Villaraigosa’s bold jabs at Gov. Brown and property tax

Capitol Journal

Ask Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa whether he covets Gov. Jerry Brown’s job and he answers: “If this were about running for governor, I wouldn’t be tacking Prop. 13 on my forehead.”

That certainly makes sense, at least based on conventional wisdom.

As Villaraigosa pointed out in a Sacramento Press Club speech last week, the revered property tax limitation law is a political “third rail,” although he challenged Brown to muster “the courage to test the voltage.”


The governor brushed off the mayor. Having been singed 33 years ago by Prop. 13 — calling it “a fraud” when it was on the ballot, then recovering by proclaiming himself a “born-again tax-cutter” — Brown isn’t about to venture near the thing during his gubernatorial encore.

“Messing with 13,” Brown told me two years ago is “a big fat loser.”

So why did Villaraigosa fly to Sacramento to brand Brown a weak leader and touch the third rail?

“I want to give him cover to be as great as his dad,” the mayor told Times reporters, referring to Gov. Pat Brown, the legendary builder of public works. “This is about being bold again.”

Uh, OK. It was about promoting progressive policy. And bully for bold. We certainly need more of that in Sacramento.

But you don’t have to be half a cynic to see what this was about politically. Villaraigosa, who’s termed out as mayor in two years, is running to get in position to run for something else.


He’d like to run for governor but isn’t sure when, insiders say.

Brown can run for reelection in 2014 and isn’t the type to voluntarily surrender the office. I’ve never known a governor who would. But Brown will be 76 then and finishing up his third term, counting that first stint decades ago. So there is extraordinary uncertainty.

Calling out the governor, a fellow Democrat, while jabbing at Prop. 13 was a guaranteed way to attract media attention, especially during a slow news summer in Sacramento. It was Villaraigosa saying, “Hey, don’t forget me! I’m a potential governor too.”

My favorite poke at Brown during the speech was this:

“I have great respect for Gov. Jerry Brown.... But I will not mince words. As a state and as a nation, we have to stop aiming low. We can’t let this be an era of limited thinking.”

It was a clever turn on Brown’s lecturing about an “era of limits” back in the 1970s.

Villaraigosa’s contention that Brown has “got to be more assertive” merely echoes a growing murmur around the Capitol.

Where’s the governor’s jobs program as unemployment rises? He’s working on it, we’re told. He did name a jobs czar last week to “streamline and invigorate the state’s economic development infrastructure.”

Brown’s focus remains on balancing the books — kicking the borrowing habit and laying off the gimmicks — while working with business and labor to devise a tax increase voters might accept next year.

He still seems to have more defenders than detractors.

“Look, it’s easy to second-guess anybody,” says Villaraigosa’s cousin, Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles). “There are two main challenges for us: one, getting our own fiscal house in order and, two, doing everything we can to stimulate the economy and grow jobs.”

Brown has done an “unprecedented” job on the first and now is turning to the second task, the speaker says.

Villaraigosa’s main rival, of course, is not Brown. It’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor. Maybe also Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, former San Francisco district attorney. All three Democrats are regarded as potential candidates for governor or U.S. Senate if a vacancy opens.

Villaraigosa, 58, has less time to wait than Newsom, 43, or Harris, 46. One could write volumes handicapping such a race. Suffice that both men possess political strengths and baggage. There’s no reason for either to back off from running.

Newsom gained attention recently by producing his own economic growth plan, upstaging Brown. Villaraigosa’s speech essentially proclaimed that he also is a deep thinker bent on restoring California’s luster. Newsom can’t occupy that territory alone.

Villaraigosa’s speech was crafted by his longtime San Francisco-based political team of Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Dan Newman.

Regardless of all the political analyses, Newman says, “You can’t overlook the fact that taking on [Prop. 13] was brave and courageous. Everybody’s been whispering about it for years. Here’s a mayor who goes to the Capitol and speaks up with the truth.”

Good point. Regardless of the messenger and his motives, it’s a message that should be distributed, discussed and debated. Whispers are annoying. It’s inconceivable that after 33 years, Prop. 13 — any law — can’t be tweaked and updated.

Villaraigosa proposed raising taxes on commercial property and lowering them for homeowners. “Prop. 13 was never intended to be a corporate tax giveaway, but that is what it has become,” he asserted.

The mayor also would eliminate the corporate tax because “it has become a Swiss cheese of loopholes.” He’d trim the personal income tax by 11%. And he’d extend the sales tax to services. “It’s crazy that we are taxing doughnuts and not lawyers.”

All told, he would raise billions, largely for schools and universities, the primary focus of his speech. “We are in the process of dismantling the greatest public university system in the world.”

He’d allow taxes — state and local — to be increased by simple majority votes, repealing the two-thirds requirement of Prop. 13.

“This is about beginning a conversation,” he says.

Done. A politician tacking Prop. 13 on his forehead will draw comment.