Jerry Brown wasn’t movie-star smooth at his inaugural ceremony Monday. His head bobbed up and down as he read from a script without a teleprompter. But there was something real about him, which is probably part of the reason he won the race for governor of California over former eBay boss Meg Whitman.
The 72-year-old Brown interrupted the flow of his taking the oath, by ad-libbing “California — the great exception that it is…” — a reference to the state going Democratic in the recent midterm election, while the rest of the nation was leaning right. And he ended his short address by not-quite singing the old song, “California Here I Come (Right Back Where I Started From),” a reminder he’s been there, done that.
In between, Brown didn’t promise much, except loyalty to the state and “no new taxes unless the people vote for them.” He praised his father, Edmund G. Brown, who was governor in the ’60s, and initiated California’s vast water system.
And he referred to his own two terms as governor, starting in 1974. “I’m following in my own footsteps,” he joked. But the remarks offered little indication how the new governor would solve the terrible financial mess the state is in: a growing $25 billion budget deficit and an unemployment rate topping 12 percent.
With former governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis on hand, Brown seemed confident he could deal with the mess. There have been 10 recessions since World War II, he said, and the state is still flourishing. He cited Silicon Valley and Hollywood as engines of growth.
But he admitted the situation is “dire.” More cuts in an already heavily cut state budget seem to be on tap, though Brown talked about preserving the environment and improving schools – both expensive state initiatives. Like Schwarzenegger before him, he called for cooperation between the Democrats and Republicans rather than the demagogy and cynicism that has marked past relations between legislators.
How he intends to change remains to be seen.
Brown was not specific during the campaign, nor was he this week, as to what he would do to balance the state budget. When Schwarzenegger first ran for governor, he promised to clean up the mess in Sacramento, eliminate boards and commissions and cut costs. But his first act on taking the oath was to eliminate a recently enacted car tax, a move that cost the state $4 billion. He didn’t use the political capital that comes with a landslide victory to do what he’d promised, and soon that capital disappeared.
Now Brown returns to Sacramento after a big win, and has to decide how he can capitalize on that victory to get the state budget under control. Early indications are that he may be set to make deep cuts in social service benefits, parks, libraries, redevelopment agencies, and state universities and colleges. Nearly everyone would feel the pain, and the good feeling that comes with winning the election could quickly evaporate.
He is also thought to be considering a June ballot measure to extend higher tax rates on income, vehicles and sales. But tax measures usually lose these days, and that’s a loss would put the once and future governor in the hole.
So Jerry Brown has his work cut out for him. The word is that California — with its 37 million people and its deep recession — is ungovernable. If Brown can prove that wrong, nobody is quite sure how he’s going to do it – perhaps not even Jerry Brown.