Jerry Brown turned a little gray in the last week – as in Gray Davis, the onetime Brown underling who later became governor himself until recalled by voters.
Davis was the most risk-averse California governor of recent history, a political bean counter who avoided controversy; carefully, but minimally, paid his obligations to supporters; and insisted on full payments from those who owed him.
Brown seemed to be channeling Davis as he signed and vetoed hundreds of bills that a liberal Legislature passed in the final days of the 2012 session.
As one might expect, those bills largely represented the agendas of liberal interest groups – unions, environmentalists, immigrant rights groups, social welfare and health advocates, etc.
They had all supported Brown's campaign to revive his governorship in 2010, so he had to give them something, and he did. But he didn't give them everything they wanted.
Case in point: Brown signed a bill to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who fall under the Obama administration's de facto legalization decree, but vetoed a bill that would have, in effect, declared California to be a sanctuary state by barring local police from automatically holding illegal immigrants for federal authorities.
Another: He signed a massive overhaul of workers' compensation to provide permanently disabled workers with higher benefits, a big gain for labor unions, but vetoed union-backed bills to improve working conditions for domestic workers and farm laborers and pension benefits for survivors of police officers and firefighters.
And so forth.
Brown, of course, offered specific reasons for each of his vetoes, but his unspoken, yet unmistakable theme was "don't rock the boat."
His Davis-like reticence had an obvious motive. Brown could take liberal voters for granted but didn't want to do anything that would seriously erode his personal standing with moderate and conservative voters or give opponents of his tax increase ballot measure, Proposition 30, new ammunition.
Brown is staking his governorship on getting Proposition 30 passed. If he had made California an official sanctuary for illegal immigrants or required California families to give their domestic workers more benefits – or signed a number of other liberal bills – it would have rekindled his Governor Moonbeam image, drawn national media attention and undermined the very tenuous support for new taxes.
Another way to look at his actions is that they protected the Legislature's dominant liberals and their interest group allies from themselves, since the proposed tax increase is equally important to them.
That said, risk-aversion is not without risks, as Davis learned when voters recalled him for a lack of decisive action on two major crises.