Since his youthful days as governor, Jerry Brown told Calbuzz, he’s learned the political importance of personalities and patience – two lessons that, if elected again, he would use to shatter Sacramento’s “specter of paralysis.”
One day after formally announcing he’s a candidate for governor, the 71-year old Democratic state attorney general told us he would “focus like a laser beam” on curing California’s chronic budget deficits by “pressing and engaging” all 120 legislators into a grinding process to find authentic solutions to the budget mess.
“This is very different from 1975 when I was in a hurry, I was impatient, I wanted to hit the ball out of the park, new ideas and bold appointments,” Brown said of his years as a brash, 30-something governor. “Now what I’ve seen is that things take time.”
In a 45-minute telephone interview from his car, Brown ranged from St. Ignatius to the Serrano-Priest legal decision on school finance, discoursing in a high-energy, low-punctuation style on everything from taxes to teaching citizenship in public education. Brown’s detailed and substantive answers to a host of policy questions showed a level of personal interest and intellectual engagement that belied the ambivalence he appeared to feel about running for governor in the months leading up his announcement.
“I like this kind of work and I think I could really make a contribution to clean up the mess in Sacramento. . . . I feel I’ve invested an enormous part of my life in understanding many of the issues that are alive today and urgent and very much call out for solutions,” he told us. “So on balance it struck me as something that I’d like to do. I’m very excited about doing it . . . I found myself, boy, I was very very excited about this opportunity.”
In the interview, Brown’s Kerouacian verbal style careened from point to point, as he marshaled facts and recalled figures from history to build and embroider his arguments without regard to the norms of periods and commas or, seemingly at times, even the need to draw breath.
Here are some highlights of the interview:
For those who have watched Brown for years, his most surprising comments came when he talked about the personal dimension of politics. In Sacramento, he earned a reputation as a brilliant but self-involved cold-fish with a high-handed disregard, even contempt, for the personal niceties of politics and the subjective perspectives of other politicians. His current expressed attitude, however, conjured comparisons to the style of his late father, Gov. Pat Brown, a politician of the hail-fellow-well-met old school.
Brown recalled the advice given him when he was governor by the late Brien T. (B.T.) Collins. A legendary Capitol figure, Collins was a hard drinking, foul-mouthed former Green Beret who lost an arm and a leg in combat in Vietnam – a conservative Republican who served Brown first as director of the California Conservation Corps and later as his chief of staff. Beloved by the press corps, whom he excoriated as “scumbags of the fourth estate,” Collins never hesitated to tell his boss exactly what was on his mind.
Another thing that I’ve learned, that I’ve really learned – personalities. I remember B.T. Collins would say, “Brown, you don’t get it. Politics is about personalities.” And I get that – it’s about the personalities of the Republicans and the Democrats. And I’m going to take that very seriously. I’m going to listen to them.
In a 180-degree reversal from his previous tenure, Brown said that he would work to restore civility and affability to Sacramento, by entertaining with his wife, Anne Gust Brown, groups of legislators and policy makers in an atmosphere of bonhomie and open interchange.
I’d like to meet them in public, in private. I’m going to have . . . you know my father used to have dinners at the ranch and people from both parties would bring their wives over . . . I’m sure Anne will be a great hostess here, we’re going to have a lot of interaction . . .
The last time I didn’t have a wife and I had a spartan furnished apartment. Now I’ve got a wife and a beautiful home in Oakland and I’ll find an appropriate venue in Sacramento but I certainly think we can use the old mansion for dinners with the legislature to carry on the kind of camaraderie that built this state up until the recent descent into dysfunctionality.
Brown said California’s need is for a governor who will focus relentlessly on ending “the charade” of years of smoke and mirrors budgeting and find a bipartisan political solution based on dragging every member of the Legislature into a process that would force each of them to “take ownership” of a solution. He’d show the Legislature exactly where the hole in the budget is and insist they help fix it (without increasing taxes, absent a vote of the people, which he said is one of his fundamental principles).
There’s no one in elected office who has spent more time on the state budget of California than I have…
But I’m not going to engage in a charade. The budget I present is going to be an honest budget . . . and we’re going to have to take several years to get it done, and I understand that now – and the patience and dealing with the personalities and no smoke and mirrors . . . starting in December. I won’t be governor yet, but if I’m elected I’ll be there and I’m going to know how to spend the time.
I’m extremely excited and I have this idea that I hope is not delusional that by engaging all 120 legislators, by starting in December, by focusing on the budget, by not going to Washington, not going to Israel, not going anywhere, (no) photo ops, but just dealing with this problem and personally engaging these people.
And I’m not talking about a couple of hours with the Big Five in January, I’m talking about starting in December with the entire legislature, asking them to send their staffs to another room and taking as long, as many hours a week, as many hours a day, as many days a week, weeks, months, however long it takes, I’m going to wrestle this budget to the ground and shape up a few key components that we have to deal with, after cutting the obvious and the obvious I think you have to start with the governor’s office . . .
I’m going to call in the campaign patrons of all these legislators and union and business people maybe religious activists, Tea Party people for the Republicans, and just discuss with them the future of California. Because I didn’t make this mess. I’ve been watching it, as a mayor and now as the lawyer to these people, but substantively, it’s been the governor and the legislature and they’re confronting this thing.
But you know, it’s not about brains, they’ve been balancing on the debt-fueled bubble that the people in Washington – Greenspan, credit swaps, Bush tax cuts, all that stuff, the war, mortgages – this has created a false economy that has now been substantially reduced by trillions and we’ve got a real problem here – high unemployment, people losing their jobs, houses – and I think the key is to come in with the experience and where I am in my life and give it . . . to engage people sincerely, with empathy, with patience and we’ll do the best job we can.
And at the end of that time, I believe, whether it takes two or three months or four or five months, the people in this state are going to understand these are the choices and we’ll make whatever choices we have to make to align the spending with the revenues, because that’s what we gotta do that the end of the day.
The real motto here, which is the motto of the Oakland Military Institute, is age quod agis – which is “do what you are doing.” Do that which you are doing, focus on it entirely. And I’m going to focus on this budget like a laser beam . . . because the spectacle of a failed state is scaring away business investment . . . So I want to wrestle the budget to the ground, get it in shape, then [develop] a work-out plan, that while it will take several years, the framework will be there to inspire confidence. That’s my goal.
You can admire Brown’s earnestly expressed commitment to ensuring that every legislator — Democrats and Republicans alike — has a stake in solving the budget crisis in Sacramento. But there’s problem in all this. If past is prologue, a substantial cadre of Republican legislators have made it clear — as Abel Maldonado told us they did in caucus last year — that they don’t want to solve California’s budget crisis. They’d rather see the state face bankruptcy, to hasten the dismantling of government. In other words, no matter how good his intentions may be, Brown (or any governor) may face an immovable ideological object that cannot be cajoled, cadiddled or otherwise convinced to participate in fixing the budget mess.