Undercurrents: Here Comes Jerry Brown to Push California Over the Brink

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 08:04:00 PM

California’s recent marathon budget crisis provides our latest and best example of the state’s growing ungovernability. It is not so much that our Republican/conservative friends were willing to risk taking the state into economic collapse in order to force some ideologically driven concessions. It is that for the longest time, there appeared to be no practical, rational, sensible way for the rest of us to stop them. 

But a far more terrible thought for the sober minded is the fact that the widely acknowledged front-runner to be California’s next leader in this era of government-financial-social crisis is California Attorney General Jerry Brown, the man whose actions—or inactions—originally set loose the forces in the state that eventually led us to the current political/budget crisis. 

The two-thirds vote requirement for legislative tax increase measures that Republican legislators used to hold up this year’s California budget passage has been in place since 1933, but that requirement has not led to imminent state government collapse until recent years, following the June 1978 passage of Proposition 13. That proposition—billed by its proponents as a way to ease soaring property tax burdens, but in reality the opening salvo in an increasingly successful conservative attempt to cut the fiscal legs from under government—created the atmosphere in which our Republican and conservative friends could envision the virtual collapse of governmental institutions as a positive thing. 

The success of that conservative effort was not inevitable, but came about in part because the governor of California at the time of Prop. 13’s passage—Jerry Brown—failed in responding responsibly to widespread complaints during his first gubernatorial term about what was perceived as state and local government officials using unrestricted property tax increases to fix budget problems rather than instituting needed belt-tightening and fiscal and programmatic reforms. 

In his 1982 book on the Brown political dynasty (California Dreaming: The Political Odyssey of Pat and Jerry Brown, published by Berkeley’s Nolo Press—a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the Jerry Brown phenomenon), journalist Roger Rapoport wrote at length about the role Jerry Brown’s actions and policies as governor played in the ultimate passage of Prop. 13. 

In the 1970s, Mr. Rapoport wrote, “economy moves at the state level systematically increased local government’s share of ‘partnership programs’ funded jointly by municipalities and Sacramento. By mandating new or improved programs without financing them, [Jerry] Brown and the Legislature forced counties and cities to pick up the tab. … The combined impact of these … factors strained local governments. For instance, in Alameda County, the homeland of [Governor Brown’s] urban strategy, property taxpayers had to make up $4.8 million on [state] underfunding of partnership programs, $2 million in Medi-Cal reimbursement, $2.2 million on county overmatch and pay $1.7 million for state-mandated programs in 1977. … To meet all state costs, many county commissioners were forced to decrease support of local programs, leaving less money for municipalities to meet their minimum daily requirements. Funds siphoned off in this manner contributed to California’s growing state surplus.” 

It was in this atmosphere that tax rebel Howard Jarvis crafted Prop. 13. 

According to Mr. Rapoport, the California Legislature considered three separate property tax reform bills in 1977 in an attempt to head off the Jarvis tax revolt, state bills 1, 12, and 154. Mr. Rapoport quotes the California Tax Reform Association’s legislative advocate Dean Tipps as saying at the time that “of these three, Senate Bill 154 was the most progressive. It was supported by organized labor, senior citizen, community groups, consumer advocates, tax reformers and political groups. But it was opposed by Jerry Brown. Instead, he supported SB 12—the only one of the three bills that failed to close a single tax loophole and provided the least relief to home owners, renters and senior citizens. Along with Jerry, the real estate and business lobbies supported SB 12.” 

Rapoport writes that SB 12 was soundly defeated in the Legislature in 1977, and that Mr. Brown then switched his support to SB 1, which was put on the June, 1978 ballot as Proposition 8 as the alternative to Prop. 13. It was too little, too late. Prop. 13 passed, and California’s slide into possible oblivion began. 

Mr. Rapoport suggested that in California’s government funding crisis on the late 1970s, it was not concern for California’s future that so much concerned Mr. Brown as it was his own. 

The progressive Americans for Democratic Action, Mr. Rapoport wrote, put out a 10-page newspaper on Jerry Brown in 1977 describing their feelings about Mr. Brown’s ambitions. “Within the next few months,” the ADA wrote, “California and the rest of the nation will be inundated with the accomplishments of Governor Jerry Brown. Millions of dollars will be spent to publicize the man who wants to be re-elected governor of California in 1978 and go on to capture the presidency in 1980. Politically, the governor is a combination of Don Juan and Machiavelli. He’s glib, charming and extraordinarily skillful in the handling of the truth, a masterful politician in his use of patronage, public relations and the understanding of power. His commitment to progressive government has weakened as his presidential ambitions have grown. California lags behind many other states in dealing with issues of concern to liberals. Much of Brown’s support among liberals, labor, minorities and environmentalists has been maintained by patronage and rhetoric rather than accomplishments. Buzz words and public relations do not solve state or national problems.” 

That Mr. Brown left California’s problems for others to solve and set the stage for California’s demise should come as no surprise for anyone studying his recent tenure as Oakland mayor. Mr. Brown left Oakland in a shambles, with a capital fund depleted of money for needed neighborhood upgrades, hidden budget debt and underfunded programs that will take city residents years to pay back, a police scandal that leaves Oakland under federal court supervision, a shattered school system that Mr. Brown publicly laughed about and helped bring down. There’s a good bit more, but there are only so many words available in a column. 

And yet, Mr. Brown remains a popular figure in Oakland. Why? 

In large part, the attorney general benefited from compliant media while he was Oakland mayor, media which often treated his failures as lovable eccentricities rather than public disasters, failing themselves to hold Mr. Brown accountable. 

That compliant media treatment of Mr. Brown continues in Oakland to this day. 

Earlier this month, San Francisco Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson wrote a column in which he criticized the effect of Oakland’s current zoning problems on the city’s economic development (“Oakland Zoning Rules A Minefield For Business,” Feb. 6). 

Lamenting the fact that a “coffee shop pal” of his was having trouble opening up a business in Oakland’s Chinatown in part because city staff was requiring him to pay $1,900 for a “staff internal review to determine whether a conditional use permit should be issued,” Mr. Johnson blamed the problem on Oakland’s Byzantine zoning ordinance. 

“The Oakland City Council approved a new general plan in 1998, but it has taken the city 11 years to implement it,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “The city’s zoning study and recommendations are expected to be presented to the City Council this fall ... With zoning this screwed up, Oakland cannot compete in the marketplace, whether it’s attracting new business development, maintaining long-term retailers or encouraging small business ownership. What remains to be seen is whether [current Oakland Mayor Ron] Dellums can separate public policy from political loyalties long enough to allow the city’s professional staff—and Walter Cohen, the newly appointed director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency—to sort out the mess and offer reasonable business opportunities to its citizens and people who want to do business here.” 

There are two things of note in Mr. Johnson’s passage. The first is the passive “it has taken the city 11 years,” the second is the active skepticism that Mr. Dellums, the current mayor, can “sort out the mess.” 

What’s distinctly missing in Mr. Johnson’s analysis? The fact that Oakland’s zoning cleanup was deliberately stopped by former Mayor Brown so that his favored developers could maneuver developments in through the zoning cracks (the indication that the general plan passage was in 1998, the year before Mr. Brown took office as Oakland mayor, ought to have been a clue), and that Mr. Dellums immediately reinstituted the zoning cleanup that Mr. Johnson is calling for when Mr. Dellums took office in 2007. 

But Mr. Brown has ever been the charmer and manipulator. 

In the same year Prop. 13 passed, J.D. Lorenz, a former Cesar Chavez and Ralph Nader associate who had resigned as Jerry Brown’s head of the state’s California Economic Development Department, wrote a first-person analysis of Mr. Brown, The Man On The White Horse. In one passage, he summed up his opinion of Jerry Brown, the politician and political office holder: 

“Jerry was the mirror of the society in the mid-1970s,” Mr. Lorenz wrote. “He was giving us, the voters, what he thought we wanted. And he was usually correct in his estimates. Even in November 1976, almost two years after he had succeeded to the governorship, he was scoring a 78 percent approval rating in the California Poll, a level of popularity unprecedented in California history. If we didn’t like what we saw, we had only ourselves to hold accountable. We were looking at our own reflection in the mirror. If we wanted Jerry to cut out the reliance on symbols, he would oblige. If we wanted him to pay more attention to black people, he would do so. He had no commitment one way or another. He didn’t care. The sole concern he had was expressing the popular will successfully enough to be re-elected governor in 1978 and president in 1984. Jerry was the totally democratic man. Like the proverbial weathervane, he turned in whichever direction the winds blew him.” 

It would seem to be almost bizarre, doesn’t it, that while it was Jerry Brown who helped begin California’s fiscal descent, we are poised to put him back in place to give us the final push over the brink. No wonder the rest of the country considers us weird.