SACRAMENTO -- Just what is Jerry Brown thinking?
At a time when 49 of the country's 50 governors would probably be playing it safe -- after all, he is trying to convince voters that it's in their interest to raise their own taxes -- Brown is boldly backing two mammoth public-works projects, calling his critics "fearful men" and "declinists," and using the S-word while the TV cameras are rolling. He's zagging when most governors would be zigging.
Think Gov. Pat Brown on steroids.
While Brown speaks often of his great-grandfather's pioneering spirit in risking his journey west in the 1850s, he increasingly seems to be channeling his late father, whose own legacy was built on huge infrastructure projects.
"Can we govern ourselves? Can we make decisions?" Brown asked Wednesday at a news conference unveiling a $23 billion project to build two tunnels underneath the Delta to transport water from Northern California to Southern California. "Can we make the investments needed to keep our economy and our culture and our society prospering?"
Longtime Capitol observers also say the governor is showing signs of the same impatience with the slow, creaky pace of government that led him to be on the constant lookout for higher office in his earlier gubernatorial stint, from 1973 to 1983. Only now, that impatience may have more to do with his sense that life is finite -- that at 74, he has only so much time to help turn around the
"This is his legacy moment," said Barbara O'Connor, director emeritus of Sacramento State's Institute for the Study of Politics and Media.
"It's true he wants to get things done before he goes," said O'Connor, who served in Brown's first administration. "When you're at the point when you have certain skills to get things done, you feel compelled.
"I think he thinks this is his shot, this is his platform. And he's setting the stage for a second term when the economy rebounds."
Indeed, Brown, as he dropped the S-Bomb to reporters Wednesday in reinforcing the notion that he just wanted to get "stuff done," alluded to his own mortality as he spoke poignantly about just returning from the funeral of one of his best friends.
Still, Brown is severely testing voters' ability to absorb the contradictions of his message as he simultaneously claims the state is in desperate need of new taxes but must embark on expensive and controversial water and high-speed rail projects.
"This will be a real test of the democratic process," Brown said Wednesday.
The governor's critics say he is biting off too much in an economy that remains stagnant -- and that he is heading down a perilous political path as he seeks voter approval of Proposition 30, which would hike taxes on the wealthy and boost the state sales tax by a quarter cent.
"Thinking big brings risk with it," said Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen, who was a top aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson. "It's great to embrace big ideas, but you have to have ideas that can be practically implemented. And he's basing much of his political capital on getting his tax initiative passed with a contradictory message."
The $54 million recently discovered hidden in a pair of special funds in the parks department won't make it any easier for Brown to make the case for new taxes. If legislators fail to assuage voters' anger over fat public pensions by reforming the state's retirement system after they return from summer recess Aug. 6, his task will be even more daunting.
"He's asking voters to do a lot -- to raise taxes on themselves and to believe in very expensive long-term projects," said Ethan Rarick, the director at UC Berkeley's Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service. "It is in line with Jerry's history and his family history."
While Brown might be seeing this as his last chance to build on his father's legacy, the difference is that Brown's father governed at a time when voters had more faith in government, said Rarick, author of a biography of Pat Brown, who governed the Golden State from 1959 to 1966.
Brown has often been called the smartest politician in the state. When Democrats were anguishing over Brown being outspent by Meg Whitman, his billionaire Republican opponent, during the early stages of the 2010 general-election campaign, Brown counseled patience. He held off until Labor Day before he engaged with her and went on to a huge victory.
Still, Brown has had his own history of political blunders. With a referendum in 1982, voters overwhelmingly rejected his plan to finance a peripheral canal. And, in 1978, Brown learned the lesson of being on the wrong side of history when voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 13, the landmark ballot measure that slashed property taxes. An ardent opponent before the election, Brown became a self-described "born-again tax-cutter" in implementing the initiative.
Now, Brown bridles at the notion of playing it safe as he approaches the fall elections.
"It's a very foolish game plan to always be trying to second-guess the electorate and hesitating to do what is needed," he said Wednesday.
Brown was defiant -- even toward some of his allies -- in rebuffing critics of the water project, saying the state's dire water situation and the environmental problems in the Delta had been studied to death, so he's refusing to get bogged down in "analysis paralysis."
Alluding to the still-listless economy, Brown said he won't join those who want to "climb in a hole and wait till it all blows over."
Jan. 13, 2011
"If you need anything that doesn't cost me too much, let me know."
-- After dropping into the state board of education's first meeting of the year
April 12, 2011
"This prison system is run with exquisite exactitude. There's never an empty bed. If Marriott could do that, they'd even be more successful than they already are."
-- Talking to the Bay Area Council at a San Francisco luncheon
May 14, 2012 (a historic day for Jerry Brown quotes)
"I would urge a modicum of stoicism and less of indulging your propensity to immediate gratification."
-- On the day Brown revised his budget, urging the Legislature to adhere closely to his proposed $8.3 billion in cuts
"I can't redesign reality."
-- Answering a question about whether schools should go forward with their own budgets that assume his taxes won't pass
"It's a pretzel palace of incredible complexity."
-- Referring to the Byzantine federal rules and restraints that budget writers and lawmakers have to maneuver through
July 18, 2012
"I know there are some fearful men -- I call them declinists -- who want to put their head in a hole and hope reality changes. I don't see it that way. This is a time to invest."
-- On the day the bullet-train legislation passed
July 25, 2012
"Analysis paralysis is not why I came back 30 years later to handle some of the same issues. At this stage, as I see many of my friends dying -- I went to the funeral of my best friend a couple of weeks ago -- I want to get (S-Bomb dropped) done."
-- On the day he unveiled a controversial new state water project