On a recent evening, a dark sedan glided to the curb at a two-story Craftsman off Crenshaw Boulevard near the Santa Monica Freeway. It carried Gov. Jerry Brown and his top aide, fresh off a day of squiring the vice president of China around Los Angeles.
The visit to the home of Joshua Pechthalt, a former social studies instructor who leads a little-known teachers union, was part of a quiet campaign to neutralize an unexpected threat to Brown’s agenda: outside activists who are as eager as the governor to raise taxes.
Brown has staked his fortunes this year on persuading voters to help patch the ever-present hole in the state budget by agreeing to temporary increases.
The problem is that Pechthalt and, separately, a wealthy Los Angeles lawyer also hope to ask Californians to raise levies.
Many analysts say that more than one tax measure on the ballot could cause an overwhelmed public to reject them all.
So on Feb. 16, the governor spent two hours nibbling on cheese and crackers, sipping sparkling apple juice and asking Pechthalt to drop his union’s proposal, an income-tax hike on millionaires that would help fund public education, state universities and public works.
Brown politely rebuffed Pechthalt’s counter-request that the governor modify his own measure.
It would combine a temporary increase in income taxes on high earners with a half-cent rise in the sales tax.
“It was a very cordial, respectful meeting,” Pechthalt said in an interview.
“But we want a revenue measure and, at this point, we believe ours is the one with the best chance of winning.”
After failing to win Republican backing for a tax initiative, the governor spent much of last year crafting a proposal that could win support from both organized labor and business.
He combined a soak-the-rich approach with the sort of bump favored by business, one that lands on all taxpayers regardless of income. But while the governor was deliberating, Pechthalt and others laid the groundwork for their own campaigns, and now they’re all on a collision course.
“If we don’t get on one plan, and one program, the polling is clear -- we’re all polar bears and we all drown,” said David Kiefer, executive director of the Service Employees International Union, who consulted on all of the various proposals when they were first being planned and now endorses Brown’s.
The three campaigns began collecting signatures in recent weeks to place their tax increases on the November ballot. Once they submit the petitions to the secretary of state -- as soon as next month -- there’s no turning back, so Brown has little time left to elbow his rivals aside.
L.A. civil-rights attorney Molly Munger is one of them. She’s behind a sliding scale of tax hikes that would raise an estimated $10 billion a year, mainly for public schools. She said Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown, called her in December to warn of a possible conflict.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has also met with Munger and has publicly urged her to step aside. He is scheduled to confer with her again, according to his aides.
The governor’s office would not comment on communications with Munger. But last week, after Munger publicly spurned the overtures from Brown’s allies and Pechthalt’s group vowed to press on, the administration took its efforts public.
“Welcome to the circular firing squad,” Brown’s political advisor, Steve Glazer, said in an interview, warning that the governor would have to urge voters to reject the other taxes. “We don’t want to campaign against these measures, but there are little alternatives.”
Munger has sunk more than $1.5 million into her proposal.
When reporters asked recently why she was defying Brown, she replied: “I don’t think we’d have a very good, functioning democracy if we just did what one person at the top wanted.”
The day after that remark, Brown met for an hour with the board of the state PTA, the only organization to publicly embrace Munger’s pitch.
“I felt very respected,” said Carol Kochevar, the group’s president. But, she added, “we see this initiative as doing something very different than the governor’s does. It gets the money to the classroom directly.”
The following week, at a state Democratic Party convention, Brown was expected to urge the activists to unite behind his measure. Instead, he obliquely told them: “You’ll get your marching orders soon enough.” He also buttonholed Pechthalt and proposed their eventual chat.
A Brown aide acknowledged that the administration underestimated the determination of Pechthalt’s union, the California Federation of Teachers, which has long existed in the shadow of the powerful California Teachers Assn. The CTA has endorsed Brown’s proposal.
Pechthalt agreed with the aide’s assessment, regretting that he had not had the governor’s ear sooner. “We could have been in a very different place,” he said, if the governor had “taken us more seriously.”
After the meeting at Pechthalt’s home last month wound down, Brown and his executive secretary, Nancy McFadden, lingered to help the union leader’s 12-year-old daughter with her homework. The girl interviewed the governor about his effort to repeal a law limiting how quickly shelters can euthanize animals.
“There are not a lot of governors who’d be willing to do that,” Pechthalt said. “He was being a mensch.”