California city’s mess a golden opportunity for Jerry Brown?

July 26, 2010

Democrat Jerry Brown has taken some heat, even within his own party, for his seemingly minimalist campaign for California Jerry_Browngovernor — which so far has involved few rallies, speeches or even TV commercials — and which some say has allowed Republican Meg Whitman to make critical inroads with Latinos and other voting blocs in a race with national political implications.

Meanwhile supporters are quick to point out that Brown, the state’s attorney general, must husband his resources against Whitman, a billionaire who is  largely bankrolling her own campaign — and can’t possibly hope to match the former eBay CEO ad for ad all the way until the November election.

But political experts say a scandal involving the the massive salaries being paid to local officials in the small Los Angeles suburb of Bell, California — while potentially bad news for state and even local taxpayers – may have given Brown just the shot in the arm he needs.

The furor involves revelations first reported in the Los Angeles Times that some officials in Bell are earning inexplicably large salaries and pensions. City Manager Robert Rizzo, who was earning nearly $800,000 a year  and stands to collect more than $30 million in pension payments over the course of his lifetime, according to some calculations, resigned last week  amid the public uproar.

The story has touched a nerve in California, a state facing a budget shortfall in the tens of billions of dollars,  and suddenly Brown, in his role as attorney general, is everywhere:  announcing investigations, issuing subpoenas and holding standing-room-only press conferences that appear on the local news in Los Angeles — the state’s largest media market.

“How lucky can you get?” said USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, who attended Brown’s latest press conference in Los Angeles on Monday. “Jerry Brown is going to get a lot of mileage out of the problems in Bell and other California cities.  This is a matter of luck and timing for Jerry Brown, but politics is a matter of luck and timing.”

And Bebitch Jeffe pointed out that, as attorney general, Brown is expected to pursue such matters aggressively.  His nightly appearances on the local news don’t cost him a dime, but potentially worth the equivalent of millions in paid advertising if the scandal drags on for months. Whitman, on the other hand, can do little but stand by and watch. As a former Silicon Valley CEO, she has no real standing to launch an investigation of her own.

Brown, asked by reporters if he was investigating the situation in Bell so aggressively  to score points in the governor’s race, dismissed such suggestions. “A lot of people have said my campaign is too quiet,” he said. “But I have been doing my job as attorney general.”

Bebitch Jeffe  cautions that voters won’t be going to the poll for more thanthree months and that the Bell scandal could backfire for Brown if he doesn’t handle it well, but for now, she said, “Its like a very early Christmas present.”

Photo credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser (Jerry Brown at a press conference in April)

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/