Jerry Brown is a one-of-a-kind politician who does things far differently than all others in his business.
California’s new/old governor outdid even himself at his inauguration this week, however, when he interrupted his solemn oath of office to deliver a one-liner to the big crowd gathered for the occasion.
Right hand raised and his left on a family Bible, Brown properly followed the words of the oath as administered by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakayue — until she got to the part where he was to pledge that he was assuming his office unconditionally.
“I take this obligation freely,” he said, abruptly slowing down the cadence to emphasize each word in the phrase that follows: “Without. Any. Mental. Reservation,” he said, as chuckles murmured through the audience.
“Really!” he added, smiling as he turned directly to 3,000 people seated in Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium. “No mental reservations!”
The roar of laughter that greeted his ad lib was both an appreciation of Brown’s mischievous style and an acknowledgement that anyone who willingly takes on the duties of governor of this deeply troubled state must be at least semi-insane.
This moment of levity aside, Brown’s 16-minute inaugural address was an exercise in tough love, a homily that combined an unflinching look at the not-so-Golden State’s problems with a plain-spoken, post-partisan appeal for shared sacrifice and an end to the brain-dead politics of polarization and gridlock gripping the Capitol in recent years.
The 72-year-old Brown, who reigned as the state’s 34th governor from 1975-82, now becomes its 39th, as California faces the ravages of recession, widespread unemployment, and a chronic deficit approaching $30 billion.
“Choices have to be made and difficult decisions taken,” he said. “At this stage of my life, I have not come here to embrace delay or denial.”
Alternately sober, funny, and inspiring, Brown’s speech recalled the courage and values with which his great-grandfather survived an arduous 1852 westward wagon train journey, and argued that “the people of California have not lost their pioneering spirit or their capacity to meet life’s challenges.”
“It is not just my family, but every Californian is heir to some form of powerful tradition, some history of overcoming challenges much more daunting than the ones we face today,” he said.
While his address unsurprisingly featured more rhetoric than policy prescriptions — these will come with the release of his budget proposal next week — it clearly set the stage for his stated goal of dramatically addressing some of the structural weaknesses underpinning California’s financial woes. A series of leaks and hints from the Brown camp suggest his agenda will include some sweeping changes affecting Santa Barbara and every other community in the state.
“In seeking the office of governor, I said I would be guided by the three principles,” he said. “First, speak the truth. No more smoke and mirrors on the budget. No empty promises. Second, no new taxes unless the people vote for them. Third, return — as much as possible — decisions and authority to cities, counties, and schools, closer to the people.”
That final promise is the most intriguing. Since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, more and more power over taxpayer money has moved to Sacramento and away from local government; now Brown is seeking a way to move both back to the locals.
Exactly what such a legislative effort would look like is not yet determined, although the framework for Brown’s ideal plan appears to include at least these elements:
• Brown intends to present a budget bristling with painful cuts to convince Californians he is serious about curbing spending.
• He would then back a ballot measure asking voters to extend several billion dollars of temporary tax increases due to expire in July.
• This money would be earmarked for cities and counties to finance some programs now funded by the state.
• Brown would also seek a political pathway to lowering the current two-thirds vote threshold for local tax increases, effectively giving local voters future authority for these “realigned” programs.
Any such effort faces big obstacles in the Legislature, not least Republican lawmakers loath to countenance any hint of higher taxes. Brown, however, signaled his willingness to confront partisan intransigence with a populist appeal to the common interests of Californians.
“The budget I propose will assume that each of us who are elected to do the people’s business will rise above ideology and partisan interest and find what is required for the good of California,” he said. “There is no other way forward.”