To some outside California, Gov. Jerry Brown always will be kooky Gov. Moonbeam, no matter what he does.
To California Democrats, however, Brown is the political mastermind who persuaded voters to approve a ballot measure to increase taxes -- no small feat, considering that 65 percent of voters rejected a similar measure by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009. The increased revenue and an improving economy lifted Sacramento out of its habitual shortfalls.
To some Sacramento Republicans who fought Brown's efforts to put the tax increases before the voters, Dao Gov has become an object of worship. They call Brown "the adult in the room," the seasoned operator who has been able to curb the big-spending impulses and other excesses of the overwhelmingly Democratic and underwhelmingly mature state Senate and Assembly.
"Without question," Brown guru Steve Glazer opined, "he's been a moderating force against the extremes of his party."
Recently, though, Brown hasn't looked so moderate. He signed a bill that requires public schools to allow children with gender dysphoria to use school facilities -- such as bathrooms -- based on their gender identity.
In 2010, Brown said he was against allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, because it "sends the wrong signal." This month, he signed a bill to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. "When a million people without their documents drive legally and with respect in the state of California, the rest of this country will have to stand up and take notice," Brown proclaimed.
In September, Brown signed a bill to raise the state minimum wage from $8 to $10 by 2016. In a state with an 8.9 percent unemployment rate, that increase is likely to discourage small businesses from hiring new workers.
Glazer responded, "There will always be individual pieces of legislation that don't fit this (adult in the room) narrative, but when you look at his body of work in total, he has certainly been a stabilizing force." Got it, but Brown has changed.
In 2011, Brown vetoed a bill to create criminal penalties for minors (and their parents) caught skiing or snowboarding without a helmet. "While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet," Brown wrote in a refreshing veto message, "I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer authority from parents to the state. Not every human problem deserves a law."
I miss that governor. This year, Brown signed a bill requiring dog owners to have their pets vaccinated for rabies when their pooches are 3 months old instead of 4 months.
Yet Brown hasn't changed. He's always had a too-clever-by-half side. In what might be seen as a departure from political correctness, he vetoed a bill that would have allowed legal immigrants who aren't citizens to serve on juries. His veto message explained: "This bill would permit lawful permanent residents who are not citizens to serve on a jury. I don't think that's right."
Yet somehow, Dao Gov decided it was right to sign a bill to allow an illegal immigrant to be a lawyer. Is it a yin and yang thing? Or does he have that low an opinion of lawyers?
I still should have faith, GOP strategist Rob Stutzman assures me, in Brown's place in the middle of the road. Dao Gov has a political sense, Stutzman said. "It's paddle left, paddle right. Minimum wage is paddling left -- when you look at what he's done for industry, as well." Stutzman then noted a bill the governor signed that gives businesses in violation of antitoxin regulations time to fix problems. Then there's Brown's challenge to three federal judges who keep insisting on running state prisons.
Brown spokesman Evan Westrup cites Brown's work this year to reform school spending, his first-year campaign against redevelopment and his economic development plan as proof he is "a pragmatic, focused, realistic governor. That runs counter to any moonbeam narrative."
The fact remains that Brown was closer to the center -- on immigration, on parental rights and on the role of government -- in 2011 than he is in 2013. People outside California read about the transgender bathroom bill, the minimum wage hike and driver's licenses and think: crazy California.
People in California, too. "If he's the adult supervision in Sacramento," quipped Jon Fleischman, publisher of the popular conservative website FlashReport, "that's giving a bad name to adults."
Sacramento is changing, and Brown is changing with it. With Democrats controlling every statewide office and both houses of the Legislature, it's like a rush of water ready to spill over the left coast. Will Brown be able to stop the torrent, or will he be swept away?