Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Political Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
March 26, 2011 – 04:00 AM

Democrat Jerry Brown, in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign for a third term, argued that California’s fiscal meltdown demanded an experienced player in the bare-knuckles game of Sacramento politics – someone who knew the teams and playbooks and could put together a winning budget deal.

But after laboring for months to wrangle GOP cooperation to erase a $26.6 billion deficit, Brown has received a sharp reminder that nearly three decades after he left office, not only are the political players different, but the Sacramento playing field itself also has changed dramatically.

“The political dynamics now are nothing like when he was first governor,” Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio said at the end of a week in which Brown’s budget-balancing proposals were stymied by GOP resistance. Term limits, noncompetitive legislative districts and the two-thirds legislative majority required for tax increases mean that the minority party is “not interested in halfway anymore,” Maviglio said.

For Tony Quinn, a former Republican strategist, the Capitol today is not the same place where Brown presided from 1975 t0 1983 as one of California’s youngest governors.

Back then, veteran legislators knew and had worked under Brown’s father, the late Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown, while power brokers such as Assembly Speaker “Ayatollah” Willie Brown raised and controlled money from their caucuses, which allowed them to “crack the whip, and they did,” Quinn said.

The governor’s job today is tougher, Quinn added, because “this Legislature is run by the public employees unions (on the Democratic side) and the anti-tax people on the Republican side.”

“That’s the problem,” he said. “These (legislators) are not individual players.”

With the clock ticking and a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showing public support for Brown’s budget drive flagging, political observers said the governor has not given up on traditional diplomatic tactics in hopes of getting the budget deal done.

Republican strategist Hector Barajas said the current group of GOP legislators was willing to give Brown the benefit of the doubt, despite his sometimes rocky relations with Sacramento lawmakers in his first two terms.

“(Brown) tried to give the perception during the campaign that he was someone who could bring groups together, that he had experience,” said Barajas. “He said he wanted ideas.” But Republican countermoves such as a proposed spending cap, pension reform and regulatory reform were repeatedly rejected by the governor and Democratic leaders as “too hard.”

So far, Barajas said, “it looks like the Jerry Brown of old is the Jerry Brown of new.”

Reaching out to GOP

Still, even former critics defend Brown for treating Republican lawmakers with more respect and collegiality than his immediate predecessor in the governor’s office, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, despite his famed smoking tent, rarely took his case to GOP venues as Brown has done.

“I give Brown a lot of credit for grabbing the deficit bull by the horns and trying to wrestle it to the ground as his first official act,” said Democratic strategist Garry South. “If Schwarzenegger had shown even one-tenth that amount of courage and candor about the state of our fiscal affairs, we may not be in the fix we’re in today.”

South praised Brown’s YouTube message last week as an attempt to take the budget directly to Californians, but added that Brown might have been more successful building voter backing intended to leverage GOP support had he made such public appeals sooner.

“The governor needs to get out of Sacramento more frequently and take his case directly to the voters regularly and more aggressively,” South said. “While necessary, the closed-door, backroom machinations in the Capitol are completely lost on the average voter.”

Brown could have gone to GOP districts, town halls and public forums such as the Commonwealth Club, South added. While that strategy didn’t work for Schwarzenegger, the budget crisis today is far more serious and the public knows it, he said.

Quinn, the onetime Republican strategist, also believes a public campaign for his budget plan may have helped Brown close the deal. Instead, Brown seemed to have banked on the strategy of “if I can just negotiate this with the powers around the Capitol, the public will buy into it,” Quinn said.

“Brown has treated this whole thing as an inside ballgame,” he added. “That’s his central problem.”

The governor’s staff has argued that Brown eschewed public grandstanding and “photo-op” politics in favor of getting the GOP legislative support he needed to put his proposals on the ballot before voters.

Old-school approach

Brown’s efforts to sit down with Republicans all over the state Capitol, visit their social events and caucuses, appear before legislative committees and even break bread with them represent a decidedly old-school approach to California politics, political veterans said.

“This governor has exhibited much more diplomacy and much more carefully nuanced policy choices than he did when he was governor 30 years ago,” said Michael Semler, a Cal State Sacramento political science professor. “He is trying to set the agenda – but his problems are more difficult than they were 30 years ago.”