Blunt and stingy, Jerry Brown suits California just fine this time around

Jerry Brown grated on many Californians when he was governor three decades ago, but his style seems to fit the state's mood well now, as he 'is making frugal fashionable, finally.'

California Gov. Jerry Brown talks to reporters as he arrives at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., Feb. 10. He flew coach on Southwest Airlines – without an entourage – to get there.

He dismantled Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cigar-smoking tent that was ensconced on the Capitol grounds. He took the former Hollywood star’s giant “Conan the Barbarian” sword off the wall of the governor’s office, and replaced the polished walnut boardroom table with a pinewood picnic table.

“I want people when they come in my office to know they’re on a hard surface,” he says.

He has stood on a coffee table for news conferences, lives in a former Chevy dealership, walks to work, and not only flies commercial, but coach-class on the state’s least-expensive airline. And without an entourage.

What’s up with all this?

Jerry Brown's California: Five big changes from 1975 to 2011

Political analysts say this is just Jerry Brown being Jerry Brown, but that his being more overt about it since taking office Jan. 3 is pure political genius during California’s giant fiscal crisis.

“This is vintage Jerry Brown; he has always been cheap ... the blue Plymouth instead of the limo and sleeping on a floor mattress in his first term. But in these days of lean times, voters appreciate his thriftiness even more,” says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “This is good for Jerry and good for his sales pitch: Everyone needs to sacrifice a little, even him.”

Even though he already won the election over billionaire Meg Whitman, Mr. Brown’s challenging agenda requires that he continues to win over voters.

The new governor – he is in office for the second time after serving two terms from 1975 to 1983 campaigned on “turning the state’s fiscal problems around” and has twice already in major speeches (inaugural and state-of-the-state) called for “courage and sacrifice” and “loyalty to the community, to what is larger than our individual needs.”

Now he is in a sprint to see if he can avoid the same yearly budget mess that has kept California in national headlines year after year for decades. He has broadly outlined a three-pronged plan to deal with the state’s $26.4 billion deficit: legislative spending cuts followed by a special election to extend certain tax rates, and then compose a final budget for the Legislature to pass. Now he and the Legislature need to nail down the specifics.

The Legislature has just three to four weeks to pass their package – which will demand great compromise with Republicans – in order for Brown to call a special election in June.

“His appeal [in speeches] that we are all Californians is having an effect. His ethos is reassuring because this has been his approach all of his life,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University in Sacramento. She says voters are paying attention to his style for the first time in years.

“Jerry is making frugal fashionable, finally. He tried in the '80s but was only really popular with the young and eco friendly,” says Ms. O’Connor. “Now he is the icon of the post-Madoff populace. It will only help him to continue to walk the walk in addition to talk the talk. People want a politician they can trust.”

Other experts say Brown’s peculiar brand of folksy, populist politics is resonating strongly now at least in part because times have changed since he was first governor.

“Many of Brown’s wild-eyed ideas then are mainstream now – like car pool lanes for California’s clogged freeways, green energy and environmental proposals before ‘green’ was cool,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC. “Brown’s once-eccentric philosophy of governance – ‘Small is Beautiful’ – reverberates loudly today as voters reject Big Government.”

Ms. Jeffe and others say that Brown’s “era of limits” mantra from his first term clashed with California’s self-styled exceptionalism then.

“Now, Brown’s insistence that ‘choices have to be made and difficult decisions taken’ is in line with inaugural addresses by governors across the nation.”

Some analysts say that Brown’s frankness is a potential liability – as when he made his handlers wince during gubernatorial debates with Meg Whitman, admitting to “closing down the bars of Sacramento” in his first term.

But his frankness seems to working for him at this crucial moment, they say.

“The new Jerry Brown is both blunter and mellower than the old version,” says Jeffe. “But he retains one quality that may serve him well in addressing California’s fiscal crisis: He’s stingy. In his first term, Brown defended himself against liberals’ condemnation of his “fiscal conservatism” by insisting, “It’s not because I’m conservative. It’s because I’m cheap.”

Jerry Brown's California: Five big changes from 1975 to 2011

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