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A comeback for California under Brown

By Adam Nagourney

New York Times


LOS ANGELES » When Jerry Brown became governor of California again, three years ago, this state was on a steep decline, crushed by budget deficits, deep spending cuts, governmental paralysis, high unemployment and a collapsing housing market. California, a place that once symbolized promise and opportunity, seemed caught in an intractable reversal of fortune.

But these days, Brown — who at 75 is the oldest governor in the nation and about to become the longest-serving governor in the history of California — is enjoying a degree of success and authority he and his opponents could scarcely have imagined when he returned to Sacramento to begin a second tour as governor in 2010.

The state's budget problems are largely resolved, at least for the short term. Brown is the dominant figure in Sacramento, strengthened by overwhelming Democratic control of the Legislature and the decline of the Republican Party. He has pushed through major initiatives on education financing and prison reorganization. Even Republicans say his re-election next year seems considerably more than likely.

"Some people were ridiculing California and some were calling it a failed state," Brown, a Democrat, said in an interview. "The unemployment came down from 12.2 to 8.5. Real estate is rebounding. There's a lot of confidence out there. That's what happened."

Brown has his share of problems. He unsuccessfully resisted a federal court order to move inmates out of overcrowded prisons. Changes in the state employee pension system approved last year do not, in the view of most analysts, come close to addressing the long-term pension liabilities over the horizon.

His latest proposal to overhaul California's water distribution system is smacking up against the same entrenched geographical and business factions that defeated him when he tried to address the problem as governor from 1975 to 1983. Brown's signature plan to build a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco remains a target of skepticism and ridicule.

And the governor has so far shown little inclination to use his considerable political capital to take on some of the most divisive problems that have long plagued this state, among them a dysfunctional governmental structure and tax system. "He's done a good job - he doesn't want to be great," said Antonio R. Villaraigosa, a Democrat and former speaker of the state Assembly, who just finished two terms as mayor of Los Angeles. "He wants to be solid. And he's been solid."

Yet by almost every measure, Brown, the son of another California governor, has accomplished a turnaround in a state where his family has been a dynasty for more than 50 years. He has defied critics who questioned how someone who last served as governor in a wholly different era could thrive today, much less rescue a state that had gone from being a model for American aspiration to a case study in governmental dysfunction.

"He's proven better at the job than perhaps his critics anticipated," said Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "In 2010, his critics wanted to criticize him as a flaky moonbeam," he said. "Instead we have a governor who is very serious and sober about his choices. You can't find a governor in recent history who has a smoother road to re-election."

Brown is not saying whether he will seek re-election, but it seems nearly unthinkable that he will not. He does not appear to be even slightly worried about his prospects.

"The opposition candidates," he said, "are rather few and far between."

Brown is as quirky as ever. Lawmakers speak with frustration of an insular and enigmatic executive circle where most decisions are made by Brown and his wife and special counsel, Anne Gust Brown, and where the governor is so consumed with details that he reads every bill put on his desk before signing it. He has gone for weeks with barely a public appearance (his office asked that a 30-minute interview for this article be done by telephone).

"He is informal," said Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the state Senate. "He decides things and solves problems in very iterative ways. I think I have as many phone conversations as I have face-to-face meetings. He conducts business informally, which is great: It's all about the bottom line."

John A. Pirez, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, said he had no quarrel with Brown's style. "I think most people would have a larger staff than he does — but the results speak for themselves," he said. "I am the last person who is going to second-guess him when he has achieved so many good results."

Brown has certainly benefited from a playing field sloped in his favor. The economy began to rebound as he took office. Term limits are in full force, which means that the era of entrenched legislative powerhouses like Willie Brown, the legendary Assembly speaker, is gone. And the Republican Party has been almost marginalized, removing the presence of any kind of opposition, loyal or not.

"We have a weak Republican Party that is not challenging him," said Abel Maldonado, the former lieutenant governor who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Brown. "Nobody questions anything. We need to stand up."

Brown acknowledged that some of his successes have been the result of lucky circumstances, including powerful Democratic leaders in the Legislature, but said he benefited as well from the experience of having been governor before. "To get anything done you need the political will, and you need the political skill, and you need the knowledge" he said, adding: "I do feel a certain command of the process."

He might need that more than ever now. The issues to which Brown has turned — among them, building two new water tunnels and moving state inmates to county jails — have sharply divided the state and are fraught with political risks.

"He has gotten through the first part of his governorship in real strong shape, and now he is moving into some really, really tough territory," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University. "But he's got assets going into it."

Brown's father, Pat, was governor from 1959 to 1967 and was considered one of the most effective chief executives in this state's history — championing the development of its higher education, highway and water systems. Brown frequently invokes lesson he said he learned from his father. "Timing is important, my father always told me," he said once, discussing his legislative agenda.

Observers of this governor suggest that his father's penchant for legacy-defining projects has rubbed off on the younger Brown. His sister Kathleen Brown served as the state treasurer and was defeated in an effort to become governor by Pete Wilson, a Republican.

Brown disputed any suggestion that he was not making full use of his political standing to move on the tougher problems facing the state, be it inequities in the tax system or pensions. Brown said he would proceed on his own schedule.

"There are some people who are writing, 'Well, everything wasn't done in the first year and therefore this seems to be a failed situation,'" Brown said. "But it's not just one year. It's many years."

"I've said there needs to be more pension reform," he said. "Well, when to do that is a matter of my prudential judgment. People who want to do everything all at once generally don't get anything done."

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