Saturday, December 18, 2010





Back in the early 1970s, just a few years after Pat Brown was knocked out of the governor’s office by Ronald Reagan, it was not uncommon to see him tooling along California freeways behind the wheel of his silver American-made sedan with a personalized license plate saying “THE GUV.”

That was about as pretentious as things ever got with the late ex-governor, father of the new – and old – governor. No beefy security men, no chauffeurs, no caravan of SUVs.

So it also was while Gov.-elect Jerry Brown was attorney general over the last four years. It was common for him to show up to deliver a speech in a battered state-owned Pontiac with a single driver-bodyguard. Not quite the old blue Plymouth he used to demonstrate his frugality during his first go-'round as governor, but close.

Which means you can be sure Brown won’t be outfitting his personal staff in expensive leather jackets resembling those worn by high school and college athletes, as Schwarzenegger did. There will be no privately-paid security phalanx to accompany the mandatory security given all governors by the California Highway Patrol. There will be no lighting specialists setting up before each and every event to make sure the governor looks perfect. No one worrying about perfect sound systems or conference call setups. The trappings Schwarzenegger used to make himself seem like some Middle Eastern satrap will be gone, along with Arnold’s ubiquitous all-day coat of pancake makeup and his shared-use private jet.

No wonder Brown suggested immediately after the fall election that “a little more humility is in order in the governor’s office.”

The changes in the verbal style will be just as substantial. The new governor possesses an English-language vocabulary; his first post-election press conferences included words like “ephemeral” and “acrimonious” and “coherent,” along with many other terms that have never crossed Schwarzenegger’s lips.

The approach will also be different. Where Schwarzenegger claimed from the day he declared himself a candidate that he would be beholden to no one, Brown made no such pompous declaration. Rather, he said everyone in California will likely have to sacrifice a bit to get the state out of its hole and that became abundantly clear during the first of his promised series of forums on the budget.

As he did when Proposition 13 passed over his opposition in 1978, he seems ready to accede to whatever the public wants, saying his role will be to make it work and not to make all the decisions. He could seem contemptuous at times during his previous eight years in office, but he vowed during the campaign that there would be none of that from him now, and no arrogance, either. And in his first forum, he listened carefully even to Republicans who adamantly opposed his election.

“What do the people want as the key parts of their government?” Brown asked at one press conference. “Do they want substantial firefighting, protection of the environment, great public universities, taking care of the poor? They might not be able to have it all, but we can certainly live with the choices the people make. But they have to be informed. I will do that and then we will live with what the people want.”

Brown, then, does not sound eager to shove anything down anyone’s throat. No “like it or not” bravado like that shown by incoming Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom when he declared gay marriage legal in his city while mayor of San Francisco.

Instead, Brown has elaborated a bit on his decades-old theme of an “era of limits.” “We may have to rethink the structure of government,” he said while wondering aloud at one point whether he should even have a chief of staff. “We need to make government leaner and meaner.”

Consistent with his campaign talk about wanting to move more government decisions to the local level, he said any restructuring he does will be “a very inclusive process. Right on the face of it, solutions do not appear obvious. We’ve been in a stalemate (between Republicans and Democrats in Sacramento), but somehow we now have to break out of it and earn people’s respect.”

And he said economic recovery is the key to anything positive he might be able to do, especially because several votes in the last two years indicate taxpayers are not willing to dig further into their pockets. “If the economy doesn’t grow,” he said, “this could be a very painful, even acrimonious process.”

The key word here is process. Brown doesn’t plan to tell anyone what to do, but rather to offer alternatives and then make the public’s choices work.

It’s a much more humble view of the governor’s office than California has seen in many years.

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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