Brown takes a page from the opposition playbook

Capitol Journal

A wise man learns from his foe. Democrats have carefully studied Republicans, and now Gov. Jerry Brown may be benefiting.

Or maybe not.

“Talk to me in a month,” says Democratic guru Gale Kaufman, who recommended that Brown emulate the longtime GOP strategy of mailing ballot-measure petitions directly to voters for their signatures.

More than 1 million California voters — mainly reliable Democrats — received a Brown blurb at home last week, preceded by a robocall from the governor announcing it was in the mail.

“I’m calling because California really needs your help,” the Brown recording said. “We have to save our schools and stop even deeper cuts in public safety.”

The governor didn’t mention that he actually was asking for a tax increase. No need to trot out the unpleasant.

The mail packet contained a one-sheet flier promoting the governor’s ballot initiative and explaining how to sign an official petition asking that it be placed on the November ballot.

Then the mail recipients got a follow-up robocall from one of the two Democratic legislative leaders — Assembly Speaker John Pérez of Los Angeles or Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento — urging them to sign and return the petitions. Again, no mention of taxes.

Presumably the voters were such loyal Democrats that the voices of Sacramento politicians were inspirational, not turn-offs.

The entire package — robocalls, flier, petition, return envelope with prepaid postage — cost “just over $1 million,” according to Tenoch Flores, press secretary for the state Democratic Party. The party paid.

It’s the first time that anyone I talked to could remember Democrats conducting a major initiative-qualifying campaign by mail.

“We’ve never done it before,” says Kaufman, who is overseeing the project. “I’ve been watching Republicans. Mail has helped them qualify any number of initiatives.”

Democrats normally rely solely on paid petition collectors who, for example, corral shoppers as they exit big-box stores. Republicans also do that, but often combine it with mail.

When people open up a mailer at home, notes Jon Fleischman, who publishes the Republican blog FlashReport, “they have the luxury of reviewing the ballot measure in leisure and becoming an informed voter, rather than being cornered by someone outside of a Wal-Mart.

“I’ve spent time listening to [paid collectors’] spiels. Let’s just say they don’t always tell it straight to voters.”

Of course, Brown is much less interested in informing the electorate than in collecting signatures. He needs 808,000. But to hedge for error, he realistically must turn in around 1.2 million.

He’s about halfway there, campaign sources say, paying $3 per signature.

The governor is on a very short time schedule. The drop-dead date for certifying the measure for the November ballot is June 28. But to leave enough time for signature validation, he must turn in the petitions by mid-May.

“Given the time frame,” Kaufman says, “it seemed a combo of traditional signature-gathering and some mail would give us the quickest and best opportunity to collect signatures.”

Why haven’t Democrats done this before? “Probably because we haven’t tried to qualify something in a month that often,” Kaufman answers. “We usually plan better.”

Brown only last month cut a deal with the California Federation of Teachers to combine their competing tax-hike proposals.

Republicans have had mixed success mailing petitions to their voters.

The tactic was of minimal help recently in qualifying a referendum for November that would repeal the redrawing of Senate districts by an independent commission. The GOP claims the redistricting was politically biased. But many voters didn’t understand the beef.

“We collected under 50,000 signatures” by mail, says political consultant Dave Gilliard, who ran the petition drive. “The issue was too hard to explain.”

By contrast, the signature-by-mail campaign he ran in 2003 to force a recall election against then-Gov. Gray Davis was “wildly successful,” he remembers. “We collected about 450,000 by mail. That issue was easy to understand. People were mad at Gray Davis.”

And the next year, newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger collected around 300,000 signatures by mail in sponsoring an initiative to reform the workers’ compensation system.

“We had a phenomenal response,” recalls GOP consultant Marty Wilson. “Schwarzenegger’s signature was very unique — not something people were used to getting in their mail box. He was at the height of popularity. A celebrity to boot. Back in the good old days.”

Schwarzenegger never turned in the signatures. He dangled them over Democrats’ heads as a threat and forced passage of reform legislation.

Gilliard is skeptical that Brown’s mailers will be very successful.

“Unless it’s a grab-you, gut issue, it usually doesn’t work too well,” the strategist says. And even if it is about saving schools, as the Brown flier asserts, “that is not a red-meat, direct-mail type thing.”

By political standards — or advertising standards for any product — the Brown mail pitch is reasonably within the bounds of truth. It omits but doesn’t lie.

“Millionaires will pay their fair share,” it says, pouncing on this year’s favorite issue of Democrats. But not only millionaires would pay stiffer income taxes. So would all single filers earning more than $250,000 and couples making over $500,000.

Also overlooked is a slight boosting of the sales tax for everyone, including the poor.

But picky-picky. It’s a sales job, after all. Not an in-depth analysis.

I like the entire project. It encourages participatory democracy. Inspires citizens to get involved as volunteers and collect signatures from friends and neighbors. Just seems cleaner than paying $3 per name.

“It also starts to build a base for our campaign,” Kaufman notes.

An old donkey is learning an old elephant trick.