War of the words

The Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters’ résumé boasts nearly four decades of attacking Gov. Jerry Brown. Newspapers up and down the state syndicate his column—is Walters the new spokesman for an otherwise fragmented California GOP?

The Sunday before this fall’s election, Dan Walters suggested that Gov. Jerry Brown would finally retire if Proposition 30 didn’t pass. Wrong again.

The Sunday before this fall’s election, Dan Walters suggested that Gov. Jerry Brown would finally retire if Proposition 30 didn’t pass. Wrong again.

Photo illustration by Priscilla Garcia

Don’t look now, but one of the longest-lasting vendettas in California political history is playing out right here in the River City.

Last May, newcomers to the Sacramento press corps—not exactly a small number these days—were surprised to see a press-conference confrontation between veteran Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Walters, eager for the past 30-plus years to hang crepe over Brown’s political career, demanded to know why the governor’s revised budget numbers were any more credible than the numbers rolled out in January.

“Why should we believe you?” Walters insisted, acting as though the upward revision to the state-budget deficit was surprising. Which it was not, as Brown and other state officials had been commenting for months on emerging shortfalls.

All one had to do, frankly, was add up various statements to get to Brown’s “surprise” May revised figure. Which is especially easy to do for someone like Walters, who writes almost every day about Capitol politics.

But the conflict, which continued on Twitter between Walters and the governor’s press secretary, Gil Duran, was also no real surprise.

Walters has a very long history of attacking Gov. Brown, going back to the beginning of his career in the mid-1970s as a columnist and reporter for the far-right Sacramento Union newspaper. Yes, Walters has been doing the same job, writing about the same things for nearly 40 years. Given the frequently mind-numbing state of state politics, that is a rather frightening thought.

He has used the perch afforded him by a near-daily column, albeit a brief one of about 400 words, to go after Brown’s top policy priorities. The governor’s moves to raise taxes on the rich, balance the budget, recast local and state agencies, control greenhouse-gas emissions, expand renewable energy, build a high-speed-rail system—all are fodder for Walters’ attacks.

More recently, Walters prophesied doom for Brown’s Proposition 30 tax-hike initiative, speculating the Sunday before it passed that Brown would have to retire.

In general, the columnist has done what a sophisticated state Republican spokesman would do, if there were such a person. Today, the California Republican Party—whose chairman, Tom Del Beccaro, became best known in 2006-07 for trying to prevent Brown from becoming state attorney general on the grounds that he wasn’t really a lawyer—is in serious organizational disarray. It lacks a credible central voice.

In the absence of that, Dan Walters will certainly do.

Birth of a Brown basher

Dan Walters regularly hits Brown on the major issues of most concern to the Republican Party and its financial backers. And for those who are unaware of the backstory, he does so with credibility.

While many in the capital city remember the history of Walters and his writings and know where he is coming from, many do not. Perhaps more to the point: Walters’ column is syndicated in smaller newspapers all over the state. It’s very regular and its small size makes it easy to fit into many formats.

Walters, not surprisingly, isn’t too excited about discussing all this. He hasn’t returned calls.

He began in journalism in what today would be a very unusual way: He dropped out of high school “because it interfered with [his] poker playing,” as he told the Times-Standard newspaper of Eureka, up on the far North Coast. He joined what was then the Eureka Times as a copy boy in 1960 and later worked for a variety of smaller papers, including a return stint at the Eureka paper in the early ’70s, this time as managing editor, before joining the right-leaning Sacramento Union as political writer and columnist in 1975.

The Union was owned by right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, a principal heir to an oil and banking fortune, who was one of the main national financiers for a network of conservative influencers and who played a major role in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Walters shifted over to The Sacramento Bee in 1984 as part of the paper’s long-term strategy to make Sacramento a one-daily town. He had been a popular conservative columnist in the city’s other daily newspaper, so removing Walters from the Union and adding him to the then-liberal Bee was a useful move for the Bee in its effort to attain a daily-paper monopoly.

Nevertheless, despite such Machiavellian moves by the Bee, the Union—the oldest daily west of the Mississippi River, for which the great Mark Twain wrote much of his most famous journalistic work—hung around for another 10 years.

But while the Bee did not encourage Walters, as the Union did, to expose supposedly nefarious linkages between left-wing groups and the Democratic Party, it did not discourage him from pursuing his stock-in-trade hobbyhorse of Brown bashing. Indeed, during a memorable pressroom blowout years ago at a California Democratic Party convention, then-Los Angeles Times senior political writer John Balzar heatedly accused Walters of “building his entire career” on bashing Brown.

Balzar, an ex-Marine and Vietnam War vet who was one of the last of the literary journalists at the Times during its heyday, insisted that Walters had latched on to Brown “like a moray eel” in his zeal to tear down the then-former governor.

Given the vagaries of archiving in the digital era, most of Walters’ fervently flavorful work for the Union, though well remembered, is lost in the cracks of the journalistic past. The newspaper is dead, and there is no memorial to it, its quarters long gone, its presence vanished, though bound copies are stored at UC Davis.

The Union was never online, and hence has no online archive, even via the WayBack Machine.

The Sacramento Public Library does have much of the old Union on microfiche. However, it is essentially inaccessible. (I was told by a library staffer that volunteers back in the 1990s helped set up the system, producing a card file of articles in it. But the card file is very incomplete, with remarkably few references to Brown—who was merely the governor for eight years!—or to the work of Walters, the ultraconservative outlet’s leading columnist. It would take $20,000, I was told, to do a full index of the paper, and the still-terrific public-library system is already dealing with terrible cutbacks.)

But not to fear, for one of the great things about Walters and his work is that he repeats it.

California dreamin’

Walters began working for the Bee in 1984, and despite the paper’s more liberal aspect, he continues many of his old Union themes.

This is quite true with respect to Brown, especially obvious during Walters’ early years at the Bee, during which he was freewheeling in unleashing his venomous feelings for a politician he plainly loathed.

In these years, as in the 1990s—with the very conservative Gov. George Deukmejian, who in today’s GOP would be a sedate moderate conservative—Walters believed that California was destined to remain a Republican state.

He also was a special cheerleader for the corporate, conservative governorship of Pete Wilson. Walters told me several times during the ’90s that Gov. Wilson had created a “new model” for ongoing Republican dominance of the state’s electoral politics. (Wilson himself was to go on to mount a false-starting 1996 presidential campaign, hamstrung by revelations that the governor himself had long employed an illegal immigrant in his San Diego home.)Brown’s governorship was thus positioned by Walters as a freakish, fluky oddity, notwithstanding the then-wunderkind pol’s 20-point landslide of a gubernatorial re-election in 1978 after his late-starting, runner-up race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.

What was really happening, of course, was that California was moving in a very different direction than Walters supposed, driven by emerging demographics in addition to changing cultural mores and ideological attitudes.

The Golden State had been the cradle of Republican presidents, producing first Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan, who defeated Brown’s storied father, Gov. Pat Brown, to win office in 1966, and whom Brown had replaced as governor the first time. But that was changing fast.

By 1992, the state had moved into the Democratic column in the Electoral College. Clinton, behind whom Brown finished as runner-up for the Democratic nomination that year, won California handily. And it has remained Democratic in every presidential election since, so much so that Mitt Romney came here only to raise money from rich conservatives and to visit his beachside car elevator in La Jolla in San Diego.

Walters saw things differently. Even as California grew blue, he insisted that Wilson’s governorship presaged an ongoing Republican future for California. It did not.

A Republican did win the governorship later on. But that Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was one unlike any other, a frequent maverick of sometimes kaleidoscopic ideology—more like a Republican version of, well, Brown, than Wilson, Deukmejian or Reagan.

Neither Walters nor Schwarzenegger, who publicly chided the columnist for his dour attitude, warmed to one another.

Walters urged Schwarzenegger aides, for instance, not to make Mary Nichols head of the Air Resources Board, which she had directed during Brown’s first governorship and where she would be the principal action officer on California’s landmark Assembly Bill 32 climate-change program, a frequent Walters target. But to no avail. Nichols went on to play a crucial role implementing A.B. 32 and was retained by Brown.

During Brown’s first time as governor, Walters was a lead dog in the pack baying after Brown. The Union, with Mellon Scaife writing the checks and Walters delivering the prose, was deeply antithetical to Brown and most other Democrats.

As Brown’s most persistent journalistic opponent, situated in California’s capital, Walters was a leading voice in the chorus that created and then decried the notion of “Moonbeam” Brown. Not that Walters coined that memorable term.

There are, after all, reasons they called him Governor Moonbeam. There are also reasons why hard-boiled Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who came up with the term, tried to disavow it, indeed dismantle it. (In 1991 Royko called it an “idiotic, damn-fool, meaningless, throw-away line” and, in exasperation, tried to kill off his brainchild. “Enough of this ’Moonbeam’ stuff,” he wrote. “I declare it null, void and deceased.”)

But the moniker stuck, as did the notion, comfortable for some, that Brown’s ideas promoting renewable energy (“wood chips and windmills”!) and a state communications satellite were simply wacky.

When Brown resurfaced—after stints as a lawyer, poverty worker with Mother Teresa in India and student of Zen Buddhism in Japan—first as California Democratic Party chairman, then as a presidential candidate, Walters was waiting.

During Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign, Walters appeared in a faux exposé story on ABC News that alleged a Brown drug scandal, saying he had been at a Brown fundraiser where drugs were used (it later turned out to have been an Eagles concert where—gasp!—some attendees in the huge crowd smoked pot). No more was heard of the supposed drug scandal, and Brown ended as the distant runner-up for the Democratic nomination to Clinton.

But Walters had gotten on Nightline.

A (more than) 30-year war

In the world of Walters, there is little for which Brown can’t be blamed, no matter the outcome. The columns of today and those of 30 years ago, even at the “liberal” Bee, make a match in that regard.

Brown, of course, in his varied career, went on to two terms as mayor of Oakland and a term as California’s attorney general. Then, he cleared the Democratic primary field for the governorship in 2010 and went on to a win over GOP opponent Meg Whitman 54 percent to 41 percent. And Walters quickly emerged as the not-so-loyal opposition.

The Sunday before this fall’s election, Dan Walters suggested that Gov. Jerry Brown would finally retire if Proposition 30 didn’t pass. Wrong again.

Photo illustration by Priscilla Garcia

Brown spent most of the first half-year of his governorship enacting big budget cuts and working to get the handful of Republican legislative votes needed to place an extension on the temporary 2009 tax hikes. But Republicans, who must be kicking themselves now that Brown’s Prop. 30 has passed and Democrats have two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature, kept pressing for more in their dealings. And now, they’ve ended up with nothing.

Walters kicked off 2012 with a New Year’s Day column calling Brown a failure as governor.

“Brown claimed that having spent his adult life in politics and already served two terms as governor,” Walters wrote, “he had the experience and knowledge to succeed where others had failed.

“Wrong, at least so far.

“Although Brown had spent eight years as attorney general prior to seeking the governorship again [note: Walters managed to get the number of years Brown served as California attorney general wrong, despite the fact that Brown’s single term in that office just ended at the beginning of last year], he had spent very little time in the Capitol and, therefore, appears to have been shocked that it had become institutionally impotent.”

I interviewed Brown during his negotiations with Republican legislators, and he was not “shocked.” He hoped to do a deal if he found four reasonable Republicans. Failing that, he would do an initiative and place it not on a special-election ballot, but on the 2012 general-election ballot, when President Barack Obama headed the ticket.

While Brown’s plan A of getting Republican cooperation failed, to Brown’s dismay, his plan B—after some floundering during the Prop. 30 campaign itself—proved to be a great success.

Walters, of course, would weigh in repeatedly about Brown’s boneheaded fiscal ways before this definitive result (which, not surprisingly, he would pooh-pooh).

In a Sunday column on September 16, Walters went after Brown again for his Prop. 30 initiative, claiming that his forecasts were wrong and that the initiative had “a dark side.” But Walters gave his conservative game away in his close, in which he says that “self-styled reformer” Brown should prove his reform bona fides by cutting taxes for the rich and big corporations.

Walters wrote: “Were Brown as committed to long-term impacts as he professes to be, he’d have embraced tax reform to make the state’s revenue stream more predictable and less dependent on how well a few rich people are doing on their investments. He would broaden the reach of sales and income taxes and reduce rates to make California more attractive to business investment.”

This blame game echoes Walters’ work at the Union decades earlier.

For instance, on December 10, 1984, Walters baldly faulted Brown, who opposed Proposition 13, for the decline of California schools, letting the proponents of Prop. 13 off the hook:

“California’s system of public schools, once its pride and strength, suffered terribly in the shift from local to state financing after Proposition 13. Jerry Brown was largely disinterested in the schools and allowed them to languish, without adequate financing or political support.”

For another easy example, on December 27, 1984, Walters fingered Brown for the entire tax-loophole phenomenon, a favorite of both parties but especially the Republicans. Walters, presenting then-President Reagan and conservative Gov. Deukmejian as “tax reformers,” extolled Deukmejian’s proposal for a flat tax, long a favorite of conservatives, as the way to go.

Meanwhile, Walters’ enmity for renewable energy—he frequently rips the state’s landmark programs, including those in support of efforts to halt so-called global warming—has long been on display.

Just a day after reveling in the notion of Reagan the tax reformer, Walters trashed renewable energy, in particular wind energy—now a mainstay of new power systems around the world—insisting that the move away from fossil fuels didn’t make sense.

“It all started in 1978 when California’s Legislature, as part of then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s alternative energy program, voted to give wind energy investments a liberal tax treatment.

“Congress followed suit in 1980, expanding the tax breaks. Wind farms became tax shelters with other investment credits, depreciation allowances, etc.

“The technology works—after a fashion. One can stick a windmill in the air and get a spark of electricity from the other end, but it’s a technology that could not survive in a competitive market without the subsidies. And it’s a technology that probably doesn’t make much sense now, except in remote areas where power is otherwise unavailable.”

Of course, helping label wind energy in California, then the world leader, as something that “doesn’t make much sense” is what helped other nations emerge as world leaders in the field. Even Texas was to surpass California in wind energy, until Schwarzenegger reversed that bizarre phenomenon at the end of his term.

Not long after Brown’s first two terms as governor, Walters, noting his active post-governorship of think tanks and help for potential allies, vehemently insisted that Brown had no future in politics.

Walters commemorated Thanksgiving 1984 by trashing Brown as the Democratic Harold Stassen.

His holiday communiqué betrayed little knack for prognostication: “Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s difficult to accept, therefore, that it’s been 10 years since a rather odd young man got himself elected governor of California.

“Edmund Gerald Brown Jr., known to his friends as Jerry Brown and his detractors as ’Pat’s kid,’ parlayed an instinct for media-mongering, public preoccupation with Watergate and his famous name into a narrow victory over Republican Houston Flournoy in the 1974 election.

“Talking vaguely about a ’new spirit,’ Brown loaded his staff with a batch of ex-poverty lawyers and continued to play to the media with symbols of what he called ’an era of limits.’ …

“In 1982, with his governorship stumbling to an end (he would leave office with a billion-dollar-plus hole in the state budget), Brown tried to capture a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by another well-known bumbler, Republican S.I. Hayakawa. …

“Jerry Brown, you see, still believes he has a political career. … He thinks somebody out there still cares about him and his political meanderings.

“The Republicans used to have a boy-wonder governor who didn’t know when to quit. His name was Harold Stassen.”

Unfortunately, Walters’ assertions about the impending political demise of Brown aren’t limited to the 1980s and 1990s.

For even in the 2010 election—which, of course, featured the despised Brown—Walters insisted that California’s blue hue wasn’t really true.

Battle, onward

Dan Walters began 2010, the year of the big Democratic wave in California, opining about the Golden State that “the only real certainty is that its predilection is uncertain,” saying that it could be a very big Republican year for California.

It was a big Republican year, all right. In reverse.

Despite waging the biggest-spending nonpresidential campaign in American history, billionaire Meg Whitman lost to Brown in a landslide as the Democrats swept every statewide office.

Naturally, Walters’ disdain for Brown and his trademark issues, such as renewable energy, hasn’t gone away, despite its vindication over the past few decades.

On May 21 of this year, Walters again derided renewables, placing the word in quotation marks as he decried the state’s sweeping program.

“A major component of California’s crusade against global warming, one started by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and embraced by successor Jerry Brown, is the legal mandate to have 33 percent of electric power sales from ’renewable sources’ by 2020.”

Not surprisingly, Walters’ dogged embrace of the old-energy economy extends to his vehement opposition to high-speed rail.

Distortion and some soft reporting led to a false meme, based on a Field Poll, that getting high-speed rail going would kill Brown’s Prop. 30 initiative. Ironically, the people who were pushing this meme were mostly opponents not only of high-speed rail, but also of raising taxes on the rich. Principal among them was Walters.

The columnist also was prominent in his silent stance on the massive money laundering that infested the No on 30 campaign. For someone who writes almost every day, it was a huge omission.

But Walters did devote a column to the evil of educators, eyeing more big cuts if the initiative failed, urging a yes vote on Prop. 30.

Brown had signed into law a new online voter-registration system, and young voters signed up in droves. Walters also wondered why Brown was wasting his time campaigning on college campuses. But polling private and public showed that many of them knew little about Prop. 30 and were undecided. Hence, Brown campaigned heavily with college students.

The Sunday before the election, Walters suggested that Brown would retire, finally, if Prop. 30. didn’t pass.

Of course, as you’ve seen, Walters has a very long history of saying Brown’s career is over or close to over.

And while Brown’s campaign for Prop. 30 went right up to the edge of the abyss, which is a story in itself, it then soared across.

Not surprisingly, Walters, after writing that Brown’s career would likely be ended by a Prop. 30 defeat, dismissed its big win even as the Legislative Analyst’s Office declared that it had ended the state’s chronic budget crisis and would lead to budget surpluses, assuming Brown holds the line on spending (as he has and as he vows to do).

One thing’s for sure: You can’t say Dan Walters is not consistent.