Fri November 19, 2010
The reinvention pf Calif.'s new and former governor
By RICHARD GONZALES
California's governor-elect is a Democrat who's reinvented himself a time or two.
Back in the 1970s, Jerry Brown was the state's youngest governor. Now, at 72, he's about to become its oldest.
As Brown deals with a crushing budget deficit, many say he'll try to fix the troubled state the same way he tried to fix a troubled city.
Brown was elected the mayor of Oakland in 1998 by a big margin. But if voters then thought they were getting a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, they were wrong. He adopted a "take no prisoners" attitude, advocating "real change."
"And real change isn't so easy," he said at the time. "It's a word that rolls off one's lips ... but any time you have real change there's some pain, there's tension, there's adjustment, there's some wrenching going on."
In his first 100 days in office, he forced a popular black police chief to resign. He invited the U.S. Marines to conduct urban warfare exercises in the city. He waved off howling protests, saying the Marines would bring several million dollars to Oakland.
A Rock Star In Supporters' Eyes
One of Brown's cornerstone projects was to attract 10,000 new residents to the city's beleaguered downtown. He minced no words announcing that downtown developers had a new friend in City Hall:
"I want to make this very clear, if I say nothing else: We're not going to be coerced, we're not going to be intimidated, and we're not going to be stopped in the pursuit of a renewed Oakland! And we're just going to move through opposition, listening where we must and where we should, but not being slowed down."
The plan worked. And today, downtown Oakland is full of new apartments and condos.
On other fronts, Brown was less successful. Crime remained stubbornly high. But it didn't stop him from living in a downtown loft.
"I live in a building where we've had two robberies, one by knife, one by gun," he said. "So this is not an abstraction. It's a matter of personal safety and commitment."
That commitment to Oakland made Brown a rock star in the eyes of supporters like developer John Protopappas.
"He got us to look at Oakland in a different way," Protopappas says. "We've become very proud of being Oaklanders and a lot of that is due to Jerry Brown."
From Idealist To 'Idealistic Pragmatist'
By trying to reinvent Oakland, Brown was also reinventing himself.
The man once derided as "Governor Moonbeam" immersed himself in the nuts and bolts of managing a big city. After running unsuccessfully for president three times, Brown talked about practicalities like potholes and property values.
"Jerry Brown is a pragmatist," says former Sacramento State communications professor Barbara O'Connor, a longtime Brown watcher. "He used to be an idealist. Now he's an idealistic pragmatist."
But critics accused Brown of grandstanding and said he was just using Oakland as a steppingstone to higher office.
One of those critics was former school board member Dan Siegel. "We once had a discussion when we were on more friendly terms about who he is as a person. He leaned across the table; he said, 'Siegel, remember one thing about me: I'm a hundred percent political. If you understand that, you'll understand why I do things.'"
'I've Been Up And I've Been Down'
After Oakland, Brown was elected state attorney general. Despite his opposition to the death penalty, he walked the line on law and order.
Now, in his second act as governor, Brown will lead a state many consider ungovernable. The state is more diverse. The Legislature is ideologically divided. And voter-imposed spending rules will limit Brown's options, says Mark Paul, former state deputy treasurer.
"When Jerry was governor, there was a lot of flexibility with regard to raising revenues in years in which things were bad," Paul says. "Now it's all going the other direction. They're more and more hemmed in. Californians want services, but there's not the wherewithal to pay for them."
But few people remember that Brown was a very frugal governor, says O'Connor.
"He is still a fiscal conservative," she says. "And I think his supporters on the union side will be surprised about how serious he is about cutting and not taxing without prior public approval. He's learned his lessons, and I think he's learned them from the ground up."
The morning after winning the governor's race, Brown said he is fully aware of what lies ahead.
"I didn't create this mess. I'm going to be straight and tell it like it is, and I'll do everything I can to make it work," he said.
And, he added, "I've been up and I've been down. I'm going to do my darndest to stay up."