The parable of ‘Jerry Jarvis’

Capitol Journal

There’s an old Jerry Brown story that’s often recounted but deserves repeating now because it gets right to the core of the guy. It’s quintessential Jerry.

The story involves the two biggest California political players of the late 1970s: young rock-star-like Gov. Brown and crusty old anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis. In spring 1978, they fought over the most important ballot initiative in the state’s history, Jarvis’ Proposition 13.

Brown and the Legislature had created the public clamor for Prop. 13’s monumental property tax cuts by failing to fashion a tax relief measure of their own until it was too late.

The governor railed against Prop. 13, calling it “a fraud,” “a rip-off” and “a can of worms.” But it passed with 65% of the vote.

That was the low point of Brown’s first term as governor -- a low point that lasted maybe 40 seconds.

“We have our marching orders from the people,” Brown quickly proclaimed.

And he quickly began leading the implementation of Prop. 13, which turned California government on its head by making cities, counties and schools financially dependent on Sacramento and more subservient to the state. Sacramento emptied its savings -- roughly $5 billion -- to bail out the locals, a bailout that has never really ceased.

Calling himself a “born-again tax-cutter,” Brown became such an enthusiastic Prop. 13 implementer that he was dubbed “Jerry Jarvis.” A Times poll found that most Californians actually believed Brown had supported Prop. 13.

Jarvis, a Republican, was so smitten with the Democratic governor that he cut a TV ad praising him as he ran for reelection. (He won easily.)

“I wrote Proposition 13,” Jarvis intoned, “but it takes a dedicated governor to make it work.”

I thought of this last week when a new TV ad was released by Meg Whitman, front-runner for the Republican nomination to contest Brown as he seeks his old job. The spot features Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

Announcing the anti-tax group’s endorsement of Whitman, Coupal says in the ad: “We believe Meg is the only candidate, Republican or Democrat, Howard Jarvis himself would trust to protect Proposition 13.”

Jarvis is long dead. But when he was alive, “the old curmudgeon” unequivocally trusted Brown to be Prop. 13’s protector.

Atty. Gen. Brown told me last year, as he began cranking up his campaign to reclaim the governor’s office, that -- unlike many Democrats -- “I’m not going to advocate messing with 13. That’s a big fat loser.”

But that’s not the main point of retelling the Jerry Jarvis story. The point is that Brown is a political Darwinist with an acute ability to adapt and survive.

Political opponents long have panned him as a lowly, flip-flopping chameleon.

“Which Jerry Brown are the voters going to see?” state Republican Chairman Ron Nehring asked in a prepared statement immediately after Brown’s official announcement of candidacy Tuesday.

But wait! Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? An elected official may try to lead -- as Brown did against Prop. 13 -- but when he doesn’t attract many followers, the prudent move is to fall back in line and take marching orders from the voters. That’s called representative democracy.

Being a chameleon can be commendable.

Brown, more than most Democratic politicians, heard marching orders from last May’s special state election when voters emphatically blocked a two-year extension of temporary tax increases that had been approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

That’s why Brown emphasized a no-tax pledge -- though qualified -- in his three-minute video announcement: “In this time of recession when people are financially strapped, there will be no new taxes unless you the people vote for them.”

Does that mean he might propose a tax increase to voters as a way of sparing further cuts in education and healthcare programs? “No, no,” he told me. “There’s so little confidence in state government” that voters wouldn’t trust Sacramento with the money.

Brown is falling back on his old “era of limits” philosophy to tackle Sacramento’s perpetual budget deficit. “We’re going to have to live within our limits,” Brown says, sounding like the freshman Gov. Brown back in 1975 who repeatedly lectured: “People are going to have to work more and get less.”

On limits, Brown has been more consistent than a chameleon.

Of course, he also unleashed a monster back in the ‘70s by delivering collective bargaining rights to government employees. They’ve become arguably the most powerful lobby in Sacramento.

If Brown regrets that landmark move, he isn’t saying so. But he does warn that “the unions will have to rise to the occasion like everyone else.”

Wages and benefits, he says, “have to be adjusted to fit the economic times. We’re going to have to look at every aspect of state spending.”

State workers undoubtedly would loudly protest. But Brown’s been there.

Soon after Prop. 13 passed, thousands of civil servants booed and cursed the governor in Capitol Park as he tried to explain why they should sacrifice their pay hikes so local government workers could keep their jobs.

“That’s a crock,” someone yelled among the sea of angry faces and obscene gestures.

It’s an old story, but fits neatly as an illustration in the latest chapter of the seemingly ageless Jerry Brown.