown included, knows what his effort might produce.
One thing that is certain, though, is a hard look at government pension plans. Brown might not try to change the current defined benefit plans into something like 401(k)s, at least for new employees, as Whitman advocated, but he’s unpredictable enough to use that possibility as a club in negotiating with unions, almost all of which backed him this fall.
Brown’s win against the biggest spending state campaign in American history might also mean that Democrats really can take California for granted except in very unusual circumstances, as when a muscleman movie star runs. The state has a huge Democratic majority among registered voters, which in the end meant victory for Brown and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.
The two Democratic wins might also mean we can expect fewer of the wealthy to run for office using their own cash. Whitman proved that even if you put up $150 million, you really can’t buy a top-of-the-ticket public office when there’s a credible opponent. Which might be a bit of a deterrent for her fellow billionaires, who didn’t get rich by throwing money away on the scale that Whitman just did.