Jerry Brown is working without a net

Gov. Jerry Brown’s hope for a tax election this fall died last week with a text message.

In his cabinet room, Brown was negotiating with Democratic leaders and members of the state teachers union when his iPhone buzzed: State Sen. Anthony Cannella, a Republican from Ceres, was bailing on the talks, leaving the Democratic governor short a crucial GOP vote.

The message, according to some of those in the room, confirmed what many had believed for months: Cutting a deal with Republicans would be impossible in a Legislature that lacks a moderate middle. Within hours of the Cannella text, Brown had hammered out a final budget deal with leaders of his own party, which the Legislature passed without a single GOP vote — and without the tax referendum the governor had hoped to include.

Now, Brown says he intends to bypass the Legislature altogether, Republicans in particular, and put his request for more revenue into an initiative next year. The move is fraught with political peril. A similar strategy by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 resulted in a public defeat from which he never fully recovered. Another try in 2009 — for the same taxes Brown wanted to extend — also failed.


“The default vote for the public is no,” said David Schecter, a political scientist at Fresno State. “The governor and his allies will have to piece together a very strange set of bedfellows to get something passed.”

The governor argues that higher taxes are necessary for California’s long-term financial health but has promised to let voters decide the matter. Saying bipartisan support is essential to persuading a skeptical public to approve new levies, he wants to stitch together a coalition of Democrats and Republicans for the initiative effort. The plan is an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of his predecessor’s go-it-alone strategy.

Brown hopes to work with both business and labor leaders to raise the millions of dollars it will take to gather signatures and buy advertising for a campaign aimed at the November 2012 ballot. It is a strategy Brown’s labor allies have long preferred, and some business officials have indicated a willingness to help, seeing such a campaign as a chance to stabilize state finances and negotiate changes to public employee pensions and future state spending.

“It was a real mistake for Republicans not to leverage their positions for reforms,” said Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Assn.


Republican legislative leaders have stood fast against higher taxes this year, despite criticism from business. Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga said some corporate interests have been “trying to suck up to the governor” in hopes that he would veto Democratic legislation unfriendly to business. Others said their corporate allies were being squeezed by the administration.

“If they want to give in to the governor’s threats and coercion, that’s up to them,” said the leader of the Assembly’s Republicans, Connie Conway of Tulare. “In the end, they will have to sell a bill of goods to the taxpayers, and I can’t find any out there that want to support that kind of activity.”

For Brown, the challenge of keeping such a coalition unified in a presidential election year could prove as difficult as capturing the four GOP votes he needed to get his tax plan through the Legislature.

The most popular kinds of levies — on high-income earners, corporations, oil, tobacco and alcohol — are strongly opposed by the business interests Brown is courting. But they are supported by the unions that will help bankroll the campaign.


“It’s a quandary that we’re going to have to deal with,” said Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento.

And the governor will face pressures from his own party to be a partisan campaigner-in-chief to maximize election gains in the Legislature next year, when new voting maps are expected to produce fewer safe seats and more swing districts. That could threaten his image as a moderate governor elected partly on a pledge to bring the political parties together.

“His dilemma is: He wants to be post-partisan, but the electoral forces of 2012 will push him to be hyper-partisan,” said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State.

If last week was any indication, Brown has a difficult balancing act ahead — one he’s already begun performing.


Minutes after Democrats passed the budget Thursday night, the governor rejected a labor-backed bill that would have made it easier for farm workers to unionize. The measure was opposed by business interests.

In his veto message, Brown said he would prefer a bill that was “not the product of one side but a hard-fought compromise.”

While Brown is mounting his initiative campaign next year, the two parties will be fighting over contentious issues in the Legislature. Brown will have to play referee.

“Brown’s trying to cut his own way, a third way, and that’s part of his personality,” McCuan said. “But cutting a third way in California is going to be very difficult.”


Times staff writer Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.