L.A. Now

Jerry Brown hurdles over sophomore traps

Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — There's a strange atmosphere in Sacramento. It's as if there has just been a gubernatorial election and the incumbent has decisively won another term.

All hail the governor. The people have reaffirmed their confidence in his leadership. His contract has been renewed.

That's only the mind playing tricks, of course.

Gov. Jerry Brown merely won passage of a tax increase — and one that was about the easiest imaginable for voters to swallow. Only the top 1% or so will be nailed with the higher income tax rates. There'll be a tiny sales tax bump. The beneficiaries will be schoolchildren and college kids.

Brown still faces reelection in 2014, assuming he's up to running. He'll be 76. But he just showed he's capable of a month-long sprint.

There's no major opponent on the horizon, none of any kind. There's no rational incentive to challenge someone who seems unbeatable. The left wouldn't dare. Brown occupies the center. The right is moribund.

Here's the lofty perch on which the Democrat currently rests: He's the most politically fit California governor at this stage of his tenure since Earl Warren back in World War II. By this stage, I mean following the second year of his reign.

I'd say "most powerful" except that all California governors possess phenomenal power. Some use it better than others. We'll see how Brown uses his in the future.

But for now, he's about the only governor in the last half-century to have escaped the sophomore jinx that has plagued his predecessors.

Go back to his father, Gov. Pat Brown. He was elected by a landslide in 1958. But in his sophomore year, 1960, Brown was dubbed "a tower of jelly" for trying to save notorious "Red Light Bandit" Caryl Chessman from the gas chamber — at son Jerry's pleading. At that summer's Democratic National Convention in L.A., Pat Brown was tagged a "bumbler" for failing to control California's splintered delegation.

His job ratings tumbled. The derisive monikers stuck throughout his career, even though Brown became a great governor.

Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown — the 1970s version — became afflicted with Potomac fever in their second years as governor, running lamely for president. Reagan recovered; Brown never fully did.

Gov. Pete Wilson suffered a horrendous second year. He meddled awkwardly in Republican legislative primaries and lost. He became bogged down in a summer-long budget quagmire. He sponsored a welfare/budget "reform" initiative that voters rejected. His job approval fell into the low 30s.

Gov. Gray Davis began stumbling down the path to eventual recall in his sophomore year by ducking as the power pirates profited and California fell into an energy crisis. He also was bullied by liberal legislators into spending temporary revenue on permanent programs, leading to huge deficits.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a colossal sophomore failure. He called a costly special election for his divisive, clumsily written "reform" package that voters soundly rejected. His approval ratings plummeted.

Contrast all that with Jerry Brown's year. He just bolstered his governorship by finessing rare voter approval of a riskily sought tax increase. At last count, Proposition 30 was ahead by a surprising 9.4 percentage points.

Brown's job approval rating among voters, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times post-election poll, is a respectable 49%. And 54% of people under 30 approve of the old guy.

His future is on the upswing. He's not even facing lame-duck syndrome, as he would be if he truly had been reelected to another term. And he should benefit from new supermajority Democratic control of both legislative houses.

Brown is in an extraordinary position to perform great deeds.

This governor doesn't ordinarily like to talk about agendas — he's basically a single-focus type — but he did mention five priorities at a post-election news conference.

•Business regulatory relief. Or, as he described it, "calibrate our regulations to ensure that they encourage jobs" while still protecting the environment, health and working conditions. "Are they retarding investment?"

Yes, and the governor and legislators of both parties should be falling all over themselves trying to untangle the regulatory thicket.

•Water. "I intend to give my full attention to that." He wasn't specific, but presumably he'll pare down a pork-filled $11-billion water bond that the Legislature has twice pulled off the ballot because it's so unappealingly bloated.

•Bullet train. "A lot to do there." Yes, like finding some financiers. Now it's running $55 billion short.

•Education. No details, but he seems to be talking about teacher accountability while also returning more power to the classroom.

•The state budget. "We have to make sure … that we pay our bills, we invest in the right programs, but we don't go on any spending binges.... We've got enough money if we spend it wisely."

How could he screw it up?

"If he goes back to the well for more taxes, that could do him in," says Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll.

That's unlikely, assuming Washington avoids the so-called cliff and another recession.

"Desires will always outrun the available money," Brown told reporters. "That is why we have a governor. If you have a machine that tends to get overheated or speed up, the 'governor' is a mechanism to slow it down."

The grinning governor said he'll ponder that "mechanical metaphor" as he crafts his next budget.

Given his restored clout, Brown can do about anything he wants.

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