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Three things Brown should not do

Capitol Journal

Advice is cheap, and mine is even free. Here are three suggestions for the governor-elect.

Not that he’ll listen.

I advised Jerry Brown repeatedly during the election season to be more specific about his solutions and vision for California. Articulate some message more solid than Been there, done that and I’m good at it.

He ignored all of us pundits and won by a hefty 12 points.

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I advised the former governor to promise this time to serve only one term. That would ease some voters’ anxiety about his age (72) and signal that he’d focus exclusively on fixing the state, rather than also plotting a reelection race.

He must have thought I was crazy. A lot of people did.

Undaunted, I’ll try again.

No. 1: His wife — former Gap executive Anne Gust — would make a terrific chief of staff. But probably not for him as governor, regardless of his apparent desire.

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A governor needs a chief of staff he can fire.

You can’t call your spouse into the office and say, “Honey, I appreciate all your hard work, but I need to make a change, to go in a different direction. I’m going to replace you.”

How does that go over at home?

OK, home is none of my business. But the governor’s office is. And a governor should feel free to show an aide the door without fear of being locked out of the house.

Moreover, a spousal chief of staff just might be awkward for the governor’s advisors and cabinet secretaries.

How does one, working the chain of command, convey the ugly truth that Jerry Brown is acting like a moron if the aide must tell it to the governor’s wife?

“You can’t have the same conversation with someone’s spouse that you can with someone’s staff,” says a longtime Sacramento insider who didn’t want to be identified for fear of alienating the future first couple.

“Spouses are emotionally involved. Loyalty and trust — while necessary — are taken to a new level when marriage is involved. They don’t look at things as clinically.”

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Says another Sacramento veteran, who has closely observed Brown and Gust: “I don’t know that it would be the best use of her skills. Sometimes you want your chief of staff to be the hammer. She’d be very good at that, but do you really want the first lady to be your hatchet man?”

What Brown really wants is his wife’s common-sense counsel and ability to coordinate his life. There are few people he trusts, now or ever. He seems to put most faith in Anne Gust.

Asked recently to name the confidant he calls at night when mulling a crucial decision, Brown replied: “I don’t have to call in the middle of the night because my close confidant is with me in bed — and during the day.”

Gust, 52, a former corporate lawyer, has been Brown’s de facto chief of staff in the attorney general’s office. She also was the main honcho in his gubernatorial campaign. It all turned out well.

But the campaign had 12 paid staffers; the attorney general’s office roughly 5,000. There are around 200,000 state employees under the governor’s direct control. Plus there’s a pesky Legislature that must be cajoled or coerced.

Brown, I’m told, doesn’t want a true chief of staff. A top gun can become too powerful and a self-promoter, he thinks. He’s leaning toward a few aides sharing power and his wife being an overseer and confidant — a recast chief of staff, by another name.

“Let’s get off this chief of staff stuff,” he told reporters at a post-election news conference. “I want to rethink the structure ... to make it leaner.”

Granted, he’s been there. He should know.

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“He should go with the model he feels most comfortable with,” says political lawyer Steve Merksamer, chief of staff to former Gov. George Deukmejian. “If he has the most confidence in his wife, go for it. He has to make the administration work. And in my view, he gets a wide berth.”

My view: Keep Anne as a counselor and confidant. Recruit someone else — call the person an “executive secretary” or “chief enforcer” — to ride herd, weed out the weaklings and corral the straight-talk truth.

No. 2: Forget the idea of leading a dog-and-pony circus up and down the state.

Brown doesn’t exactly describe it that way. He has talked about holding “budget sessions” all over California to solicit the input of citizens and interests on how to stanch the state’s red-ink.

Yawn. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has performed similar stunts. It’s a favorite tactic of legislators trying to attract hometown attention. Nobody cares. Everyone recognizes it for what it is: a time-wasting media show.

Get back to Sacramento and do your job.

No. 3: Don’t even think about holding a special election next year.

Former Gov. Gray Davis, Brown’s first chief of staff, recently predicted that the next governor would be forced to ask voters to extend temporary tax hikes set to expire next year. Voters killed such an extension last year.

Brown has vowed not to raise taxes without voters’ approval. But he shouldn’t ask for it next year. And he seems to understand that. “The electorate is in no mood to add to their burdens,” he says.

Actually, he shouldn’t ask voters for anything next year. They’ve OD’d on elections. Wait until 2012.

Look at the history. Schwarzenegger called two special elections and voters loudly rebuked him. “What’s Brown going to say, ‘I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger’?” muses ballot proposition strategist Gale Kaufman.

No. He’s not going to take the risk.

Anyway, that’s my advice. More later.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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