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November 11, 2012

Brown was masterful: Governor's political savvy steered Prop. 30

Because those of us who pretend to understand politics should always admit the errors of our ways – that and, unlike the Munger siblings, I don't have the resources to endure a lengthy state tax audit – I offer this apology to Gov. Jerry Brown: You were right; we, the not so bright, were wrong.

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Because those of us who pretend to understand politics should always admit the errors of our ways – that and, unlike the Munger siblings, I don't have the resources to endure a lengthy state tax audit – I offer this apology to Gov. Jerry Brown: You were right; we, the not so bright, were wrong.

On Election Day, Californians approved Proposition 30, the governor's temporary tax increase and budget fix. So much for the conventional wisdom that asking a dyspeptic electorate for higher taxes fell somewhere between problematic and quixotic. As it turns out, the public was remarkably consistent on this matter. Two years ago, Brown sought the governor's office in part on the promise to raise taxes only with voter approval. Candidate Brown received 53.8 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, Proposition 30 and Gov. Brown raked in 53.9 percent of the vote.

Coincidence? Maybe – or maybe not. In fact, it might be as simple as the governor, no political novice he, being clever enough to slip his initiative into the Democratic jet stream that dominates California statewide politics – in this case, Proposition 30 drafting some 615,000 votes behind President Barack Obama but 715,000 votes ahead of the "no" side of the initiative (in 2010, Brown finished 1.3 million votes ahead of Republican Meg Whitman).

While we're asking for forgiveness, go easy on those of us who blew this call. Trying to play a round of California political golf entails a mulligan or two. We're a state of national proportion. We're a conflicted electorate of epic proportion. How else to explain how voters, clearly unhappy with Sacramento's ways, instead further empowered the status quo by doing the following:

Approving the governor's tax hike, thus giving lawmakers a pass on doing their job – and maybe opening the door to more passing of the buck (pun intended) to voters.

Bolstering the unions' grip on the state Capitol by rejecting Proposition 32.

Turning the Golden State into a one-party state by apparently electing Democratic supermajorities to both chambers of the state Legislature.

As Tuesday's results are now five days in the rearview mirror and further receding, let's look instead at the next step under the Capitol dome – specifically, what could happen now that Christmas apparently has come early for legislative Democrats: unless the results change, supermajority control of both the Assembly and Senate.

But first, a warning: In politics, victories and mandates – those both real and imagined – are like quicksilver. They're conductors of electricity, but potentially volatile. Just ask Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi. They engineered uprisings that made each both historic and enormously powerful. Yet, it took only two election cycles – and abuse of that newfound power – to be shown the door. Closer to home, we have Arnold Schwarzenegger, the "once in a century" star of the 2003 recall and nobody's choice of a political co-star in 2012.

Then again, Arnold was the sequel to an earlier tale of newfound opportunity – and excess – in Sacramento. In 1999, and following 16 years of a frustrating coexistence with Republican governors, Democrats had free rein to drive California's policy apparatus. The result was a progressive's delight: a spending spree, followed by massive budget deficits; higher taxes that outraged the middle class; left-leaning bills galore with little fear of gubernatorial veto or retribution. The consequence: less than five years into this joyride, Gray Davis joined the ranks of California's unemployed.

Not that Jerry Brown will be in the same political peril in 2013 as Davis was in 2003. If anything, he's in a position of remarkable strength: His signature first-term accomplishment, stabilizing the budget, is now secured; a headless and rudderless opposition party offers little in the way of earnest competition; a second term is there for the taking.

Still, for Brown there's a risk. And it's the same one that got Davis into trouble a decade ago: a Democratic Legislature, perhaps instilled with an exaggerated sense of mandate, trying to steer the ship of state further to port – in doing so, running afoul of a Democratic governor who ascribes to the "canoe theory" of governance and politics – paddle left, paddle right, stay midstream.

With Republicans now unofficially irrelevant in Sacramento, this is the rivalry to watch in 2013: Jerry Brown, vindicated by the public's vote, with an agenda for the next two years and maybe beyond, vs. a Democratic-controlled Legislature with its own set of ideas and masters to answer to. Does Brown believe, as Gray Davis once remarked, that the Legislature's job is "to implement my vision"? Do legislative Democrats, with their historic standing, believe they and not the governor have alpha status? Can the two coexist in productive harmony? Will 2013 be a continuation of 2012: Brown embracing some liberal ideas, rejecting others; the Legislature cooperating with the governor at times, but also dragging its heels on pension reform – and in 2013, CEQA and regulatory reform?

Here are two suggestions for Gov. Brown, not that he asked:

First, call a meeting of the Democratic leadership and have a frank conversation about California. It's a complicated state, as witnessed by the initiative results – California went left on Proposition 30 but not further to the left with Proposition 38; voters upheld the death penalty, but softened the state's "three-strikes" law.

With a legislative impulse to make up for lost time and other states' leads – same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana, but two examples – Brown needs to deliver a message: he represents a mosaic of political interests, not a heavily partisan legislative district. As such, there are limits to his flexibility. Contrary to the sentiment of some in the Democratic caucus, Brown was not elected to convert greater California into a pocket of San Francisco, or a rubberstamp of labor unions. His priority is rejuvenating the economy; the Legislature needs to hear that he takes that responsibility seriously.

A second suggestion: Convene a summit with California's leading political reformers – that would include Nicolas Berggruen's Think Long Committee, California Forward, Common Sense California and the Bay Area Council, plus leading think tanks – and explore avenues of political reform. This should include greater government sunshine, ways to improve the initiative process, as well as new means to empower citizens. For example, California Common Sense's citizens' legislature concept would enable a group of ordinary Californians to place an initiative of their choosing on the statewide ballot every two years.

Two other people who also merit a meeting: Dan Schnur and Ann Ravel, the past and present chairs of California's Fair Political Practices Commission. Why? 2014 marks two anniversaries: 40 years since Jerry Brown's first run for governor; 40 years since passage of Proposition 9 and the birth of California's Political Reform Act.

If a seen-it-all governor learned anything in this election, it's that California's campaign finance laws are badly out of date – as is a political governance system first drafted before the dawn of the Internet, super PACs and mega-million-dollar initiative fights. It's time for a fix, and Brown, who got his start in statewide politics as California's secretary of state, could champion the cause.

By taking on this line of reform, Gov. Brown could build a unique legacy in this, his second administration. In times of limited resources, the younger Brown found it difficult to build along the size and scope of his father, Pat Brown. Yet, in cynical times, it's still possible for Jerry Brown to emulate the other bookend of transformational California governors – Hiram Johnson – who introduced the idea of integrity to Sacramento politics.

And who dares tip that canoe?

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