Friday, September 17, 2010




It is beyond doubt that Californians need a capable CEO to navigate the state out of the thickets into which we have stumbled, be they the budget wilderness, the unemployment mess or eternal bickering over water supplies.

Should that CEO be a traditional chief executive in the corporate mold (Meg Whitman) or a conciliator in chief (as Jerry Brown says he would be)? Should this state’s spending priorities be decided by a small management group or should they involve masses of people? Should we have the ultimate in ballot box budgeting?

Those are some questions facing voters as they get set to choose this fall between the Republican former eBay chief Whitman, who rarely voted or displayed much interest in public affairs for most of her life, and Democrat Jerry Brown, a former two-term governor who won his first elective office at 31 and is still at it 41 years later.

Whitman makes very clear what she wants to do: Get rid of 40,000 state employees (she doesn’t say who) and weed out waste and fraud, essentially telling state legislators what to do along the way. Other governors, both Democrat and Republican have tried this approach. The ousted ex-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, once observed that the Legislature exists to “implement my vision.” The current governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, began his tenure by issuing orders to the independently elected state attorney general. Both men were quickly disabused of their arrogant presumptions, and their ability to govern suffered.

Whitman thus far has not publicly insulted legislators or other statewide officers. But her plumping for a part-time Legislature has not made many friends among lawmakers whose votes she’d need to implement her vision.

Brown, who could be contemptuous at times while governor and often battled state lawmakers 30 years ago, insists he’s well beyond that, acknowledging often that he made mistakes in the past.

“I won’t be contemptuous any more. For sure,” he said in an interview. And he appears to have matured in the half a lifetime since he last was governor.

Rather than try to dictate to lawmakers – which he often tried when younger – Brown now says the only way anyone can solve California’s problems is to involve them all, regardless of party. His days of arrogance, he says, are over. He talks about this as one result of his eight years as mayor of Oakland; it might also have something to do with the time he spent working beside Mother Teresa in India while out of office in the mid-1980s.

Whatever the reason, the emphasis Whitman’s campaign often puts on Brown’s long-ago style seems outdated.

“My vision is to engage every single legislator and the people who have given them the most support,” he said. “I will also appeal directly and honestly to the voters.” He pledges to start meeting lawmakers and interests that supported them within a week of the November election and expects to have a budget plan – or alternate plans – ready for a popular vote in a special election next spring or early summer.

“We will have detailed budget proposals and we’ll aim to push many decisions down to the local level,” he said. “The differences between, say, Bakersfield and San Francisco, are so wide we need more local choices and we need the authorities in the local cities and counties to be part of the whole process. We need to explore everything.”

That could mean cuts in prisons, with releases for some convicts. It could mean big changes for public employee pensions. It could mean cuts in roads or schools or care for the elderly. Brown proposes to let voters make the ultimate choices, just as he promises not to raise taxes without a voter OK.

“It’s very different from Meg’s approach,” Brown says. “Her plan to eliminate the capital gains tax alone would add $5 billion to the deficit and where would we make that up?”

Brown promises to “take the entire process on the road. We will be in Los Angeles and San Diego and Fresno and everywhere else so the people become involved.” He claims Whitman “wants to do this in a vacuum.”

And he suggested that some programs might be “dismantled.” “If the people don’t vote for them, they might go,” he said. This ultimate form of ballot box budgeting could see voters presented with full-fledged alternative budgets to choose among, or merely asked for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on individual programs.

Why does Brown, in his early 70s, want this job again when he’s already been there and done that? “Because I know this state, all of it, very well and I love it. It’s a fabulous place and we have to make it well.”

Which sets up the autumn choice: an attempt at corporate executive-style leadership or the possibility of the most inclusive approach ever tried in this country. The vote comes Nov. 2.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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