SACRAMENTO — Just a few weeks ago, as support for Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative appeared to falter, some of his fellow Democrats were saying privately that he might be serving his last term.
None of them are saying that now.
Brown has emerged from his successful tax fight with replenished political capital, his experience and instinct trumping conventional wisdom.
“His standing in the Capitol is probably higher than it has ever been,” said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which monitors political races. “Now we have a strong governor.... He is going to be able to get his way a lot more.”
A loss at the ballot box would have been catastrophic for Brown politically. It also would have devastated education budgets throughout the state. The passage of Proposition 30 addressed both scenarios.
Now, the Democrats who won record-high numbers in the Legislature on Tuesday will owe him for the billions of dollars they’ll have to balance the budget. The business interests who fear what a supermajority of Democrats might do with new, unilateral power will be eager to work with the moderate governor. They may see the pragmatic Brown as a check on a hostile Legislature.
Brown himself is already talking about the next steps in the state’s bullet-train program and about moving on a multibillion-dollar system to send more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Southern California — projects that could reshape his image into one of a builder like his father, who was governor when the state built new freeways and universities.
He wants to focus on enduring changes to the state’s spending policies that he hopes will enhance California’s standing with Wall Street and put it on more stable financial footing.
He is vowing to steer the Capitol toward moderation in the coming years, working with business leaders to streamline state regulations that they complain hamper economic growth. He wants to lift some of the policies Sacramento has inflicted on local schools — often at the behest of the Democrats’ labor allies — so they have more flexibility in deciding how to operate.
“The work is never done,” Brown said at a Capitol news conference after the election, stressing that he would not lose sight of the nuts and bolts of government just because the financial books would be in order for now.
He joked at the Capitol on Wednesday that he never understood why there were so many doubters of his ability to pull off a Proposition 30 victory.
“Some people began to read tea leaves incorrectly,” Brown told reporters. “And then you all go off like a herd of buffalo down the road. Hopefully you’re all now back on the plane of common sense.”
Brown’s internal polls had shown steady support for his measure despite public surveys suggesting steep drops. He was watching a surge in Democrats signing up to vote, spurred by the new online voter registration system he signed into law. Unions were mobilizing to get voters to the polls.
The governor also knew he could ride the coattails of President Obama, who appealed to the same demographic group as Proposition 30 and has been consistently popular in California.
Still, the path to victory had looked rocky as election day loomed. As in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, he had resisted pressure from old Capitol hands to mobilize all his forces quickly. He ignored advice to hit the stump early and hard, to hammer away at this theme or that, to blitz the airwaves from the beginning.
Unfavorable reviews of Brown’s encore as governor began to mount. Brown had vastly more campaign money than his opponents, but No-on-30 ads blanketed the airwaves, helped by $11 million that secret donors gave a group devoted partly to defeating Brown’s measure.
He tweaked his strategy after questioning employees at a San Diego coffee shop. When one young woman told him she hadn’t seen his commercials because she doesn’t watch TV, he called his chief advisor, his wife, Anne Gust Brown, to say they needed to reach the “non-TV voter.”
Only days away from the election, he had not settled on whether he should be featured prominently in campaign advertisements. On a plane, in the air between Bakersfield and Fresno, he drilled a Central Valley state senator about how voters viewed him there and whether his face should appear on their television sets.
“If this had gone the other way, he would be perceived as a lame duck,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor in the USC Price School of Public Policy. “You would have seen a lot more visible activity on the part of … possible opponents in the 2014 governor’s race.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a fellow Democrat, appeared to be positioning himself that way when he openly contradicted some of what Brown said on the campaign trail. As it became clear in the wee hours Wednesday that Proposition 30 would pass, Brown’s press secretary had a message for Newsom in the form of a tweet.
It was a link to Elvis Presley performing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”