Common wisdom, embraced by many on the left and on the right, holds that California governor Jerry Brown is a most unconventional politician. Brown’s otherworldly attitude, quick wit, and unpredictable utterances have served him well throughout his long political career. Political observers in Sacramento are still trying to figure him out almost nine months into his latest term and decades after he first entered professional politics. Each move he makes—whether it’s a veto, a bill signing, a speech, or a jobs plan—receives the kind of scrutiny that a Roman haruspex would give a sacrificed animal’s entrails. Despite his famous “Moonbeam” persona and his likable if crusty personality, however, Brown is a most conventional politician.
Brown’s conventionality shouldn’t surprise anyone. As he once described his famous Canoe Theory of politics: “You paddle a little on the left and little on the right and you paddle a straight course.” During his first term as governor, in 1978, Brown opposed Proposition 13, which limited property taxes for California residents. After voters approved the initiative in June of that year, Brown, seeking reelection in November, quickly paddled right, became an enthusiastic supporter of the law, and earned the vote of none other than Howard Jarvis—the tax fighter best known as Prop. 13’s godfather.
A generation later, as Brown sought election once again to the governor’s office, Capitol Weekly’s John Howard wrote: “As ‘Gov. Moonbeam,’ Brown seemed to fit perfectly into the popular notion of California as a screwy land of cultists, hedonists, activists, geeks and actors—a perception that often lingers in the national media’s political coverage of the state.” After nine months back on the job, however, Brown has proved that his Moonbeam image is outdated. As the legislative session winds down, it’s tough to survey the bills that Brown has signed and vetoed and not conclude that he resembles his two predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brown’s former chief of staff, Gray Davis.
I discussed Brown’s current term with David Wolfe, legislative director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which keeps the Prop. 13 flame burning in Sacramento. Wolfe was mostly pleased with how the governor had wielded his veto pen. Brown rejected SB 168, which, according to Ballot Access News, “makes it illegal to pay circulators on a per-signature basis, if they are working on initiative, referendum, or recall petitions.” By effectively prohibiting people from working as paid signature gatherers, unions had hoped to double the costs of initiative drives, which they view as the main way conservatives undermine the labor agenda. Brown also vetoed a bill that would have forced signature gatherers in initiative campaigns to wear signs branding them as paid gatherers. In doing so, he sounded downright libertarian: “I choose not to go down this slippery slope where the state decides what citizens must wear when petitioning the government.”
Conservatives are also thrilled by Brown’s veto of “card-check” legislation for farm workers—a measure that would have eliminated the secret ballot for union votes—though he did later sign a compromise bill making it easier for farm workers to unionize. (Brown signed the original legislation granting farm workers the right to organize 30 years ago.) He also vetoed a bill that would have mandated that union members dominate local civil-service commissions, which regulate rules and standards for government employees. And in vetoing a bill requiring children to wear ski helmets, Brown again sounded a libertarian note: “While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet, I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state. Not every human problem deserves a law.”
Earlier this summer, however, Brown angered social conservatives with his approval of a bill that mandates the teaching of a gay-friendly curriculum in public schools, and he has signed various environmental and green-jobs bills into law. One of them was the atrocious SB 2X1, which requires that 33 percent of California’s electricity be generated from alternative, “renewable” sources by 2020. He gave a rousing speech attacking Republicans at a labor rally in Las Vegas recently, saying, “I refuse to let the Republicans and the non-union contractors get away with their schemes to reduce wages.”
The Jarvis group seems most annoyed with Brown’s approval of SB 154, which allows Solano County to increase marriage-license fees by $2 without a two-thirds vote of the legislature. They’re probably right that this violates Prop. 26’s ban on the increase of fees without a supermajority vote and sets a bad precedent—but if this is the worst so far from the governor, matters aren’t as bad as many Republicans might have expected. “Those vetoes [card-check and SB 168] have been his defining moment,” said Wolfe. But he cautions: “This is still a man who wants to increase spending by 30-odd billion dollars. This is still a man who wants record tax increases.”
The most unconventional tack that Brown has taken since assuming office has been to eliminate the state’s redevelopment agencies, those property-rights-abusing dispensers of corporate welfare and localized central planning. Unfortunately, the legislative package that he signed will allow most agencies to come back into existence once they pay the state billions of dollars.
So Brown is paddling right and left. He usually paddles more to the left than to the right, but nothing too radical is going on here. He’s not much different than Schwarzenegger, who repeatedly caved to public-employee unions and signed aggressive environmental legislation but mostly rejected “job-killer” bills too ridiculous even for California. Conservatives’ enduring tolerance for Brown stems largely from the hope that he could still do the unexpected. Brown might yet take on the public-employee unions, even though they spent $30 million on his behalf to help win back the governorship. Brown might close the gaping budget deficit. Brown might actually be, as many reporters described him last year, the “Nixon goes to China” governor who reforms public-employee pensions.
It’s probably the case that Brown won’t do any of those things, which would be disappointing but unsurprising. Steering too far left or right will lead him to some rocky shoals. More than anything else, someone with Brown’s instincts seeks calmer waters—like most conventional politicians.