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Keeping low-profile, Jerry Brown reaps few victories in 2011

Reporting from Sacramento -- In swing states across the country this year, an emboldened group of new Republican governors teamed with GOP legislatures to remake government from top to bottom.

In a handful of states that had resisted the 2010 Republican wave — New York and Illinois, for example — Democratic governors muscled through tax hikes. Even in Nevada, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval persuaded a GOP legislature to extend a tax increase.

But in California, new Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature dominated by his fellow Democrats end the year having struck out on their attempted tax hike and having made few major changes.

"The thing people will remember is you can't get shark fin soup anymore," scoffed Tony Quinn, a veteran Republican strategist, referring to a much-publicized law signed by Brown banning the sale of the Asian delicacy's key ingredient.

The governor has kept a low profile for his return engagement in Sacramento. His press secretary, Gil Duran, noted that the governor's "sparse" style has been on display since last year's election, when he hunkered down and waited for his Republican opponent, former EBay executive Meg Whitman, to self-destruct.

"The people criticizing him now said he couldn't win the campaign running it the way he did, which was keeping it calm and small," Duran said. "The problem wasn't created in a year, and it isn't going to be fixed in a year."

Brown won election by promising voters that he had the experience to break the Capitol's partisan logjam. He kicked off the year with a State of the State address that focused exclusively on the budget.

But he was unable to persuade any Republicans to help him put a budget-balancing tax hike on the ballot after he had promised voters final say on the issue. That forced him to go with a budget that slashed deeply into higher education and social services.

Brown's boosters contend that he prodded Democrats to cut deeper than his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. They also note that Brown and the Legislature moved to collect sales tax on purchases; that California's credit rating improved after the budget was signed; and that the budget was put in place on time — though only because voters last year approved a ballot measure allowing spending plans to pass on a simple majority vote.

The governor also was able to redirect new nonviolent offenders from state prisons to county jails, the sort of change in the state's criminal justice system that some Democrats have long sought.

That's a fairly spare list, experts say.

"I don't think Jerry Brown can claim a lot of achievements this year," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State. But, he added, that's not necessarily Brown's fault.

"There are institutional impediments combined with political ones," Gerston said. "The state is paralyzed."

California is one of about a dozen states that require a supermajority — two-thirds of the Legislature, in this case — to raise taxes. With Republicans steadfastly refusing to hike levies or place a proposal to do so on the ballot, Brown had his hands tied, many analysts argue. And the size of the state's deficit prevented him from launching ambitious proposals.

"You can't be proactive, from a Democratic perspective, unless you have money," said John Burton, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former state Senate president pro tem. Brown "did as good as he could do with the cards that were dealt him.... Certainly, I don't think he got into government to go around [hurting] higher education and poor people."

Financial problems gave Republicans in other states an opening to make sweeping changes that matched their party's goal of cutting government. In Ohio and Wisconsin, for example, new GOP governors pushed through laws stripping public workers of the right to collective bargaining, neutering a key Democratic interest group.

In contrast, Brown signed many laws sought by his allies in labor but vetoed the one with the greatest political effect: a proposal to allow people who provide state-funded child care to unionize. It could have added as many as 100,000 dues-paying members to unions that backed the governor.

In his veto message, Brown said he was sympathetic to the bill but could not approve it because it might have resulted in higher payments to the workers, costing the state money. A few weeks later, he unveiled a proposed pension overhaul that would reduce retirement benefits for members of public-sector unions.

This month, he proposed putting a tax hike before voters next year that would combine increased levies on the wealthy — popular among Democrats — with a half-cent sales tax hike that would hit all Californians. A coalition of liberal groups is pushing an alternative tax that would fall exclusively on millionaires.

Joshua Pechthault, president of the California Federation of Teachers, part of that coalition, said Brown is acting like a "centrist, business-friendly Democrat" and "is not the Jerry Brown we knew in the '70s."

Quinn said Brown has shown weakness by being unable to persuade other tax-hike proponents, like Pechthault, to join his coalition. "There really has been no leadership," he said, and he compared Brown unfavorably to the new crop of GOP governors.

"The Republicans who took over those states — some of them may have overreached," Quinn said. "But they have written their budgets the way they wanted them written."

Brown may have taken the politically smart path by hanging back, some argue, noting that the governor's poll ratings remain solid while those of some more activist leaders are in free fall. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has been the poster child for aggressive conservative governors, faces a recall next year.

"If you compare approval ratings, you may think that just muddling along is not the wrong approach," said Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But Brown runs the risk of being so low-profile that he can't accomplish anything, said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant in Sacramento. He and others noted that the governor raises little campaign cash and has no visible political organization outside a handful of trusted advisors.

"You need a big outside game to support your inside game," Stutzman said. "If he doesn't raise money, he doesn't have any stick to swing."

Since budget talks with Republicans collapsed in the spring, Brown has spent much of his time and energy focused on how to get voters to give the state about $7 billion in new revenue in 2012 — simply setting the table for a tax push in November.

In the final weeks of the year, the governor was huddled with advisors, figuring out how to balance the budget he will unveil in early January. He has already said it would include — again — many cuts.

Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist, said he is certain Brown is frustrated by the limited amount that can be accomplished right now.

"There are not a lot of resources to deploy," Sragow said. "These are not inspiring times."

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