CALIFORNIA POLITICS
Capitol Journal

A more mature Gov. Brown has less to say in speeches, plenty to do

Gov. Brown no longer has his eye on the White House; he's thinking about future history books

Maybe it's because he is a contrarian. But Gov. Jerry Brown doesn't go for conventional celebrating.

Also, he now believes, why give two speeches when one will do just fine?

Brown announced Monday that he'll combine his fourth-term inaugural address with his required annual State of the State speech. No two bites from essentially the same apple.

And no elegant inaugural balls. No big-name concerts. Maybe a modest little gathering down at the state railroad museum, plugging his bullet train project.

But no hitting up special interests to pay for an extravagant soiree. No tuxes, gowns and rear-kissing at swearing-in festivities. Well, amend that. There'll always be plenty of rear-kissing, regardless.

Not that Brown doesn't deserve to celebrate lavishly. He's the first California governor, after all, to be elected four times. Maybe he has taken the oath so often — for this and other offices — that the thrill is gone. But posh doesn't fit the former Jesuit seminarian's simple tastes.

Back in 1979, after Brown was sworn in the second time, he did celebrate with friends and supporters, but in his Capitol office — a dinner catered by a cheap Chinese restaurant located in a rundown shopping center.

Brown will give his combined speech the first day back from the New Year's holiday weekend on Monday, Jan. 5, at 10 a.m. in the Assembly chamber. Nobody gets to take his sweet time returning to Sacramento.

I like it so far.

Whatever Brown, 76, has to say about the next four years — probably his last stint in any elective office — he can do it in one speech. Late the next week, anyway, he'll be required to disclose specific details of his spending plans for the year when he produces a new budget proposal.

At that time, presumably, we'll hear Brown's response to University of California President Janet Napolitano and the UC regents who are threatening to substantially raise student tuition again unless the governor and Legislature cough up more state money.

That aside, from everything we're hearing, Brown isn't planning to drop any bold pronouncements in January.

"I think it's being bold to actually keep the state on a really, really solid good track," the governor's top aide, Nancy McFadden, recently told a conference.

That includes, she said, keeping the budget balanced and eliminating debt. "That's not easy," McFadden said. "There's endless imagination" about where to write checks. "We spend a lot of time pushing back."

Brown put it this way in a news conference the day after his reelection.

"It's a challenge to be fiscally responsible and on the other hand to keep faith with the aspirations and hopes of the Democratic Party. If you abandon [the party], you become really incoherent as a democratic leader. If you totally give in to it, you fall prey to the budget deficits and chaos and public dissatisfaction.

"So combining the hopes for what government can do with putting reins on what it should not do will define a lot of what I'm going to do in the next four years."

It's not exactly bold sounding. But that centrist policy is the reason Brown's job approval rating is so high and why he got reelected.

Brown, of course, has matured. And situations and ambitions have changed. He no longer has his eye on the White House. He's thinking about future history books.

The maturity can be contrasted to when he was elected the first time at age 36. Brown then also combined his inaugural and State of the State speeches but pretty much kissed it off. He basically wrote the thing on his flight to Sacramento from Los Angeles. It lasted just seven minutes and received only a polite reception.

By his next inaugural, in 1979, Brown was running for president a second time. He gave both a swearing-in speech and a State of the State, each aimed at a national audience. Taking the oath, the governor called for a U.S. constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.

Democratic legislative leaders weren't speaking to him when his State of the State address rolled around a week later. They were angry at his proposing a lower-than-inflation spending program. At the speech, there was hostility and only scant applause as he entered and departed the Assembly chamber.

But Brown was a lot more fun and better copy then. He had a rock-star girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt. He went around the country ripping President Carter. He ventured into the Deep South stroking potential supporters.

Referring to Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who was angling for the vice presidency or a Cabinet job, Brown aroused a big Democratic fundraiser in Baton Rouge by declaring: "Where he is going, I'm going to be with him." Edwards later went to prison on a racketeering conviction.

Over the decades, Brown has become less exciting and daring but much more focused and practical.

For his third swearing-in, Brown rented Sacramento's Memorial Auditorium and gave an inaugural address, waxing nostalgic about his California roots. Then a few weeks later, he delivered a separate State of the State, pushing for a tax increase that became Proposition 30.

This time we'll get a two-fer. That's better. The governor can focus more on real work. And special interests won't pile up so many chits.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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