Last summer, just days before California was required by law to pass a state budget, Republican State Senator Tom Harman got word that he'd been summoned to meet Governor Jerry Brown "right now." Harman, a veteran legislator from conservative Orange County, hurried downstairs to the Horseshoe, the governor's suite of offices in the state capitol building.
Harman was one of five Republican senators who spent months negotiating with Brown on fiscal reforms that promised to solve the state's chronic money woes and restore the Golden State's faded glory. But no deal had been reached. Harman found Brown alone in his office, and the governor made it clear who he thought was at fault. He laid into Harman, screaming and swearing, veins popping from his forehead and spittle spraying from his lips, insisting the senator, and the state, had no option but to support Brown's plan.
There was no chance for Harman to speak. "I was silently thinking to myself,' OK, now are we going to call 911, and are they going to know how to bring the ambulance in through the basement entrance where the automobiles go?'" Harman recalled. "I thought, this guy is going to have a heart attack or a stroke. He's just going to explode right here in front of me."
Brown spokesman Gil Duran said, "There was passionate advocacy on both sides," but Harman's account was "revisionist history," and he dismissed the five senators as "irrelevant." Harman and the governor have not spoken since that incident. Each party accuses the other of negotiating in bad faith, and Brown, 73, is taking his proposed tax increase to the voters in a November ballot initiative. Never mind that a similar gambit arguably doomed the governorship of his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Like President Barack Obama, Governor Edmund Gerald Brown, Jr., came into office promising to transcend partisan divisions and solve problems. He inherited a state legislature with a dominant liberal Democratic majority and a staunchly conservative Republican minority. Because the state constitution requires a two-thirds majority to raise taxes, which is almost unique in the United States, California became a model of governmental dysfunction. And with the economy in the tank, solutions were more urgent than ever. Brown, seasoned by a lifetime in state politics and bursting with energy, seemed like a plausible fixer.
"We need someone with insider's knowledge, but an outsider's mind. A leader who can pull people together - Republicans and Democrats, oil companies and environmentalists, unions and businesses," Brown said in the video announcing his candidacy for governor. "At this stage of my life, I'm prepared to focus on nothing else but fixing this state I love." But Brown's failure to persuade a single Republican legislator to join his cause might say as much about the man as it does about the state's intractable budget politics.
Even some allies describe his style as that of a strong-willed CEO rather than a consensus-builder. He listens, but then retreats with a small group of close confidantes to make his decisions. He's a passionate and persuasive man, equally comfortable talking with corporate executives or homeless indigents, but is stymied when others don't follow logic that is obvious to him. Brown's spokesman Duran argued that the governor demonstrated his negotiating skills last year, when, for example, he convinced Democrats to make multi-billion-dollar spending cuts and brought union and business interests together to support a budget plan the Republicans ultimately rejected. Likening Brown to a chief executive is a "bad comparison," Duran said.
Now, with few options in front of him, Brown will ask voters to approve a tax increase or face nearly $5 billion in cuts focused on education. If he succeeds in getting his ballot initiative passed, Brown could yet go down as the man who saved the state from financial ruin without entirely sacrificing its compassion. But if he fails, his legacy is likely to be that of a politician who embodied the hopes and dreams of multiple generations of Californians – and never quite delivered. Already, in the budget submitted for the fiscal year starting in July, Brown proposed about $4 billion in cuts to programs he believes in such as welfare and child care. End-running the legislature on political reform is risky, however, and Democratic strategists are alarmed by the possibility that competing tax initiatives could crowd the ballot and ensure the failure of all of them.
Still, the governor is personally trusted, and Brown can use the unpopular legislature as a political foil to rally voters. Surveys suggest that Californians are open to his plan for temporary tax hikes, so it's possible that Brown's extraordinary skill as a campaigner can carry the day, sweeping aside rivals with competing plans. "Going straight to the voters is the only path forward, and polls show that voters support his approach," said Brown spokesman Duran.