A Brown, again

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Jerry Brown, sworn in as governor for the third time Monday, made a strong case in his inaugural address that California needs to transcend the habit of partisanship that has mired the state in debt and doubt — and that he may have a singular ability to see that it happens.

“Without the trust of the people,” Brown told his audience at the Sacramento Civic Auditorium, “politics degenerates into mere spectacle.” Indeed, and spectacle it has become, as California’s elected leaders have concentrated on gaming one another rather than seriously confronting the state’s needs. The result has been a victory of gridlock over budgets, of partisan rhetoric over bipartisan action, of gimmicks and borrowing over genuine recalibration of taxes and spending. All that was compounded by the economic downturn, and the state now turns to Brown and the Legislature for the reckoning that has been postponed for too long.

Brown suggested that in order to bounce back, California requires liberation from rote partisanship. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger provided some of the political infrastructure to enable that to take place, winning approval of new election rules that will redraw legislative and congressional district lines by citizens commission (rather than by the Legislature) and provide for nonpartisan primaries. Those reforms will take time to have an effect, but they should bend the state toward bipartisanship and help Brown as he attempts to move California back into action.


If ending gridlock is the message, Brown is an appealing messenger. He is a Democrat, of course, but has never been a conventional one; his first tour as governor was marked by his independence from the party mainstream, and age has only reinforced his iconoclasm. On Monday, Brown mentioned his father, Pat Brown, but also Earl Warren, knitting together two constructive governors from both parties who together built modern California. And he reminded the state that he comes to office at the end, not the beginning, of a long career. “At this stage of my life,” he said, “I have not come here to embrace delay and denial.”

Sacramento can make a mockery of ability and good intentions. Schwarzenegger, after all, had much of Brown’s promise: He brought charisma and independence and a tendency toward nonpartisanship to the job, only to collide with the capital’s entrenched forces, making some gains but more slowly and incrementally than many wished. Brown may stumble too, but he has a chance. California depends on him to make the most of it.