Friday, July 30, 2010

Why Jerry Brown should not be (re)elected Governor

This discussion would not happen had Jerry Brown's tenure as governor been two decades later.  But Proposition 140, the term limits initiative could not cover tenure before its enactment.

The political history of California, at least in the modern sense dates from the first time Jerry Brown served as Governor.  Brown came into the Governor's office after service as community college trustee and Secretary of State.   He was a major sponsor of Proposition 9 which changed the way lobbyists operated in the Capitol, but in no way lessened their influence in the process.  That was popular in 1974 because of the national problems that Nixon was feeling from Watergate.  It was a smart political move   at the time.  But no one who looks at the effects of the proposition could argue that it in any way lived up to its promises.

He portrayed himself as some kind of intellectual leader but failed to inform the voters that it took him several tries to pass the California bar exam.  His administration included some excellent appointments but it also included some ideological misfits in key positions.  Key among those were his secretary of transportation who strangled transportation in the state and three of his appointments to the California Supreme Court whose decisions in several key cases were fabrications of legal principles.  In one of the key decisions (a death penalty appeal) the majority voted to rescind the death penalty for a robber who had entered a Costco and shot a Brinks guard with a .357 with clad shells repeatedly at point blank range, because they could not discover whether the robber had committed the crime with "an intent to kill."  In another the majority searched around for a source to compensate a person who was injured in an accident involving a kid who lost control in a stolen car because the guy who was injured happened to be using a phone booth owned by the phone company.   The stolen car by the way was being chased at the time by police and the inexperienced driver jumped two lanes of traffic and crashed into the booth.  The majority in the decision thought Pac Bell should pay because they had liability insurance.

During his tenure, he championed extending public employees collective bargaining rights.  That decision, which never bothered to examine the potential for the unions to imbalance the collective bargaining process through political contributions, has thrown the state budget into a series of crises.  We now have some of the worst schools in the nation and the most expensive prisons.  Employees can routinely retire with huge lifetime benefits at a young age.   California was a leader in many ways in the 1970s and now seems to be at the bottom of most lists of states, Mississippi with earthquakes.

But his biggest failing was with Proposition 13.   During the 1960s and 1970s California's housing market went through a huge boom, for a number of reasons.  The prices of housing grew and concurrently so did property taxes.   The legislature tried several times to abate the effects of those changes on property owners through a series of bills.   Brown came into office in 1974 and had in the back of his mind that he would not get himself into the same problem his father had -a huge deficit - so he was careful with current spending.  One could argue that even that thriftiness was an illusion because the long term effects of issues like collective bargaining for public employees would bust future budgets. By 1978 Brown had built up a considerable surplus in the General Fund.

The passage of Proposition 13 had several effects.  First, it reduced taxes for property owners.   But at the same time it moved political authority from local jurisdictions to the state because the surplus was used to cushion the blow of the cuts.  The long term effects of that change on California has been devastating in a number of ways that include significantly diminished roles for local government (violating the very Catholic principle of subsidiarity which he should have learned in seminary) and oddly political allocations of resources at the state level.

Like all recent California governors save two, he tried several times to run for president.  (The two who did not were his successor and the current one who is constitutionally prohibited from running.)  National voters never gave him much of a listen, most thought he was a flake from California.

After he left the Governorship, he went on to ramble on the radio and then to become mayor of Oakland.  The radio rants showed the shallowness of his thinking.   His tenure as Oakland mayor was marked by increased crime in the city.

After Oakland Brown ran for and won the post of attorney general.  The AG is a key official in state government but it is also most often a less political office.  His predecessor, Bill Lockyer, although one could never misunderstand his politics, ran the office without much political manipulation.  Brown, on the other hand has been selective in his choices and politicized the office immensely.

His chief of staff ran for Governor in 1998.  Gray Davis turned out to be one of the worst governors in the state's history.  Like his former boss, Davis measured any decision in terms of short term political advantage and he helped to make the state into a place where businesses flee.

The photo by the way is a good representation of Brown's tenure as governor.  It is the official portrait that is posted in the capitol.   Brown tried to represent it as enigmatic, something like he tried to portray himself.  But as you walk through the Capitol these days people routinely laugh at the mismosh on the wall which shows little respect for the institution he served.  Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, not enough voters are laughing at his attempt to once again reincarnate himself as a new age politician.

No comments: