Napolitano, 1, Brown 0.

Last week’s Board Regents meeting, which I got to see in person on Wednesday, was great political theater – a contest between the UC, which was offering a boost-state-support-or-we’ll-raise-tuition plan, and state political leaders.

But this contest was different because the UC has a politician leading it, the former Arizona governor and homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano.

And this made all the difference. Napolitano took the fight to her fellow politicians in a way that UC hasn’t done before. And she won a big round, getting the better of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Her successful strategy was this: she out-Browned Brown.

In his second stint as governor, Brown has made a virtue of running against big plans and big future-minded reforms. Instead, he’s embraced small changes, he’s touted the virtues of the knitting of today’s question and budgets, and he’s made a point of trying to set up choices for others: either raise those taxes or take more cuts. Brown is a champion of small-bore realism., and he mocks those of us who argue for systemic changes.

But in this fight, Napolitano took on the Brown role. Napolitano’s UC plan is very Brown – Sacramento can choose to give more money or see increases in tuition. It’s a choice—and she portrayed it as pragmatic and realistic. She also outmaneuvered Brown, by dropping the plan on him the day after the election and lining up votes. He had to react late, scrambling to add a couple of appointees to the board of regents.

But it wasn’t enough. And uncharacteristically, Napolitano’s maneuvering put Brown in the position of calling for the sort of big, systemic change he usually mocks. The governor wanted to look at the whole cost structure of the university, and talked about redesigning the system.

Brown, of course, was right in making this argument that UC needs a fundamental restructuring – just as those of us who argue that the state needs redesign and reform are right. But such systemic arguments are easy to dismiss and marginalize, as Brown knows too well from his own dismissals of constitutional governance reform. And so when Brown suggested the establishment of a commission to look at systemic change in the UC, Napolitano dismissed him – in Brown style, “We don’t have time to wait for another commission…Maybe we’ll actually get some really nifty ideas out of it. That’s always possible, but the budget process moves along.”

It doesn’t feel so good to be on the business end of this kind of realism – doesn’t it, governor?

It’s remarkable how well Napolitano’s plan is working politically. The best evidence of her success is the whining you’re hearing from politicians about how mean Napolitano is being by putting the choice on them: more state support or higher tuition.

I had a hard time not giggling in the press gallery when Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom kept challenging “the process.” Newsom, like other California politicians, has gotten away with playing a double game: supporting budgets that cut higher education while railing against tuition increases that result from those cuts. Napolitano is making it harder for them to play that game, and they aren’t happy.

“This whole process was, I don’t want to use the word despicable, but I will,” Newsom said, according to the Associated Press.

Former Assembly Speaker John Perez, one of the rushed Brown appointees to the board, accused Napolitano of “hostage taking” – an allegation that should fill supporters of the University of California with joy. “Hostage taking” is standard practice in California budget politics; it is the very marrow of the process. One reason why the UC has lost again and again in budget fights is because its leaders haven’t taken hostages or bullied lawmakers; other major interests, backed by constitutional and initiative protections that UC does not enjoy, bully the legislature in this way every year. (It would have been better if Speaker Emeritus Perez had allowed that he was, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, “shocked, shocked” to see hostage taking in budget politics).

Meanwhile, UC students are playing their role well – complaining about the possible tuition hikes. But they shouldn’t worry. The state has the money to forestall these tuition hikes. And if this first battle portends anything, it’s that Napolitano is more than capable of beating Brown at his own game.