Brown Wins by Picking his Enemies

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

In politics, it’s often more important to pick your enemies than to choose your friends.

Gov. Jerry Brown has known that for years, which is why he’s been so careful picking his fights in Sacramento.

On the budget, for example, it’s not that the Republicans in the state Legislature are evil, it’s that they’re in thrall to a "no vote, no taxes" pledge straight out of Washington, D.C., that’s "not American. It’s not acceptable and it’s not loyalty to California."

Brown’s got no problem putting Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform minions on an enemies list, but he still needs some votes from GOP legislators to get his budget plan on a June ballot.

And then there are state employees. While they may be public enemy number one to conservative Republicans and plenty of other California voters, they’re loyal – and well-heeled – supporters of Brown and other Democrats, so he doesn’t need an enemy there.

But their perqs are an enemy worth having. So the governor slashes cell phones, state cars and other goodies for the workers in an effort to show voters he’s really, truly on their side.

Probably the best example of Brown’s tactics is his plan to shut down redevelopment agencies across the state.

When Brown called for an end to new redevelopment projects, with the more than $1 billion in savings going to the state to help close its budget gap, there were screams of anguish from across the state.

But look who was complaining. The League of California Cities and its members were up in arms, but government groups aren’t getting a whole lot of sympathy from voters these days.

Developers were opposed, but they’re even less popular than local officials.

And of course the California Redevelopment Association is fighting Brown’s plan, but it’s their ox that’s being gored.

But, just as important, look who isn’t complaining.

Education groups think it’s a great idea, since property tax money that normally would be sucked up by redevelopment projects ultimately will be redirected to schools. Ditto law enforcement, which should see their local budgets grow.

And as for the voters, well, they’re as bemused as Brown professed to be when he was Oakland’s mayor and happily using redevelopment funds for his pet projects.

"I used redevelopment – I didn’t quite understand it," the governor told a League of California Cities meeting in January. "It seemed kind of magical. It was money you could spend on stuff they wouldn’t otherwise let me spend."

At its best, redevelopment has allowed cities to put together huge projects that couldn’t get done otherwise. San Jose’s downtown is an example, as are San Francisco’s Mission Bay project and the city’s plan to put 10,000 new homes and a variety of park, retail and commercial development on the long-closed Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

But redevelopment agencies also have a reputation for pushing aside homes and small businesses to make way for big projects – and bigger developers – that can bring cities more money.

In a 2005 case, Kelo v. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that redevelopment agencies could use eminent domain to force out homeowners so that their property can be passed on to a private developer who will bring the city more money.

The idea of a redevelopment agency bulldozing grandma’s home to make way for a high-rise or a car dealership isn’t too sympathetic a picture for voters, as Brown well knows.

Then there’s the stadium question. Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and City of Industry all have plans to build big-time — that is, expensive — baseball or football stadiums that need redevelopment cash or property to make them go.

The suggestion that cash-strapped cities should kick in hundreds of millions to build stadiums for the mega-wealthy owners of sports teams has seldom set well with voters. And the suggestion often made by cities that the money is free because it’s all redevelopment dollars has become a lot less tolerable as state and local budgets become increasingly stressed.

Despite threats from cities to take the state to court to protect their redevelopment plans, about the best they can hope for is a compromise that sends millions more to the state and local schools. That’s if Brown is even willing to talk about a deal.

Brown knows that picking your enemies makes good political sense. As for political friends, he’s been around long enough to know that Harry Truman’s comment works just as well for Sacramento: "You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog."

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