Thursday, January 26, 2012




From the moment he began delivering his State of the State speech in mid-January, it was clear Gov. Jerry Brown realized California needs more than the avuncular presence he was most of last year. That speech traditionally offers each governor a chance to set the tone for the coming year, and Brown took full advantage.

Then he began following up right away. Rather than head straight into a round of negotiations with legislators as he did after his 2011 speech, Brown immediately flew off to the state’s population centers to push his program of capital improvements, small tax increases and substantial budget cuts. He's got to keep up that sales effort.

It's as if he suddenly realized that simply hanging out at home in Oakland or speaking in the Democratic stronghold of San Francisco or working in his Capitol office in Sacramento wasn’t going to be enough. Certainly that should be one lesson of last year, when Brown ventured south less than any modern governor in memory.

Partly, his lack of a significant presence in California's largest counties may have been the result of the fact he’s the first governor since his father Pat Brown (governor from 1959 to 1967) to come from a base outside Southern California, where about two-thirds of the state’s voters reside. When Jerry Brown was governor for his first two terms, in the 1970s and early ’80s, he lived in the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles.

Brown hit other necessary notes in the immediateaftermath of his speech, as he moved about, visiting schools, city councils and a Mexican restaurant he frequented regularly during his previous gubernatorial stint. For one thing, he promised he’d be back, often. “You will see a lot more of me in Southern California this year,” he said. That’s an obvious need if he’s to pass any kind of tax increase, which he maintains is the only way to avoid about $5 billion more in cuts to public schools, universities, parks and a panoply of other popular state programs.

He also must campaign hard and often in all the state’s big population centers for there to be any chance to actualize the bullet train that's planned to run from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with eventual extensions to Sacramento and San Diego. Brown didn’t dream up this project and he knows voters backed it in 2008. But he’s savvy enough to understand the projected tripling of costs presented to voters four years ago might produce a different result if the issue ever were to appear anew on a ballot.

That’s why both in his speech and afterward he harped repeatedly on projects of the past that opponents labeled either impossible or too expensive in their planning phases, from the Panama and Suez canals to California’s Central Valley water project and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, all generally considered basic necessities today.

But the best thing Brown did was begin trying to counter the notion that California is ungovernable, dysfunctional and past its prime.

“California is anything but a failed state,” he said while castigating pessimists he called “declinists.” “We want to keep California on the move even though we’ve been in a recession caused by manipulations in housing and banking that cost us more than 1 million jobs. So we will invest in the future. We are not in decline, but in ascendancy.”

He mentioned California has more Nobel prize winners than any other state and all but a few countries. He listed companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook that began here and are going stronger than ever. That's the optimistic theme he has sounded since he began running for his current office, but he's doing it louder now. Twitting Texas, whose Gov. Rick Perry frequently denigrates California, he noted that state has “more than five times as many minimum wage jobs as we do, with far less population.”

And he said “California last year created many more jobs than any other part of the nation. I’m proud of that.”

So Brown this year shows signs of becoming the cheerleader California needs. But he insisted that he will still be a policy wonk, noting how complicated budget negotiations will be and that he’s working on complex reforms to public employee pensions.

Maybe it’s because more than a year has passed since Brown was last on the campaign trail, but his affect is more energetic this year than last. Which is exactly what California will need if the slow-starting economic revival here is to pick up steam and begin growing more quickly.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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