When the recall fog clears ...

Somebody must actually govern. Eight Golden State pros weigh in on what it will take.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Despite his image as being a guy with ideas - mystical or not - former California Gov. Jerry Brown used to immerse himself in the intricate details of the budget. He even refused to hire a budget director so he could manage the process himself. The goal was, in his words, to "innovate."

Ronald Reagan, by contrast, wanted to innovate from a big-picture standpoint. He hewed to core beliefs and then, like a corporate chief executive, left the details to subordinates. "Reagan liked things simplified," observes a former aide to fellow Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, "not because he was a simple man, but because he didn't want to waste time getting information."

These examples of how past governors have ruled California - at times successfully and at times not - are a reminder that there is no one Jello-mold way to run an organism as vast and complex as a state with 35 million people and the world's sixth-largest economy. Never mind those unruly lawmakers in Sacramento. Still, certain traits and skills can put success within reach. Interviews with former governors, management experts, and analysts suggests that traits such as consensus building, the ability to focus on overarching goals, and vision - as gauzy a characteristic as that might be - are qualities that foster gubernatorial accomplishment.

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They may be needed now more than ever. With polls showing a majority of Californians are ready to oust Gov. Gray Davis (D) in this fall's recall election, attention is focusing on the leadership skills and management acumen that will be needed to help bring the Golden State out if its financial funk and crisis of confidence.

Indeed, the person who wins the Oct. 7 vote - Mr. Davis or one of the 135 other certified candidates whose résumés suggest a lot more "can do" than "have done" - will be piloting the state into a perfect storm of challenges: a gaping deficit, political gridlock in Sacramento, controversy over immigration, and soaring fees at a university system that has been the envy of the world.

"[Californians] have lost faith in the institutions of government," says Steve Merksamer, former chief of staff to Gov. George Deukmejian and a member of the Reagan administration in Sacramento. "Whoever the next governor is will have to heal the state and ameliorate the divisions."

Fixing a state adrift

The experts have some suggestions on ways to do that. Among them: Calling a California constitutional convention, freezing all hiring and spending, and bringing together the best minds in private industry to examine and redefine state operations.

The first order of business, arguably, is to calm an aggravated political environment. That's Job 1 for the next leader, says Leon Panetta, a former California lawmaker and chief of staff to President Clinton. Mr. Panetta says the next governor can learn much from the bipartisan leadership of Democratic Govs. Earl Warren and Pat Brown (Jerry Brown's father), who were not afraid to reach across the party aisle. "[They] built coalitions," he says. "The [new leader] will need to know where the political buttons are ... to get this done."

On the Republican side, Pete Wilson (governor 1991-99) had an astute knowledge of power brokering that enabled him, at times, to cut unlikely deals with the likes of powerful Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

The focus factor

But healing the body politic - and forging policy - requires conviction as well as compromise.

"This is not a job where you can fly into it and go as the wind blows, because the wind blows in a lot of different directions in Sacramento, as it does in Washington," Panetta says. "You need to know what are the three or four things that need to be done...."

Indeed, the very details of the job are enough to test an executive's attention span. During one 30-day period each fall, aides typically bring the governor as many as 1,000 large folders, each containing a bill to sign or veto. Then, sometimes, a forest fire or some other news intervenes, and well-laid plans go up in smoke.

Detail guys and delegators

In the midst of these demands, striking a workable balance between delegating tasks and being personally engaged is vital. "It's not the management model that makes it work," says John Thomasian, director of the National Governors Association Center For Best Practices in Washington. "It's the person that makes it work."

The most successful governors have some grasp of how the gears of government function. Translation for movie actors, talk-radio personalities, and anyone else on the ballot: Be a quick learner. "They will need to know where the money goes and how it's being spent, and you have to understand that before you have begin to delegate," Mr. Thomasian says.

Even seasoned political pros will learn things that only the job itself can teach - and they will learn to get help. "Press releases will say [the governor] is doing this and doing that, but the answer is, somebody else he's hired will be doing it," says former Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, a Democrat. "The learning curve will be however long he's there, especially on the budget."

Still, says former Gov. Brown says, in media on the recall story are overplaying candidates' inexperience. He says he's known most of the recent governors, and they came to the job with common sense and a college degree.

"It's not like you're constructing a bridge and [the governor is] the foreman and if you don't go [to work] every day the whole project stops," Brown says. "In truth, everything runs pretty well on it's own. Whether its Reagan or Brown or Wilson, ... the shape of government is only modestly affected by the chief executive."

That doesn't make the governor a cipher. He or she can notch important victories, but steering a vast bureaucracy that today includes some 130,000 employees is as much art as science.

Brown, who served as governor from 1975-83, says he personally shepherded his most important programs - from alternative energy to forestry practices - through the process. "I didn't appoint a budget director. Every governor before or since has brought one in but I didn't. I did the budget in a very direct way.

But he also benefited from advice. "In order to innovate, you have to have people with ideas and you have to be in dialogue," Brown says.

Governor Reagan (in office from 1967-75) was perhaps the ultimate delegator. He froze hiring and then conducted an audit of state funds. Edwin Meese, his chief of staff in Sacramento, says the next leader should consider the same steps.

Meese says Reagan also created a 250-member task force to examine every department and say how each could be improved. "It resulted in tremendous savings, which were returned to the people in tax refunds."

The state's diverse population and complex budgeting process, as well as the effect of voter initiatives, set up competing trajectories the next leader will have to confront. Every budget item has its backers, says Thomasian. "The governor is going to have to choose between [things like] covering uninsured children, increasing teachers salaries, hiring more teachers, reducing the payroll of public safety workers. There is no elegant solution."

A to-do list

Indeed, with Republicans shouting "no new taxes" and Democrats yelling: "no more budget cuts" and with voter initiatives setting items in stone, the governing process has been somewhat hijacked.

What's a governor to do? How about a state constitutional convention, says James O'Toole, an expert on corporate leadership at the University of Southern California. "We now have this tremendous amount of direct democracy, which doesn't work - as James Madison pointed out when he was creating the Constitution of the United States. The US. Constitution is this little thing with 27 Amendments. The California Constitution is a huge volume with [hundreds of] amendments. This is a sign state government is breaking down."

The next governor should recognize that leadership about character, not just about politics, experts say. "Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do," says Frances Hesselbein of the Leader-to-Leader Institute (formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation). "In the end it is the character of the leader that determines the performance."

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