Extra resources for students of State and Local Government 180, an upper-division GE class in the Government Department at Sacramento State University
Monday, December 12, 2011
San Francisco Chronicle: Governor steps back to focus on state budget
Governor steps out of limelight to work on budget
Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
San Francisco ChronicleDecember 12, 2011 04:00 AM
Copyright San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
When Gov. Jerry Brown took office in January, he almost immediately began a full-scale blitz of public appearances and interactions with the press.
He publicly wooed Republicans and myriad interest groups in Sacramento, seeking to bridge wide gaps among longtime opponents that had grown further apart since he left the governor's office nearly three decades prior. It was done in an effort to win support for his budget proposal, including allowing voters to decide whether to raise taxes or continue cuts in public services to balance the state's finances.
But since that effort failed, Brown, the leader of 37.5 million people in the largest and arguably most important state in the country, has been elusive. He has held just three news conferences since signing the budget in June and has side-stepped questions at other public appearances.
Although he has spoken at events like groundbreaking ceremonies, he has avoided weighing in on major concerns in the state such as the Occupy movement. When he released his much anticipated tax ballot proposal last week, he did so with an "Open Letter to the People of California" first posted via Twitter and then e-mailed to supporters and posted on his website.
Later in the week, a few reporters maneuvered into position to query him on the plan as he was leaving a ceremony for the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree. One reporter asked the governor about the plan and noted that the press hadn't heard anything from him on it.
"Oh yes you have. I wrote that letter myself," Brown replied, referring to the open letter. "It was very carefully crafted."
He said little else as he was hurried back to his office by a phalanx of aides.
Longtime observers of Brown and the Capitol said the governor's shift from freewheeling engagement to infrequent and stilted interactions is a mark of his personality.
"Jerry has always been a little bit in and out," said Peter Schrag, a retired editorial page editor at the Sacramento Bee who has long known Brown. He and several others noted the governor's penchant during previous terms for hanging out at David's Brass Rail bar with Capitol insiders and reporters.
"At times he was very accessible. ... There were also stretches where he could be quite aloof, so that doesn't surprise me," Schrag said.
Doug Willis, who covered Brown for the Associated Press during his first eight years in the governor's office, recalled that the younger Brown didn't even hold a news conference until seven or eight months after he was first inaugurated.
Additionally, he said, when the governor is weighing a move or when there are forces outside his control that are dictating the political landscape, "he's not very amenable to sitting down and talking about it."
Behind the scenes
Such is where Brown finds himself today as he moves forward with his plan to generate $7 billion in new tax revenue annually for five years by asking voters to increase taxes on the wealthy and increase the state sales tax by half a cent.
While the governor has his own proposal, several other groups also are pushing ballot measures that would increase taxes, and the conventional Sacramento wisdom is that if voters face too many tax proposals on a ballot, they reject everything.
Brown knows this and is working behind the scenes to try to prevent that from happening.
"In the spirit of Christmas, we're getting everyone together to sing on the same page," Brown said after the tree lighting, adding that, "Life always is complicated, but it's my job to simplify, and I will."
It is in part that challenge that has led the governor to take a lower profile on high-stakes issues, said Barbara O'Connor, emeritus professor and the former director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento.
"I think he's just decided that he has an answer that he's really shopped around," O'Connor said. "The next phase from a communications perspective is to meet with insiders and try to co-opt them. That has nothing to do with talking to the press."
So far, in his third term, Brown has focused largely on the budget and the state's finances, though he also has proposed changes in laws governing public employee pensions.
His intense focus on a few things is in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, "who came in and said, 'What are all the things wrong with California?' and, 'I'm going to fix those things,' " said Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger's press secretary.
Schwarzenegger's team, along with Schwarzenegger himself, made high-profile public pushes on a host of issues, from tax law to ballot initiatives.
"From a governing standpoint, an elected official owes it to his constituents to explain his agenda," McLear said.
Brown's staff argues that that is what the current governor is doing, noting Brown's appearance to testify at a legislative committee hearing recently on the pension issue. After that hearing, though, reporters followed Brown to an elevator, and when one asked why the governor had appeared to soften his stance on part of the plan, the governor retorted, "When did you stop beating your wife?" before adding that there were IRS issues at play.
Pressed on the tax plan, as details had already leaked, the governor said he was focusing on pensions and that "soon, we'll talk about that other thing." He then told the gaggle of reporters to step back so the doors of the elevator he was in could close.
Gil Duran, the governor's press secretary, disputed any notion that Brown is taking a lower profile and insisted he is hard at work in his office.
"We're not trying to just chase cameras around all the time," Duran said.
The strategy appears to be working for the public, as Brown has the highest poll numbers of any politician in California, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, which does extensive surveying on California.
"I think they're seeing him do his main functions and giving out his thoughts on how to fix the problems in the state," DiCamillo said.