The Tao of Moonbeam

By TIMOTHY EGAN - New York Times

Read the Opinion piece at the New York Times

Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

In choosing the oldest man ever to run the young state of California, voters decided that a grumpy penny-pincher is just what they need at a time when the state is so broke it cannot fix park benches or investigate burglaries.

Jerry Brown - welcome back! The man who eschewed the governor's mansion to sleep on a mattress on his apartment floor when he ran California a long generation ago should feel right at home in the poorhouse of Sacramento 2010. Here's what your outgoing governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had to say while trying to keep the lights on and foreclosure buzzards at bay:

"Our wallet is empty. Our bank is closed. Our credit is dried up."

The only thing not in short supply, it seems, is California schadenfreude. The Golden State has become the American France - everyone professes to despise it, but loves to go there.

Consider: even in the last year, when 2.2 million Californians were out of work, the state added more new residents than the entire population of Pittsburgh. And about 335 million visitors came. The message from the seven out of eight Americans who do not live in California is: we love you, and enjoy watching you suffer.

The 72-year-old Brown brings a perfect background to the triage operation he will undertake in the first week of January, when he will begin a long-interrupted third term as governor.

First, he has that missionary zeal for lost causes. Remember, he was studying to be a priest at a Jesuit seminary when his father became governor in 1959 and ushered in the glory years of California as a nation-state. Over the next half-century, young Brown lived a half-dozen lives - Yale Law school, two terms as governor, three runs for president, mayor of Oakland, attorney general - and the state entered a ragged period of self-doubt. During the greed-is-good era of the late 1980s, Brown found himself ministering to the sick and dying at Mother Teresa's hospice in Calcutta.

Second, business-minded outsiders may sound good on paper, but they don't work well as politicians. Schwarzenegger promised to bring his Hollywood deal-maker's muscle to Sacramento. In the end, he was without allies, and he leaves California in tatters. This year, Brown destroyed his opponent, the profligate billionaire and political neophyte Meg Whitman, with an ad that showed her mouthing the same "run the state as a business" homilies as the failed Governator.

"We need someone with insider's knowledge," Brown said, with Zen clarity, "but an outsider's mind."

Also, unlike Schwarzenegger, Brown is not dyeing what little hair he has left or pumping up his pecs to impress the babes. California needs someone to act his age, and Brown has settled into his senior years without illusions.

"Old people have a lot of good ideas," he said on the campaign trail, another bit from the Tao of Moonbeam.

Third, Brown has long been a tightwad. O.K., he does live in a $1.8 million home in Oakland Hills with his wife and confidante, Anne Gust Brown, a former Gap executive. But he's never lost the Costco-buyer's view of the world. During one of his runs for president, he called for a Constitutional amendment forcing a balanced federal budget. He was an angry, mildly kooky Tea Partier before there was an angry, very kooky Tea Party.

"The truth is, I don't like to spend money - not my own, and not the taxpayers'," he said during the campaign. "If you want frugality, I'm your man."

Read the Opinion piece at the New York Times

He reinforced this view during his first press conference after routing Whitman, who spent $141 million of her own money - more than any person in American history has ever spent on a single political race. He noted that the voters were in a sour mood, even turning down a proposal to raise car license fees by $18 to fund state parks.

"My message is get ready for hard surfaces and benches," said the governor-elect. The only real promise Brown made was not to raise taxes without a vote of the people. For a Democrat, that's a meal of porridge and tap water.

What can Brown do with an immediate $25 billion budget hole? What he's always done: the unpredictable. He can, for instance, ask state employee unions to make major concessions in their pensions - part of a system that's risen 2,000 percent in 10 years - medical co-pays and other benefits. These are his allies. They have nowhere else to go. There will be no federal bailout of California. Default would bring down the American bond market.

Brown won't have to deal with the lowest-paid state workers, those represented by the powerful Service Employees International Union, because they already signed a new three-year deal. It's the bigger unions, who've featherbedded their salaries and benefits while average Californians have seen their incomes decline, that he should target. In a bankrupt state, it's crazy for prison guards to be making $100,000 a year with overtime.

Finally, Brown will enter office with minimal expectations. The best thing he said on the campaign trail was that the job of governing California is a career-killer - so voters might as well elect somebody whose career is at an end. Wise words. The youngest, and soon, the oldest governor of California fits the bill.

 

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