January 3, 2011

As the Calbuzz National Affairs Desk braved torrential rains and terrific hangovers to lurch into Sacramento for today’s inauguration of Jerry Brown as California’s 39th governor*, one key question kept bothering us: Why are we doing this?

True, there’s value in being able to tell the grandkids we were eyewitnesses to history, as Krusty becomes the longest-toothed person ever to be sworn in (“ooh. that’s sooooo interesting, grandpa”). Plus, it’s been years since we had a really good look at the fascinating state Railroad Museum (plenty of free parking!) And, of course, there’s no way we’d allow staff psychiatrist Dr. P.J. Hackenflack to hit the mean streets of River City without a bevy of sober-minded chaperones.

As a political matter, however, the plain fact is that Brown’s big day is unlikely to make much news or include major surprises, let alone justify the obscene expense accounts of the uncounted hundreds of executives, producers, directors, reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists, web hotshots, roadies and tech team members whom we’ve dispatched for our special “Inauguration of the Old Guy” coverage.

The days are long since past when a governor could unveil a bold and uplifting agenda of sweeping new proposals, given the state’s recession-riddled economy and spirit-sucking financial woes.

No matter how ambitious Brown’s personal imagination and future vision may be, the one and only thing that matters now is how he intends to muck out the grungy stable of state budget mess – exactly the same old boring problem that befuddled outgoing Governor Schwarzmuscle, which Capitol pundits and scribes have been trying to invent new ways to make interesting for decades.

But, hey, that’s why they pay us the big bucks.

In any case, the Orange Bowl aside, there ain’t much else to occupy a couple of retired geezers on the first Monday in January. So here’s our look at the five crucial questions about today’s big doings:

1-Will Brown break his own record for brevity? In his first-ever inaugural, back when mastodons roamed the earth, Gandalf famously delivered a seven-minute address, still the shortest in history, with nearly no money quotes. As Bruce Newman reported in an excellent Murky News profile, “We have a lot of work to do – let’s get to it,” was about as good as it got in the soaring rhetoric department.

This time out, Brown is not so much throwing out the first pitch of a new administration as he is walking in from the bullpen in the bottom of the 17th to face a bases-loaded, nobody out, bloody mess that the last guy left him. So what is there to say, really? “There’s a lot of red ink to mop up. So let’s get to it and start defying the laws of arithmetic.” Eight seconds flat.

The longest riff we expect: The actual words he has to say to take the oath of office.

One more thing: What time will the chronically late Brown show up for his own inaugural? Calbuzz took the over – 15 minutes or more – in a high stakes bet with one of his staffers.

2-What’s he got to say about taxes? Brown and the Legislature are facing a pair of fundamentally awful choices: Slashing services and benefits for widows, orphans and sad-eyed little school kids or trying to squeeze more blood out of the great masses of cranky taxpayers and businesses.

The basic strategic play is clear: 1) Jam through a really, really ugly budget plan in the next 60 days – cats and dogs living together; fourth graders sent to sweat shops to sew tank tops and yoga pants for the rich; millions of lame, sick and foreclosed-upon shuffling through city streets; plague-infested rats streaming through shuttered parks as untended wildfires incinerate eight-figure four-level coastal homes; legions of violent knife-wielding felons suddenly sprung from state prison; bedraggled public employees asked to give up their fifth week of paid vacation, and worse. 2) Try to leverage this image of the Centre of Hell into a couple of ballot measures that win voters’ permission for some, at least, temporary tax hikes, perhaps coupled with a smart “realignment” proposal to push programs out of Sacramento and back to locals.

Sounds like a plan. But how to sell it to an electorate that’s dead certain there are countless oodles of money stashed in vaults beneath the Capitol? Does Brown start shedding political capital and delivering tough love news from the get-go, or wait and hope that the economy rebounds at least a little and then start speaking the T word? Inquiring minds want to know.

3-Will he actually eat a hot dog? The closest thing to a public celebration of Krusty’s ascension is the afternoon picnic in Capitol Park sponsored by the Orange County Labor Council, which promises a fine menu of burgers, dogs and chips.

Does Brown risk dropping by and having his picture taken with several thousand giddy union goons? And if he goes, will he indulge in the blue-collar cuisine? Asked it about last week, the governor-elect responded with an 11th hour entry for the 2010 quote of the year contest, telling the Sacbee that he’s “not a normal hamburger or hot dog man.” Talk about the understatement of the century.

4-Will he mention the California dream? Big picture, the new governor’s first and biggest challenge is to forge a sense of common purpose among Sacramento’s bitterly polarized and gridlocked solons and special interests.

Clearly, it won’t be sufficient to employ, you know, logic on the Legislature’s dunderheads, who’d rather keep chanting brain dead ideological cant and slogans. So he needs to find a way of selling shared sacrifice for everyone in a way that goes over their heads and effectively appeals to their constituents.

During the campaign, the closest he came to doing that with even a shred of sincerity was when he talked about his family’s long history in state politics and invoked the California Dream. Time to embellish that bit of rhetoric.

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