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When the recall fog clears ...

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

By Christopher L. TynerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2003


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."

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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.

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