Three Reasons Why Jerry Needs Molly

The LA Times editorial page is the latest entity to buy the line Gov. Jerry Brown is selling: that temporary tax initiative backed by civil rights lawyer Molly Munger and the state PTA is hurting his own temporary tax initiative.

The Times, Munger's hometown paper, published an editorial today urging her to "stand down" and drop her measure.

Fat chance, given that Munger has already spent millions on the signatures to qualify the measure. But Brown and backers of his measure also should be careful what they wish for. Yes, having competing tax measures on the ballot could be a problem in November. But so far, Munger's initiative has been helpful to Brown, for at least three reasons.

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1. The competition from Munger's measure has kept scrutiny off Brown's own measure.

The governor's measure is a complicated mess -- a temporary tax that hurts the budget long-term because it's tied to a constitutional guarantee of funding. It creates a separate fund for education but doesn't do that much more for education. And it is built upon the existing, broken budget system.

Without Munger's measure, scrutiny would focus on all these aspects of Brown's measure. But with Munger pursuing initiative, the focus has been on the political competition between the two initiatives, and between Brown and the wealthy lawyer.

2. Munger makes a perfect foil.

Munger, whom I've known since childhood, is a passionately progressive lawyer with a huge heart. But she's easily caricatured as a rich lady from Pasadena and from the wealthy Munger family. The caricature sells particularly well with people who aren't from Southern California and don't know her. That includes most of the Sacramento-based community of consultants, policymakers and politicians who dominate the conversation. Munger has been portrayed as a wealthy interloper who is interfering with Uncle Jerry's grand plan (which isn't really grand or a plan). She's actually a brilliant advocate who knows as much as anyone alive about education funding in California (but not very much about California politics and governance).

3. The fact that Munger's measure polls so poorly obscures the political difficulties that Brown's measure has.

For political analysts and reporters, the Munger-Brown contest is easily framed as a contest between a measure with no chance (Munger's initiative is well under 50 percent in most polls) and Brown's, which has a chance. That's obscured the fact that Brown's measure, while it has over 50 percent, is in a very vulnerable position. That misimpression is helpful to Brown's fundraising and to the campaign for the measure.

Remove Munger's initiative, and Brown's measure will quickly look worse -- both as a matter of policy and politics.

The governor might be wise to keep up the fight with Munger -- but don't be so tough as to drive her from the race.

Jerry needs Molly, at least right now.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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