Dan Morain: Muddled strategy aside, Brown still could win

10/31/2012 12:00 AM

10/31/2012 3:35 PM

From now until Election Day, President Barack Obama will make heavy use of two of California's top Democrats, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to help win over voters in the most vital swing states.

They'll travel from North Carolina to Florida and Ohio up though Tuesday. But what's good for the president doesn't fit into Gov. Jerry Brown's plans.

For four decades, Brown has been a one-man band. He's not changing that tune as he tries to persuade Californians to vote for Proposition 30, the initiative that would raise taxes by $6 billion and is teetering in the polls.

Brown's political obituary has been written many times. I'm not doing that, though it would be easy, given that Proposition 30 has slid in public polls, he has staked his governorship on it, and his strategy to win passage of Proposition 30 has been less than clear.

One day, he says the initiative would create jobs. On another day, he talks about the need to fund schools, though the $6 billion would pay for all manner of state services.

This is a state where some strategists believe 40 percent of this year's voters could be Latino, Asian or African American. Minority voters support the initiative, polls show. But Villaraigosa has made one appearance with Brown in support of Proposition 30. Brown has not asked for Harris for help, though she is emerging a national figure.

Brown's campaign advisers have said the governor has not asked politicians to stump with him because he wants to avoid the appearance that Proposition 30 is an insiders' play.

If that's the strategy, the governor has stepped on it by showing up at rallies with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Speaker John A. Pérez, who are nothing if not creatures of Sacramento.

Brown has been campaigning on college campuses, as he has done for decades, even way back when I was a kid at Humboldt State University in 1974 and he was running for governor the first time. At age 74, Brown might consider inviting someone who is a little closer to students' age.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, 45, might be one, though their relationship is strained. Newsom, who moonlights as a cable television talk show host, is a member of the University of California Board of Regents and California State University board of trustees, and has a vote on tuition increases.

Newsom supports Proposition 30 but spouted off two weeks ago during an appearance on KGO radio in San Francisco that the governor was overselling the initiative by claiming tuition hikes could be averted if voters approve the measure.

"That is just not true. You can't say things like that," Newsom told the radio hosts. "I don't mean this as an indictment of the governor, but I know for a fact that we are going to be discussing tuition increases at the UC Board of Regents and CSU board of trustees shortly after the election."

Realizing he had been indiscreet, Newsom noted that the governor is "not happy with me," and then restated that politicians shouldn't tell students "something that is not true."

"I'm in trouble again, aren't I?" he said as the interview concluded.

By not inviting other politicians to embrace Proposition 30, Brown owns it. He's appearing on television ads airing statewide and giving interviews and speeches.

If voters reject Proposition 30, he'll also own the distinction of being the Democrat who would preside over billions in cuts to programs that Democrats hold dear. That's hardly a record on which to run for re-election.

In this heavily Democratic state, no serious Republican candidate has emerged. But because of California's top-two system, Brown could face a challenge from another Democrat or an independent.

"You only have to come in second, and you then get a clear one-on-one shot at him in the general election, with a much more diverse electorate and every single voter in play," said Democratic strategist Garry South, who has advised Newsom. "This potentially changes the whole dynamic of the 2014 election."

Such speculation probably would end if Proposition 30 wins. Muddled though the campaign has been, the measure could pass. Thanks to unions, corporations and other insiders with a stake in Sacramento policy, the Yes on 30 campaign has raised $54 million, a hefty sum even for California politics.

Also helping, the number of registered Democrats has increased dramatically in recent weeks. Polls show Democrats favor it. No politician has had a longer run in California politics than Brown. Many pundits assume he'll hit a sour note on Tuesday. I'll wait until the curtain closes.

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