Gov. Brown Skeptical of More Affirmative Action, Anti-Corruption Laws

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Gov. Jerry Brown interviewed by KQED senior politics editor John Myers
Gov. Jerry Brown is interviewed by KQED senior politics editor John Myers. (Monica Lam/KQED) (Monica Lam, KQED)

Gov. Jerry Brown says he believes that some degree of additional affirmative action is needed in admissions to California colleges and universities, but that there are both substantial legal and political hurdles to making it happen.

"I think we have to strive in whatever way we can, under existing law, to have a fair system of admissions," said Brown in a wide-ranging interview with KQED News.

The governor's comments come both on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a ban on affirmative action in Michigan, and debate inside the California Legislature over a proposed ballot measure to reinstate the state’s affirmative action law — nixed by voters with Proposition 209 in 1996.

Brown expressed doubt on the effectiveness of new laws to curb political corruption, in the wake of a trio of scandals that have rocked the state Capitol over the last few months.

And he defended his administration's approach to fracking, a hotly debated method of oil drilling that uses high-pressure water to loosen underground oil deposits.


The governor also touched on the debate over a new state budget reserve fund, the debate over entrenched poverty in California, and his own style of politics and governing.

No Easy Path for Expanded Affirmative Action

Brown said he believes the April 22 ruling on the Michigan case by the nation’s highest court "shut the door" on any kind of new or expanded racial preferences — unless those rules are enacted by voters.

"It's not at all clear that if you put it on the ballot, that it could be passed," he said in the interview.

Brown has long defended affirmative action policies, including during his time as attorney general.

"I do think that because of where we are in the gaps between the races, I think we need some degree of affirmative action," he said.

The governor acknowledged the deep divisions that surfaced during the brief legislative debate over a proposed constitutional amendment to reinstate affirmative action in higher education and contracting in California. But he characterized any effort to bridge that gap as "chancy."

"It's never going to be perfect," said Brown.

'If It's Done Too Directly, Then It's Called Bribery'

The governor's skepticism over systemic change also extends to curbing corruption inside the halls of the state Capitol. Two state senators now face federal charges stemming from corruption stings, and a prominent Sacramento lobbyist was fined for holding political fundraisers at his home that included gifts beyond the limit allowed for legislators to accept.

"Every decade or so, there are scandals," said Brown. "It's where you draw the line, and some people go over the line as it's drawn, and they get into trouble."

The governor also gave voice to what others have pointed out, and what legislative leaders have tried to explain to their colleagues: the thin line between right and wrong.

"If it's done too directly, then it's called bribery," said Brown. "If it's done a little less directly, then it's called corruption. If it's done even less directly, it's called influence. And if it's done even more remotely, I guess it's just the hurly-burly of American politics."

Brown Fights Back on Fracking

Few issues have hounded Brown more among his base of environmental groups than fracking, the oil-drilling method that could be expanded in California to reach a massive underground shale deposit  — a method some critics want banned.

The hounding of the governor has been, at times, like a traveling protest show. "Fracktivist" groups have trailed him across the state ever since last year's signing of a law to study fracking's effects while allowing it to continue under new regulations. He's been lobbied by interest groups, Hollywood celebrities and others to impose a fracking moratorium

Brown defends the decision to study and regulate fracking as the right one.

"I haven't heard a moratorium on driving," the governor said. "Most of that is fed by petroleum. So if it doesn't come out of the ground in California, it's got to come on a boat or on a train. And that has pollution, has dangers. So we need a balance here."

A Stealth Re-election Campaign?

Voters will first weigh in on June 2 as to whether to give Jerry Brown a record-setting fourth term. But expect to see the governor doing as little actual campaigning as possible.

Instead, Brown seems poised to run a campaign that centers on governing, on staying out of the fray — regardless of which Republican wins one of the two slots on the fall ballot.

"Everybody wants change," said Brown. "But we also like continuity."

That may not be a slogan that's necessarily ready for a political bumper sticker, but it's a theme that voters are likely to hear a lot of from Brown between now and Nov. 3.

"Tradition does have a value," he said, sitting in a chair in the parlor of the historic governor's mansion in Sacramento. "I think it is good to view the present through the lenses of the past."

The mansion, now a state parks museum, has become one of Brown's favorite haunts around the capital city. He's used it for private dinners with legislators and, most recently, to celebrate his birthday with cousins who hail from the rural areas around his family's ranch in Colusa County.

"I find certain strength, orientation and clarity by thinking about where we came from," he said.

The governor, asked whether he'd offer specific ideas for voters considering whether to give him another term, led the conversation instead to his zeal for continuing to oversee policy changes already underway — from changes to the state budget process to 2011's realignment of public safety, and last year's shift of education dollars to focus on children from low-income or English-learner backgrounds.

"In many ways, I'm looking at decentralization as a big idea," said Brown. "And I want to manage it. I want to inspire good action at the local level."

And invoking the oft-stated Brown mantra of government limits (a doctrine which doesn't, though, seem to apply in the case of public works projects like water conveyance and high-speed rail), the governor argues his job is not to simply create new rules and regulations.

"The role of the governor can be as much persuasive as coercive," he said. "Laws and taxes are coercive, but rhetoric and inspiration can be persuasive. And I want to balance those two powers."


More of the conversation with Gov. Brown can be heard Friday afternoon on the weekly news magazine edition of  "The California Report" and seen Friday night on "KQED Newsroom."