Jerry Brown is many things. Here are three: He is cheap. He is lucky. He is a provocateur.
He is a provocateur who sometimes doesn’t know when to shut up.
His campaign rival, Meg Whitman, is at least two things: A billionaire and a prevaricator.
Mix it all up and California has an unappealing race for governor, even if it may keep a few political junkies entertained.
First, Jerry the cheap:
For starters, Democrat Brown has only about a dozen paid employees on his campaign staff as he tries to reach 17 million registered voters in the nation’s most populous, most diverse state.
Of course, any major candidate in California must reach those voters mainly through TV ads. But Brown has just begun to run his. By contrast, Republican Whitman has been on the air for a year, spending more than $100 million of her own money.
But that really isn’t the proof of Brown’s cheapness. It shows his conservatism in hoarding $30 million for the stretch run.
For the cheap side of Brown, one can look at his two-term reign as governor from 1975 to 1983. And that’s where Whitman’s prevarication comes in — or her lying, as Brown calls it in his new TV ad that plants a Pinocchio nose on the former EBay chief.
There’s plenty to criticize Brown for when he was governor. He allowed the state’s infrastructure to start decaying. He especially failed to invest in highways and universities. That was back when he was preaching an “era of limits,” a doctrine he should dust off for today.
But calling him a tax-and-spender is just plain false.
Whitman claims that spending on Brown’s watch exploded by 120%. But a recent independent analysis by the Associated Press found that, adjusting for inflation and population growth, state spending rose just 12.3% — slightly less than it did under Brown’s predecessor, Republican icon Ronald Reagan.
Whitman keeps yelping about Brown inheriting a generous surplus from Reagan, then leaving office with a $1-billion deficit. Fact is, the state emptied its savings box of roughly $5 billion to keep classrooms, police stations and firehouses open after voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, drastically cutting local property taxes and practically making counties, cities and schools wards of Sacramento.
The GOP candidate thinks that Sacramento made a terrible mistake by bailing out local governments.
“If the people vote and they want a tax cut, what you need to do is align the cost structure of California to manage that,” Whitman answered when asked if her criticism of Brown’s spending was really fair, according to the AP.
Whitman’s view wasn’t exactly the way voters saw it in 1978, however. They were told by Prop. 13’s sponsors that taxes could be cut without services being sacrificed — that there was enough hidden “waste, fraud and abuse” to cover the lost revenue. The fairy tale never ends.
Brown also contributed to the deficit by cutting taxes — Whitman ads to the contrary. And that doesn’t include the Prop. 13 property tax cuts, which he opposed as “a can of worms” — they were and still are — but eagerly implemented. In addition, he trimmed $4 billion in annual income, inheritance and business inventory taxes.
When Brown left office, taxes per $100 of personal income were slightly lower than when he arrived. By the same measurement, Reagan left Sacramento with taxes higher than when he became governor.
But these Brown facts don’t fit the profile of a liberal “tax and spender” that polling and focus groups tell Whitman’s strategists works best against the Democrat. So the facts are bent to fit the attack ads.
The Brown camp estimates that Whitman’s negative spots have been seen more than 100 times by the average TV viewer since the June primary.
One jewel features a film clip of then-candidate Bill Clinton pouncing on Brown during a New York presidential primary debate in 1992. Citing CNN for his information, Clinton claimed that Brown “raised taxes as governor of California” and “doesn’t tell the people the truth.”
The former CNN reporter recently recanted his Brown tax story and admitted he had it wrong.
But not in time to stop Brown’s mouth from running over.
“Clinton’s a nice guy, but who ever said he always told the truth,” Brown remarked to a Democratic crowd. “You remember, right? There’s that whole story there about did he or didn’t he. OK .... I did not have taxes with this state.”
Brown sometimes can’t resist the sound of his own voice.
“You know Jerry,” his campaign manager Steve Glazer told me. “He gets into the moment and tells a bad joke.”
Brown soon apologized.
And again he got lucky.
He was lucky to have been born the son of a great governor, Pat Brown. He was lucky to have run for governor himself in the year of the Nixon Watergate scandal when Democrats prospered everywhere.
He was lucky to have a sluggish reelection opponent in 1978, Atty. Gen. Evelle J. Younger, who flew to Hawaii on vacation as everyone else in politics was focusing on implementing Prop. 13. Brown’s attack ads featured palm trees and ukulele music.
Brown really got lucky when former President Clinton decided not to be provoked into taking revenge against his disrespectful old nemesis.
Instead, he graciously endorsed Brown — which Brown didn’t do for Clinton at the 1992 convention — and called him “a very good attorney general [who] would be an excellent governor at a time when California needs his creative and fiscal prudence.”
Something tells me Brown will need more luck before election day.