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Gov. Jerry Brown charts his own path

Capitol Journal

Gov. Jerry Brown is not a mystery. He’s a moderate.

Anyone who thinks Brown is an enigma just isn’t used to non-knee-jerk politicians in the 21st century. Modern Democrats are supposed to be loyal lefties 24/7. Republicans are expected to be reliably rigid right-wingers. All are stuck in their partisan or ideological pigeonholes.

Not Brown. He’s a left-of-center, labor-leaning Democrat. But he bounces around on the right too — and not just because it serves him well politically. It’s also because he’s an innate contrarian and a rebel. That started decades ago when he rebelled against his father’s old-school politics.

It took many years for Brown to publicly acknowledge being inspired by his dad, the late, great Gov. Pat Brown, praising him for being “a go-getter” who would “just keep going, keep pushing.”

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Jerry Brown is an incurable nonconformist who can argue both sides, and loves to. That’s both a charm and an aggravation.

Everybody should be onto the guy by now. He has been in and around public office in California for four decades.

This all came to mind in recent days as I read about and listened to head-scratching over Brown’s signings and vetoes of hundreds of bills. The general theme was that the governor was all over the lot.

Well, yeah! He’s predictable that way.

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First, Brown always has been an independent thinker.

Second, he has reached an age, 73, at which he sees no reason not to do pretty much whatever he wants.

Third, he has done all this — the bill signings, the vetoes — many times before and knows how to sidestep the pitfalls.

Fourth, he clearly savors voting up or down on bills himself without having to negotiate with legislators, especially those rigid Republicans.

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The governor holds all the power, except for the possibility of a veto override by the Legislature or a repeal through a ballot referendum. The former won’t happen. The latter is unlikely. Talk’s cheap; funding signature-gathering drives and election campaigns isn’t.

Republicans are criticizing Brown for siding so much with organized labor, claiming he’s paying off the unions that spent tens of millions of dollars helping to get him elected. Shock, shock!

That’s the way American politics works. Want to change it? Switch to public financing of campaigns. Then the public can buy the politicians, not the special interests.

No, didn’t think you wanted to do that.

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For me, there wasn’t a whole lot to criticize in Brown’s bill signings and vetoes.

If the governor had any guiding principle, it seemed to be that institutional powers should be protected and responsibilities adhered to: The Legislature should not interfere with the judiciary and state government should defer to the locals. With exceptions, of course. It’s fine to unload state responsibility for incarcerating some felons onto county sheriffs.

Brown relishes writing his own signing and veto messages but occasionally trips over his pen in a contradiction.

Everyone’s favorite: He torpedoed a bill that would have required young skiers to wear helmets, lamenting the “continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state.” Then he signed a bill allowing 12-year-old girls to be vaccinated against sexually transmitted disease without their parents’ consent.

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If those vaccinations are needed, make them mandatory. Don’t invite children to sneak around their parents.

Some bill signings and vetoes were perfectly predictable.

Brown himself asked the Legislature for a bill to delay placing before voters the creation of a rainy day fund. As part of a budget deal last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature had agreed to put the measure on the June 2012 ballot. Then a new sheriff arrived. Brown wanted the proposal delayed until November 2014, contending the state couldn’t afford, for the foreseeable future, to stash money in a reserve.

Democrats obliged by placing the rainy day delay in a broader bill to require that all ballot initiatives be decided in November general elections. No more citizen initiatives in primaries. That helps labor and other leftist causes, because Democrats tend to vote in higher numbers in general elections than in primaries.

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But, in my view, this a good step in initiative reform. It will ensure that more people participate in our system of direct democracy. It will eliminate cherry-picking by political strategists of electorates most favorable to their special-interest clients.

And until 1970, all initiatives were assigned to general election ballots anyway. Things worked better before then.

So despite GOP wailing, this was an easy bill signing for the governor.

An effortless veto was Brown’s axing of a labor-sponsored bill that would have allowed unionization of state-subsidized baby sitters, er, child-care providers. The governor tipped off Democratic legislators even before they passed the bill that he would veto it. He feared another money drain on the state.

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A nail-biter, however, was Brown’s decision on a measure to prohibit scary clowns from openly carrying unloaded handguns in public places, such as a sports bar. Brown, who prides himself on being a gun owner, listened to an overwhelming number of police chiefs and signed the measure.

There’s a law I’d like to propose. It would impose a moratorium on any mention of Jerry Brown and his “canoe theory of governing: Paddle a little on the left, paddle a little on the right and keep on going right down the middle.”

It’s trite. It’s tired. But it’s too true to ignore.

And I just broke my own law.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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