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Jerry Brown’s New Pitch: “Optimism of the Will”

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

jerryinterview(Updated 4:45 pm) Declaring that he’s “not a candidate – yet,” Jerry Brown tried out a potential new theme for his soon-to-come campaign for governor Tuesday:

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” he told a crowd of more than 800 at an Election Day breakfast in San Francisco. “It may look bad today, but help is on the way.”

While not exactly an ideal kicker  for a 30-second TV spot, Brown’s Hegelian synthesis seemed to be an in-progress effort to craft a message that could attract disenchanted and alienated voters living through hard times, by combining a hard-headed analysis of the truly dire problems of California with a soft-hearted appeal to optimism and the state’s historic belief in hope for the future.

“I as much as anyone love to wallow in doom and gloom,” he acknowledged, tempering that tendency with rhetoric about California as “a state of imagination” and call for “some enthusiasm to get it done” during tough times.

Brown propounded his notion at a packed-to-the-rafters event tossed by former Assembly Speaker and SF Mayor Willie Brown at the Moscone Center, which also featured Governor Schwarzmuscle and Republican wannabe governors Tom Campbell and Steve Poizner.

The only gubernatorial contender not in attendance was…wait for it…Meg Whitman, who kept intact her Joe DiMaggio-length streak of avoiding all contact with other candidates, having begged off from the breakfast nearly four months ago.

“Her office called and said she would be in the East – and that was an invitation extended in July,” said Willie. “She must have a helluva’ calendar.”

With Gavin Newsom’s sudden withdrawal from the governor’s race (he missed the breakfast reportedly because he has the flu — “don’t know if it’s swine,” Willie said) having cleared the primary field for Jerry Brown, the attorney general was the star of the show, as reporters gathered around him on his arrival, to the detriment of Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who was just starting to speak.

“I’m not a candidate,” Brown said at the beginning of his speech, pausing a beat and then adding, “Yet.” He said there was “no reason to get in too soon” because he is not “one of the more obscure personalities.”

“I don’t want to be coy,” he insisted, “I am raising as much money as I can.”

Reporters asked Brown about the recent controversy involving press secretary Scott Gerber, who resigned Monday following disclosures that he had secretly taped conversations with reporters. In resigning, Gerber issued a statement saying that he and he alone was responsible for and aware of the taping. Whether or not his resignation and mea culpa put the matter to rest remains to be seen; Brown, however, made it clear he believes it is already old news.

“Everything has been pretty well delineated,” he said, adding that “no confidential communications” were recorded.

IMG_2110(Willie Brown — dressed in light plaid Brioni and plum accents — slyly referred to the issue in his welcoming remarks to those at the breakfast: “Welcome to the breakfast club,” he said. “Please be advised that I am recording everything we are doing here today”).

Crusty the General Brown shrugged off suggestions, made by our friends over at Calitics among others, that the lack of a primary opponent would be disadvantageous to him and the party in preventing a robust debate and denying him an opportunity to sharpen his arguments and campaign pitch.

“Well, I appreciate their solicitude.  It comes as a change from earlier recommendations in that quarter,” he said. “But whether or not we would be better with a nice bitter primary…would (it) be better for your moral character or better your political standing? It’s always better to take on adversity with a good spirit. But it doesn’t always (translate) to electoral victories.”

But wouldn’t he benefit from going through a primary? “Do you know how many primaries I’ve been in?” he asked. Willie Brown also laughed off the notion that a non-contested primary is a problem:

“I have never in my life felt as a candidate that I would benefit from competition,” he told Calbuzz.

karzai Later, speaking to the breakfast crowd, the onetime  “Ayatolla of the Legislature” held up Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai as a politician to emulate because he was able to clear the field and confirm himself.

“I think that’s what Jerry Brown is trying to do,” Willie said, laughing.

He introduced Campbell joking that, when he called him to invite him to the event, “He was in Dinuba, at a Denny’s, talking to an audience of one.”

Campbell got off the best one-liners in a speech he prepared for the event listing the 25 biggest whoppers he’s come to understand in his two decades in public office and 16 months in this campaign. The best of them were zingers at his opponents, but because they’re so inside, most of the audience didn’t seem to get them:

IMG_2118Aimed at Poizner: “Cut taxes and government revenue will automatically rise. (The logical corollary is that government will generate most revenue at a tax rate of zero.)”

Aimed at Whitman: “It’s really better not to have government experience if you’re running for public office.”

Aimed at Brown: “You can raise seven million dollars without really deciding to run for governor.”

Poizner, looking like the Silicon Valley multi-millionaire that he is in his open-collared blue shirt and blue-gray suit, introduced himself to the San Francisco audience and described his background volunteering in the public schools. (Calbuzz knows this not because we heard the speech but because Poizner’s very competent media guy, Jarrod Agen, sent out a quickie partial transcript.)

His closing pitch: “I’m an engineer. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a problem solver. And I want to get together with teachers and educators and business folks, folks from across the political spectrum. California is in a huge crisis right now and it’s time for all of us to get together and implement some common sense solutions like I’m describing here so we can get not only the public schools  back on track, so that we can get California back on track.”

Gov. Schwarzenegger, who said he came to the event because “you never turn down Willie,” spoke for a few minutes and then announced: “I’m excited about this audience because I’ve been standing up here four minutes and no one has yet screamed out ‘Kiss my gay ass’” — a reference to Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who yelled that remark at Schwarzenegger during a recent Democratic gathering at which the governor made an appearance.

A Year Out, Gov’s Race Lacks a “Change” Candidate

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

darwin-300x300One year before the 2010 election, Gavin Newsom’s abrupt withdrawal from the governor’s race leaves the campaign without a candidate conveying the message most aligned with California’s zeitgeist of the moment: a call for sweeping reform.

With Attorney General Jerry Brown the lone (if still formally undeclared) Democratic candidate, and a Republican field of former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, ex-Congressman Tom Campbell, and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, the race now presents two fundamental, thematic choices:

Brown and Campbell argue, in slightly different ways, that fixing California is a matter of making government work better; Whitman and Poizner essentially contend that fixing California means getting government out of the way.

At a time when Californians have record-low regard for state government, none of the four has mounted a challenge to the status quo as strongly as did Newsom. A flawed messenger lacking focus and the discipline to raise the vast sums needed, he nonetheless came closest to seizing the mantle of change.

newsomlookright“This is the race that will shake the system,” the 42-year old San Francisco mayor said in his first online campaign ad. Positioning himself as an upstart outsider with bold ideas, his message combined generational appeal with proposals for a green economy and for major structural reforms. Capturing the nomination was always a long-shot for newcomer Newsom, but it was he who most clearly articulated the memes of reform –- a constitutional convention, revising the budget process, reexamining Proposition 13 –- that have arisen amid Sacramento’s chronic gridlock and deficits.

The remaining candidates make studied efforts to cast themselves as scourges of the status quo. As authentic agents of change, however, they fall short by almost any measure. All are Baby Boomers or older, and they are also longtime establishment insiders in business, politics or both. They are campaigning on shopworn rhetoric, threadbare ideology and conventional ideas, offering scant inspiration to alienated voters and angry citizens distrustful and disgusted with the Capitol’s ossified operations.

To be sure, campaigning in the current political environment is an extraordinary challenge. The most recent statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that Californians have dismally low views of the incumbent governor – 30% approve of his performance – and of the Legislature – with its humiliating 13% approval rating.

Worse for the candidates, the citizens of California across the board are deeply pessimistic about its intractable problems: 80% say California is on the wrong track, while two-thirds expect continued bad economic times in the next year. Breaking through this widespread despair and disillusionment requires candidates with uplifting vision, powerful new ideas, exceptional personality or all three. The political platitudes now on display hardly seem to qualify.

Despite his organizational problems, Newsom as a candidate displayed high energy and thoughtful policy thinking — on health care, environmentalism and civic reform. And his courage in simply declaring same-sex marriage legal in his city triggered a national debate over the civil rights of gays. None of the rest of the field has communicated such full-throated willingness to “shake the system.”

Here’s a quick look at the messages of those who remain in the race:

Meg Whitman: With a self-referential pledge – “I refuse to let California fail” – and boasts about herwhitman “spine of steel,” Whitman tells voters that her business skills and experience as a CEO will enable her to fulfill promises of easing unemployment and fixing the state’s battered education systems. She has announced her intention of firing 40,000 state workers and slashing regulations and taxes. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the last governor to woo voters with such a singular, tough talk pitch. But his simplistic, campaign trail prescriptions proved no match for the complex political and policy maladies of the Capitol.

stevepoiznerSteve Poizner: Casting himself as a candidate of “bold ideas,” Poizner promotes a “10-10-10 program” that would cut taxes and spending each by 10% and build a $10 billion rainy-day fund. Notwithstanding his breezy confidence in the alleged transformational power of his plan, it is basically recycled supply side, unfettered market economics of a brand discredited by the Bush Administration. His political makeover, from erstwhile moderate to born-again right-winger, smacks of poll-driven politics-as-usual.

Tom Campbell: The law professor with the MBA and years of political experience campbellprofessoris almost always the smartest guy in the room. An underfunded centrist, at a time when moderates are being purged from the GOP, he campaigns as the candidate of specificity; his mastery of the minutiae of state government generates detailed white papers and avuncular assurances, but in the end his message boils down to more efficient management of the status quo.

EGBrown3Jerry Brown: It is a great paradox that the septuagenarian Brown, the original rock-star politician, now timidly labels himself “an apostle of common sense,” hardly a slogan that screams “new ideas” or invokes the insurgency of his presidential campaign days. Brown has said little about how his late-life governorship would differ from his first, except to suggest he would be more competent in balancing competing special interests, a version of the theme being sounded by Campbell.

None of these messages offers a solution to the fundamental challenge which confronts the next governor: how to slash the maddening Gordian knot of California’s governance structure.

It is instructive that Treasurer Bill Lockyer, while well-positioned to seek the governorship, shows little interest in doing so: “We’re part of a system that was designed not to work,” he recently told lawmakers studying political reform. “You are the captives of this environment, and I don’t see any way out.”

This piece is also being published today in the Los Angeles Times.

Inside Story: Why Newsom’s Governor Bid Collapsed

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

twogavinsSan Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s publicly-stated reason for dropping out of the Democratic race for governor was the absolute truth:  “With a young family and responsibilities at City Hall, I have found it impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to — and should be — done.”

But, according to sources close to Prince Gavin, it didn’t have to be so.

Despite his charisma, policy depth and breezy communication skills, Newsom found himself behind Attorney General Jerry Brown by 8-to-1 in campaign cash and 20 points in the polls because of three key problems: his utter lack of discipline, his inability to manage his City Hall staff and his faulty judgment about the practical operations of a statewide campaign.

Last week, with about $375,000 in the bank, Newsom finally realized he would have to put City Hall on maintenance mode and commit to at least 20-40 hours a week on the phone, schmoozing donors and political shakers, raising money the old-fashioned way – a task he simply could not make himself do.

For Newsom, as he said in his statement, it truly was “impossible to commit the time required to complete this effort the way it needs to – and should be – done.”

In part, this is a function of how Prince Gavin operates in the political world. “Newsom is really motivated by public policy,” said one insider. “He wants to pull together all the stakeholders and hammer out the next new policy option.”

Time and agaiericgarryn he would find one excuse after another to blow off scheduled time for fund-raising, even when his campaign staff arranged for an office across the street from City Hall. He could not be made to make the phone calls — even in the car during drive time — for a senator’s birthday or a labor leader’s new baby or whatever political chingadera needed tending at any given moment.

Partly this was a function of what might be called Newsom’s Political Attention Deficit Disorder. But his PADD was reinforced and amplified by the political strategy that the candidate originally bought into – the theory propounded by Eric Jaye, his long time strategist, that given a national base among gays, progressives and greens, Newsom would be able to raise $35 million, mostly online, through Twitter, Facebook and other social “new campaign” networking channels.

This was an absurd projection. By comparison,  Phil Angelides, who was state treasurer, former state party chairman and a prolific fundraiser with a deep base in the Greek-American community when he became a candidate for governor, had managed to raise $22.3 million over 3 ½ years leading up the 2006 primary.

Jaye’s model may have been wildly unrealistic, but it dovetailed nicely with Newsom’s personality and his desire to believe that he could raise the money he needed without resorting to old-fashioned dialing-for-dollars. A byproduct of Jaye’s belief in the social-networking model: the finance and political directors he had brought into the campaign had nothing like the experience a campaign would demand if traditional fund-raising and connecting with existing party power centers were regarded as crucial  endeavors.

Meanwhile, Newsom’s City Hall staff – who were close to Jaye and whose base is simply the voters of San Francisco – hoarded the candidate’s schedule and constantly came up with new initiatives and ideas for the mayor that the campaign staff often only learned about after the fact.

The rift in the campaign – with Garry South, Peter Ragone and Nick Clemons on one side versus Jaye and his City Hall allies on the other – grew increasingly bitter; Jaye argued that Newsom should use his successes in San Francisco to demonstrate his fitness to be governor, while the others pushed for Newsom to demonstrate viability through fund raising, building statewide support and articulating a political message about change and reform to contrast with Brown, whom they would aggressively portray as old-school status quo.

In late July, Jaye was ousted from the campaign. But Newsom still could not  bring his City Hall operation to heel. Newsom’s support for a tax on soda products (in September) and his police chief’s new plan to allow unlicensed drivers to phone a friend to retrieve their car after a traffic stop (last week) are just two recent examples of policies the campaign had no idea about before they were announced to the news media.

Newsom ultimately was incapable of managing the conflict between the innate leftiness of his San Francisco City Hall staff and the realpolitik pragmatism of his California campaign staff.

The Newsom strategic message – new versus old, change versus status quo – was always a long shot: making Jerry Brown look like a geezer is no easy task, even though he’s 71 years old, bald and sports bushy white eyebrows. There’s something Tony Bennett about him that resists being branded as over-the-hill.

But as a 42-year-old mayor from a liberal Northern California city, it was Newsom’s best shot. With enough money and political support behind him, he might have made a run at Brown, not from the left or the right but from the future.

But there’s the paradox: Newsom thought that propounding a new ideas message meant he could avoid the old politics necessity to focus on fundraising and building alliances. As a political matter, it was a fatal flaw.