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FILE - A recent speech by the likely gubernatorial candidate stir fears that he's abandoning his base. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, FILE)

SACRAMENTO — Jerry Brown was sounding downright conservative when he told a group of corporate attorneys last week that the state's businesses are burdened with too many regulations. And, previously, he insisted state government needed more downsizing, dismissing higher taxes as an antidote to California's growing economic problems.

His comments were likely intended to stamp an early image of reason, a reach-out to moderate and independent voters, who will be crucial to winning the governorship in 2010, even as he remains, officially, a noncandidate.

But he angered some on the left, worried that Brown's potential cruise through a primary without an opponent will mean he won't have to offer even a nod toward the liberal wing of the party.

More important, some liberal critics are saying, the policies he's espousing — fewer regulations, more dramatic budget cuts and an aversion to taxes — could deflate activists who might see him as no different from what Republicans might offer.

"This state is ungovernable and in a mess, and we need to be hearing from Jerry Brown how he gets us out of this mess," said Robert Cruickshank, the public policy director for the Courage Campaign, a liberal advocacy group. "Cutting regulations is not the answer. It doesn't get teachers back in the classroom, it doesn't create jobs. We've been cutting regulations for 30 years and the state's still dysfunctional."


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In comments last month at UC Irvine, Brown said talking about tweaking Proposition 13, the property tax reform of 1978, was "not viable," adding "I don't think (change) is needed."

"As a candidate, if you even peep about a tax, you're dead," Brown said. "We've got to downsize government to the maximum degree. We've got to make it efficient and bring it to the community."

He also said he supports the state's Three Strikes Law, opposes reducing the two-thirds majority vote required for tax increases — though he's open to reducing the two-thirds vote on budgets — and is uncommitted on whether there should be a public option for health care.

And last week, at a convention for corporate attorneys, he said that the state's environmental and workplace laws and regulations are overly burdensome.

"We are moving every year to add more and more legal prescription to our lives, to our organizations, to our businesses and how we all function," Brown said. "We're overlaid too much with too many rules."

Political observers said Brown is only doing what he would have done after the primary anyway — steering to the center.

"He's moved beyond the primary and into the general election," said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "He needs to avoid specifying things like what budget cuts he'd make so he doesn't alienate his constituencies. But just saying the state is overregulated, that certainly is not anything that should hurt him. This creates a bond with the middle early on. And it doesn't hurt when he starts hitting up the business community for campaign donations. They hear the guy's not so bad after all."

Brown has the "political center all to himself" while Republican candidates are "fighting for their ideological base," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "The challenge is finding a way of keeping the Democratic Party base motivated."

A campaign-free primary also would allow Brown to dispel impressions that he's a 1970s-style liberal — and to show that his political views have matured since his first stint as governor from 1974 to 1982, said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State.

"He is the epitome of the old adage that we get more introspective, more fiscally conservative and we refine our views based on life experiences," said O'Connor, who once served under Brown as chairman of the California Board of Public Broadcasting. "I don't think it's crass political motivation. It's an unfair rap to say he's moving to the middle to attract different voters. He marches to his own drummer. That's how it should be after a life in politics."

Brown's views are grounded in real-world experiences as governor, mayor and attorney general, said Steven Glazer, Brown's senior political adviser.

"If he runs, his goal would be to build a new governing consensus that can fully come to grips in a practical way with California's problems," Glazer said.

"There is no Lone Ranger from the left or right that can break the stalemate paralyzing state government."

Democratic consultant Ben Tulchin said it's "fine" to move to the center, even at this early stage, but "he may have tacked too far. Arguing the merits of regulations, that's a piece of your message, but to be the emphasis, I don't think that fits to where voters are."

It would have been more appealing to voters in the center, Tulchin said, if Brown talked about strengthening the economy and job creation, making government more efficient, and providing quality education and health care for children.

"You're seeing real populist anger toward banks and CEOs -- it was the lack of regulations on them that allowed the economy to tank," Tulchin said. "I don't see voters saying there's too much regulation, that banks didn't have enough free reign."

But, in his comments at UC Irvine, Brown provided a clue on why he's willing to break from party dogma.

"Something's got to be done," he said. "It can't be done by one party or the other. There's got to be a coming together of different groups that don't like each other. I'm confident that will happen. We've got to summon up the courage to make the changes."

Reach Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.