Jerry Brown for governor

For its next governor, California is in dire need of a dynamic and optimistic grownup, one with the personality, perspective and presence to remind voters that theirs is a fabulously wealthy state and not the downward-spiraling mess that national media reports delight in comparing to Greece or Portugal. We need someone with a Reaganesque talent for revealing to ourselves our own exceptionalism and dismissing the self-doubt of the last decade. We need a Pat Brown or Earl Warren-style focus on our future, with investment in education and infrastructure. And we need a leader deft and clever enough to move Californians away from a three-decade pattern of undermining our own government, checking and counterchecking ourselves with selfish initiatives to lock up special program spending, lock out political decision-making and accountability and lock in a perpetual and destructive budget standoff, year after year.

Fate presents the state instead with two candidates who fall well short of our current needs. They come to us from the partisan political version of Central Casting. Republican Meg Whitman, utterly devoid of background or experience in state government or policymaking, rarely deigning to cast a vote, moves toward the Nov. 2 election on the power of millions of dollars of personal wealth. Whitman argues that her role as chief executive of the online auction website EBay somehow makes her the right person to govern the nation's most populous state, yet her slate of policy positions is seemingly more calculated to win the approval of angry voters and profit-seeking business leaders than to address the actual problems facing the state. Then we have Democrat Jerry Brown, the governor of California's baby-boom youth, now seeking the office again more than 30 years after his first run, having advanced on a personal and public journey that made him at times a gadfly outsider, a stolid party leader, a spiritual seeker, a presidential candidate, a nuts-and-bolts mayor of a troubled city and the senior statesman of Sacramento.

We will have to wait for the governor with the talent and courage to shake the state loose from the structural dead-ends into which voters continue to push it. In the meantime, we must choose between Whitman, with her disappointing and empty policy approaches and her assertion that having no experience in government is the best experience, and Brown, whose nonlinear, unscripted style sometimes leaves his listeners wondering what exactly they're going to get. Again, Brown is not the ideal candidate for California, but what he does bring is the reality-based, seen-it-all-before wisdom of a political veteran, and of the two candidates before voters in November, The Times endorses him without hesitation.

Whitman has built her campaign on a checklist of popular but in the end incorrect and cliche-ridden assumptions about California's current condition and what got us here. Illegal immigration is a real and serious issue, but Whitman's solutions range from adding National Guard troops at the border — although illegal crossings directly into California account for little of the problem — to denying higher education or job opportunities to tens of thousands of children brought to the state by their illegal immigrant parents. To Whitman, it makes sense to educate those children in public schools so that they are incorporated into U.S. society, but then when they become adults to cut them loose with no place to go and no chance at earning anything but the most basic living. It is an approach that reflects the high emotional charge of the immigration issue, but none of the understanding that a leader needs of the nuances.

Whitman also takes a CEO's approach to cutting expenses, asserting that she will lay off 40,000 state workers but failing to acknowledge that California's public-worker-to-resident ratio is already among the nation's lowest, and that further slashing the workforce merely moves our dysfunction from one arena to another by slowing state responsiveness without fixing the underlying structural problem. She targets welfare, zeroing in on the resentment that working Californians feel for supposed freeloaders, but she exhibits little understanding of the role that state social services play in keeping society intact in times of distress.

Whitman also completely misses the lessons of the Schwarzenegger governorship, arguing that the current governor started out on the right foot with his vows to "blow up the boxes" of government but then lost his nerve or interest. A candidate paying closer attention would recognize that Schwarzenegger — who unlike Whitman already had some background in politics and policymaking and was no stranger to Sacramento — grew into the job, moved the state past decades of gridlock to launch a major program of rebuilding infrastructure, accomplished key objectives in defusing partisan power and attempted to recapture the state's leadership, sometimes successfully (as with greenhouse gas emissions), sometimes merely getting the ball rolling (as with healthcare reform).

Brown, too, jumps far too quickly at the chance to echo populist sentiment. His campaign promise to reject any new taxes unless they are approved by a vote of the people would only deepen California's governmental stalemate. His assertion that the Legislature will buckle down and make hard decisions if only he lays out all the information before it sounds naive.

But Brown offers a different kind of leadership, and although it might not be our first choice, it will do. Rather than the dynamic leader of new ideas from the 1970s, Brown comes to us now as a sort of grizzled mechanic of the state's failing machinery. He knows which parts can hold out a few more weeks, which rattles can be ignored and how much tension the timing belt can handle before it fails.

Brown knows that the state's top expenses are public education, health and safety, and that none of those programs can be eliminated but that there are short-term efficiencies and long-term structural changes that can keep each operating for another generation. He has a good grasp of the degree to which labor unions can be weaned from unsustainable health and pension entitlements and, likewise, which regulations the state can ease to attract business and which cannot be touched without affecting California's quality of life.

Californians must choose. One candidate is a stranger to the political and governmental landscape; the other knows every superhighway, back road and dead-end. We opt for real-world experience, know-how and creativity. The Times urges a vote for Brown.

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