Brown's Status-Quo Choices

JAN. 10, 2010


“Personnel is policy” is a saying I heard often when I was a journalist in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s during the Reagan administration. The meaning was that, in large, complex modern organizations such as a corporation, state governments or the federal government, a leader can’t do everything himself. He must delegate. And those whom he picks to delegate mostly decide policy.

“Personnel choices shape policy choices because a governor must delegate,” Jack Pitney told me; he’s Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, and author of American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy and Citizenship. “Brown is smart and experienced but cannot make every decision in every agency.”

Seen in that light, Gov. Jerry Brown’s major appointments so far show him sticking with the status-quo in the state on environmental, labor and other policies. The boldly innovative Gov. Brown of his first governorship, in the 1970s and early 1980s, seems to have stayed home.

This can be seen most clearly in his appointment of Bill Honig to the state Board of Education, which oversees public schooling in California, an area also covering about 40 percent of the budget in a time of $28 billion state budget deficits.

Honig withdrew his name today. But his appointment still is a major indication of the direction of the Brown administration. Honig is a convicted felon, although the charges later were reduced to misdemeanors. Honig was convicted “for using state Department of Education funds to finance a project his wife had created to urge parents to get involved in the education of their children” — while serving as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction.

Brown defended his pick, saying, “He has the knowledge and skill to be quite valuable, and it would be a shame to waste that. You can’t create an omelet without breaking the eggs.” That last sentence, tellingly, often was used by Stalin to justify his atrocities in the Soviet Union, as Brown surely knows.

Honig was one of the state’s worst superintendents of public instruction. “Aside from his conviction on conflict-of-interest charges, the biggest thing is that, in the last 20 years since he was superintendent of public instruction, many changes and reforms have been implemented,” Lance Izumi told me; he’s Koret Senior Fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute,’s parent institute.

“Couldn’t Jerry Brown have found somebody who isn’t an old establishment Democrat who’s been convicted of crimes? Was that the best he could do? Honig was an initial proponent of the ‘whole language’ movement, although he came to see that method didn’t work and became a critic of it. The point is that originally he was open to it, something that was more of a fad than a proven method.”

According to this education Web site:

Whole Language basically teaches kids to look at words as “pictures,” while phonics teaches them to break words into their parts – the alphabetic letters, and the sounds those letters represent.

Whole Language treats English text like Chinese text. In the Chinese language, each word is “read” as a pattern – as a whole. Phonics, on the other hand, treats each word as the sum of its individual parts, and those individual parts are noted and decoded.

Whole Language relies on the “gestalt.” That’s an educational psychology term which relates to the notion that a child can scan text and guess at words while still gleaning meaning adequately.

“Whole language” makes sense for Chinese characters, which originated as little pictures. But English uses a phonetic alphabet based on purely symbolic letters. Since its invention millennia ago, phonetic-based scripts have been taught through phonics: attaching sounds to letters, or groups of letters. Even the Chinese teach English using phonics.

Izumi concluded, “Honig isn’t part of the reform movement in education in such things as teacher tenure and school choice, things many even in Democratic circles are talking about.”

For example, Education Week reported:

African-American policymakers under the age of 50 are no longer opposing school choice simply because they’re following the lead of their allies on other issues—mainly teacher unions, said Groff, 45, who is black.

“This is a generation that doesn’t look at race first, but policy first,” said Groff, 45, a Democrat. “It’s not looking at party first, but the best idea first.”

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the event’s main speaker, said charter schools in his New Jersey city are successful, but they don’t have enough seats to fill demand.

Many Newark families “break the law, literally,” said Booker, a Democrat. “They are faking addresses and sneaking [their children] into schools” in neighboring towns. School officials there investigate students and kick out those who live in Newark, charging their families tuition for the time they were enrolled.

“This is not the America I dream of,” Booker said.

And in Michigan, reported NPR:

House Democrats are debating proposed reforms to teacher tenure laws at the state Capitol. Party leaders are trying to convince reluctant rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers to support measures that would make it easier to fire teachers in underperforming classrooms. Teachers unions are opposed to the bills.

Izumi wondered why, instead of retread Honig, Brown didn’t appoint an innovator like Michelle Rhee. The Sacramento Bee described her approach to excellence in education:

She is nothing if not controversial.

During three and a half years as the chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, Michelle Rhee closed two dozen campuses, fired hundreds of teachers and allowed TV cameras to follow her as she battled teachers unions and canned principals.

On Tuesday, she brought that brash style to Sacramento, where in a wide-ranging conversation with The Bee’s editorial board she addressed school governance, teacher training and the general state of student preparation.

On governance: If California allowed mayors to take control of schools, Sacramento “would be in a much better place.”

On teacher training: Teacher-training schools are filled with the “lowest performing students” – better students choose other careers.

On student preparation: “We have become a little too obsessed about making kids feel good about themselves. … We have lost the competitive spirit.”

Rhee recently resigned her post because Washington, D.C.’s new mayor had campaigned against her as a sop to his major backers, the teachers’ unions, which didn’t want her reforms to continue. Rhee is engaged to marry Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

She has set up a new education reform group, It’s already partnering with Gov. Rick Scott to reform Florida’s schools. Why not California?

Rhee blogged on January 7, 2011:

I announced with Governor Rick Scott that we will help his new administration push a bold package of education reforms. Florida has made significant progress turning around schools in the last decade with strong laws requiring, for example, that every school receive a letter grade. Governor Scott shares our belief that not only do schools need report cards, but so do teachers, so that great teachers can be supported, recognized, and retained with professional salaries and protected from lay-offs. Our goal is that every student has a highly effective teacher.

With Honig now not taking a seat on the board, Brown’s pick of a replacement will be telling: a non-felonious clone of Honig? Or Rhee or someone like her?

Bye-bye “postpartisanship”

Other major Brown appointments show a similar lack of originality in dealing with the state’s immense problems. Whereas Republican ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used a “postpartisan” approach to appointments, appointing many Democrats, so far Brown  almost exclusively has picked partisan Democrats for posts.

“It does not seem that the governor is being post-partisan,” Pitney said.

Brown’s bureaucratic makeover continued on the Board of Education, where Honig will be joined by others in league with the teachers’ unions that strongly backed Brown’s gubernatorial campaign. Reported the L.A. Times:

In one of Gov. Jerry Brown‘s first official acts this week, he sacked the majority of the state Board of Education, replacing several vocal proponents of charter schools, parent empowerment and teacher accountability.

A broad range of educators, policy makers and others say the move was widely believed to be the handiwork of the California Teachers Assn., which heavily supported Brown in his gubernatorial campaign. The union’s support will be vital if he, as expected, places measures on the June ballot to temporarily raise taxes to ease the state’s budget deficit. It also appears to delay a key vote about parents’ power to reshape failing schools — an effort opposed by the union — leading to strong criticism of the governor from fellow Democrats.

Other appointees

In other areas of his administration, here are some of Brown’s top appointees:

* Nancy McFadden as executive secretary for legislation, appointments and policy. She advised Vice President Al Gore and recalled Gov. Gray Davis. Most recently, she “comes from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., where she was a senior vice president and the brains behind the PG&E-sponsored Prop. 16.” On the June 2010 ballot, according to Ballotopedia, it “would have henceforward taken a two-thirds vote of the electorate before a public agency could enter the retail power business.” PG&E spent $46 million in the losing effort.

PG&E also opposed Proposition 23 on the November 2010 ballot. It would have suspended AB32, the global-warming law that PG&E has supported. AB32 sets up a “carbon trading” system for companies. According to a Bloomberg report a month after the election:

PG&E Corp., Edison International and Sempra Energy would get carbon-dioxide permits worth hundreds of millions of dollars under California’s cap-and-trade program, according to a plan being considered by state officials.

The owners of California’s utilities would be given the permits for free to help offset higher electricity rates for consumers, according to a staff proposal of the state’s Air Resources Board. The 11-member board is meeting today in Sacramento to vote on a cap-and-trade program that cuts California’s pollution levels by 15 percent from 2012 to 2020….

Carbon allowances worth $83 billion will be issued over the nine-year span of the program, and secondary trading of the permits by companies may boost the total value of the California carbon market to $559 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates.

Small businesses directly affected by AB32 won’t get such benefits, or have such clout in Gov. Brown’s office.

* John Laird as secretary for natural resources. In 2006, The Orange County Register sent me to San Francisco to represent it at a conference on the state budget. I was on a panel that included Laird and two other politicians. Laird then was an Assemblyman from Santa Cruz. I was the only one who pointed out that the state was just spending too much, something that couldn’t last. Laird and the others defended the wild spending, and even said more taxes were OK. That was the last year before the roof fell in on California’s mid-2000s bubble economy.

Also in 2006, Laird co-authored AB32, which he will be responsible for implementing as secretary for natural resources. According to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, his appointment by Brown was:

[A] widely expected announcement that is evoking joy in environmental circles and striking fear in many Republicans….

“Any notion that Jerry Brown plans to pursue a moderate and centrist course on these issues has just flown out the window,” said Ron Nehring, chairman of the California Republican Party. “He’s reaching to the far left of the far left to fill his administration.”

Critics worry that environmental policies of the incoming administration could stifle business and economic recovery, violate individual property rights and run up public spending.

“Now is not the time for more intrusive government,” Nehring said.

Given that Nehring’s party nominated Meg Whitman, also a backer of AB32, it’s hard to see how there would have been much difference in this area had she not lost to Brown. But he’s right that those with businesses and jobs should be concerned about the Brown-Laird policies.

* Mary Nichols reappointed to head the powerful California Air Resources Board, which now is strongly implementing AB32. She actually was app0inted to the post by Brown back in 1978. And she was re-appointed to it by Schwarzenegger in 2007. Her longevity in the post makes her California’s environmental czarina.

Her major new function will be to implement California’s controversial new cap-and-trade rules stemming from AB32. Even liberal groups are criticizing her implementation so far. The Greenlining Institute wrote:

As the regulations now stand, their ultimate result could be a massive giveaway to the state’s biggest polluters. Instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the proposed rules could result in billions of dollars in windfall profits to polluting industries at the expense of California’s most vulnerable communities.

A successful cap-and-trade program relies on a strategic allocation of allowances. In that context, it is hard to grasp the strategic value of CARB’s decision to give away the overwhelming majority of carbon allowances for free to big polluters.

By giving away 90 percent of the allowances for free in the first year with no guarantee of any decline in the amount of freebies over the following years, the rules provide only very weak incentives for polluters to reduce emissions.  Worse, polluters can gain windfall profits by passing the cost of emissions reduction onto consumers, even though they are receiving the allowances for free.

* Ronald Yank as personnel director. If  any Brown pick epitomizes “personnel is policy,” it’s the person who directs personnel. Yank is a labor lawyer who has represented the powerful prison guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Combined with his stacking the school board with members favorable to the teachers’ unions — the California Teachers Association is even more powerful than the CCPOA — Yank’s appointment shows Brown is signaling how cozy he will be with the unions that backed him.

Is Jerry maneuvering?

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” said the Godfather, Don Corleone, in “The Godfather, Part II.” In Gov. Brown, Part II, his friends might also be his enemies. All the special interests whose personnel he has appointed to his administration are going to resist his proposed large budget cuts. But how hard can they object if their own people are right there next to him?

“Brown is appointing the kind of people he knows,” Pitney said. “He may also be trying to build political capital to cushion the hit he will take as a result of budget cuts.”

Brown may be telling his allies, effectively: I’m doing the best I can on the budget. On everything else — environmental rules, labor law, etc. — you can get your own way. And you’ll be helping me raise taxes. But I need you on the budget cuts.

How businesses respond will be the key factor. The jobs market remains tough nationally. Global competition is increasing. So is competition with other states. “The appointments will not exactly rebuild the state’s reputation for being business friendly,” Pitney warned.

In 2010, at least 193 businesses fled California, calculated Business Relocation Coach Joseph Vranich, almost four times the 51 that left in 2009. If that accelerating negative trend continues in 2011, even Gov. Brown’s status-quo personnel choices might not save him from entering Gray Davis Recall territory.

John Seiler is a reporter and analyst with His email: [email protected].

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