California’s once-and-perhaps-future governor, Jerry Brown, is widely viewed as the most ambidextrous of politicians – a man of the Left who nonetheless tacks Right as often as necessary to assure his continued political future. Political junkies still marvel at how then-Governor Brown, an ardent foe of property-tax-limiting Proposition 13, instantly embraced the measure after its 1978 passage, or how, since being mayor of Oakland, he copped a law-and-order image that just happened to coincide with his ambition to be the state’s top cop.
Most recently, we’ve watched as Attorney General Brown – the man who signed the 1977 law that gave public-sector unions the right to collective bargaining and thus paved the way for the massive looting of treasuries by public employees – has taken a high-profile position with regards to the city of Bell. “The California attorney general’s office announced Monday that it had issued a new round of subpoenas to force nine current and former Bell officials to give depositions and to turn over federal and state income tax returns,” according to a Los Angeles Times report. “Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown is also demanding personal records relating to pay and pension benefits, gifts the officials have received, and documents pertaining to bank accounts and business interests.”
This is Brown to a tee – despite his history as a virtual subsidiary of Government Union Inc., and his reliance on union independent expenditures to win him the governorship in November, he is able to use his political powers to catch the populist backlash against the increasingly publicized instances of public-sector plundering. This no doubt is giving fits to the at-times hapless GOP nominee, former eBay executive and billionaire Meg Whitman. Whitman had been calling for pension reform, but has been so careful in her proposals – i.e., exempting public safety officials from reform, and thereby putting the bulk of the problem off the table – that she allowed Brown to essentially outflank her on the Right. Even some ardent pension reformers wonder whether Brown might be able to achieve more than Whitman on the pension reform front given his ideological flexibility and Whitman’s risk-averse behavior.
Now Whitman is wisely countering with radio spots and a mailer pointing to Brown’s own pay and perk scandal under his watch in Oakland, and fortunately she has the cash to respond quickly to Brown’s taxpayer-funded bully pulpit at the Department of Justice. The Whitman campaign quotes from writer Heather MacDonald: “Despite repeated promises to keep salaries of top city employees under control, the number of city employees earning more than $100,000 has risen 47.5 percent in the past two years. Perhaps more startling is the astronomical increase – 740 percent – between 2003-04 and 2005-06 in the number of city employees earning more than $200,000.” This is a good rebuttal, but Brown has essentially muted his weakness on this issue by going after the loathsome Bell ex-city manager, Robert Rizzo, and the city’s cast of alleged crooks and miscreants. Even I’m glad to see him take on the scoundrels, regardless of the political shamelessness of his quest.
This, of course, is a freebie. The real problem in California is the wholesale enrichment of the public employee class at every level. But the Bell officials took it to absurd heights and possibly broke the law in the process. Even the unions can harrumph about Bell, just as free-marketers would have no problem complaining about the excesses and abuses at corporations such as Enron. Don’t expect Brown, or any of his key Democratic supporters, to make the broader case for reform of the state’s out-of-control compensation system for public employees. Don’t expect Brown, despite his civil libertarian statements over the years, to do anything about the veils of secrecy that protect his union backers from accountability.
Brown’s opportunism, however transparent and shameless, has resulted in a remarkably lackadaisical attitude toward him among many of those Republicans who ordinarily would be counted on to view him as a dangerous figure. I’ve heard a surprising number of conservative Republicans tell me that they don’t particularly fear him as governor. That’s so even though Brown has a long history of making far-out statements on his We the People radio shows (whose archives apparently are no longer online) from the mid-1990s. He is known for railing against corporate greed and “industrial capitalism” and calling for things such as a living wage and warning against environmental calamity. I saw Brown speak in Orange County a couple of years ago and he received a warm welcome from a heavily Republican crowd.
Some of his rants are sufficiently non-mainstream that they on rare occasion appeal to libertarians such as me. He is, after all, one of the few public figures to criticize the drug war and the abuses in California’s prison-industrial complex. Yet I have zero belief that he would do the right thing on these issues. For all his old anti-establishment talk, Brown essentially is an establishmentarian. Perhaps that’s a key reason why few people fear him: everyone takes what he says with a grain of salt.
Still, he’s able to do much mischief. We see that especially in the way he has used his position to force localities to embrace massive changes in land use to fight global warming – a policy that is championed by New Urbanists and no-growthers who will use any excuse to battle “sprawl.” We see that in the way he has used the attorney general’s ffice to twist ballot language for political purposes and do the union bidding on significant legal cases.
The race remains close. The Bell situation should remind California Republicans of Brown’s penchant for doing and saying anything necessary to get elected. Whitman’s quick response was the right thing to do. But it remains to be seen whether the Republican, who has no well-defined belief set (epitomized by her running a series of ads that take one position on immigration in English and a different one in Spanish), can outsmart someone as shameless, opportunistic and dangerous to the state’s future as Brown.