Jerry Brown’s signature was notably absent from the ballot arguments in favor of Proposition 30, the tax increase measure he pushed so hard in this fall’s election. He was essentially responsible for its content and for the now-mooted triggered budget cuts that – barring a “Perils of Pauline”-style rescue – would have cost public schools and universities more than $6 billion over the next year alone.
Brown, who raised most of the money for his measure and rounded up endorsements from business and labor that gave it added credibility, has prided himself for decades on being iconoclastic and different from other governors.
Now he should become known as one of the most effective governors California has seen. For sure, his Prop. 30 win proves him pretty unique. A long string of California chief executives before him tried and failed to pass pet initiatives after state legislators refused to okay the laws they wanted. The list goes back at least as far as Ronald Reagan, who staged a special election in 1973 in an effort to pass a property-tax-cutting initiative, which lost badly.
Reagan’s subsequent presidency, of course, stands as evidence that losing an issues battle at the polls does not necessarily mean the end of a political career.
It was the same for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in 2005 called another special election barely two years after ousting ex-Gov. Gray Davis in a historic recall. He ran four initiatives aiming to curb the influence of labor unions in politics and to give himself and future governors the power to cut budgets long after they’ve been signed into law. Voters saw that last notion as a kind of fiscal dictatorship and rejected it – just as they did this year in voting down Prop. 31, which included something similar as part of its far-reaching so-called reforms.
Then-Gov. Pete Wilson tried much the same thing with his 1992 Proposition 165, and also lost. But like Schwarzenegger and Reagan, Wilson nevertheless went on to further electoral success.
He didn’t write, design or sponsor the 1994 Proposition 187, with its draconian anti-illegal immigrant provisions, but he used it skillfully to win reelection – and in the process wrote a virtual death sentence for the California Republican Party, which has won major office since then only in races involving movie muscleman Schwarzenegger.
Exit polls indicated voters saw Proposition 165 as a blatant Wilson power play. He tied the budget powers he wanted for himself and all future governors to welfare reforms, seeking to cut grants to mothers on Aid to Families with Dependent Children by 25 percent and demanding that the first year’s welfare payments to newcomers from other states be no higher than what they could get where they came from.
Wilson predecessors George Deukmejian and Brown himself also lost initiative battles during their first terms, but both were reelected.
Which means the claims that Brown’s entire electoral future was on the line with Proposition 30 were a tad exaggerated. Still, by winning, Brown has set himself up as a possible fiscal savior for California.
The claim is yet to be tested, but he said in a pre-election talk that “This sets us on a path to a more harmonious California.” He noted that “Getting Republicans in the Legislature to approve new taxes has been a bit like getting the pope to back birth control.” With the new Democratic legislative supermajorities, maybe they won’t matter much anymore.
The win for 30 doesn’t guarantee that Brown will run again two years from now. But even before it passed, he hinted that he intends to.
“My goal over the next few years,” he said in one speech, “is to pull people together. We have our antagonisms and we always have had some, but we can find a common path.” Why? Because “California matters to us and our descendants, and also to the rest of the country and the rest of the world.” The implication, of course, was that Brown wants to be the trailblazer finding that common path.
No doubt, Brown would have had a tougher time both governing and winning the fourth term of his lifetime if Proposition 30 had failed.
Plus, no one does better than Brown at making adjustments on the run. When he saw in 2010 that his campaign for governor was flagging, he ran commercials where he spoke directly into the TV camera, saying “No new taxes without a vote of the people.” He did exactly the same when Prop. 30 – the product of that pledge – began to sag in mid-October.
Having lost a run for the Senate in 1982, and two tries at the presidency, Brown is well aware he’s not immune to the same sorts of defeat virtually almost all governors have suffered during the initiative era that began in 1970. The relief for him, and for the schools and colleges that might have been cut, is that this time he won’t have to demonstrate how to respond constructively to defeat.