Just five days into his latest term in the Sacramento statehouse, California governor Jerry Brown announced that he was cutting $6.4 million from offices controlled by the executive branch, including his own. In a state facing a $26.6 billion deficit, the sliver of a sacrifice was a symbolic maneuver; preparing to argue with California’s Republicans for a tax hike to help close the hole, Brown was showing that frugality starts at home. He eliminated the office of the First Lady, ended the $1.9 million-a-year secretary of education position, downsized his D.C. staff, closed field offices, and—as promised in a debate with his moneyed-up 2010 opponent, Meg Whitman—cut his press and communications staff.
“Cut” might not be strong enough a term for what Brown did to the press shop, actually. “Slashed” works better. Or “hacked.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s press operation was a Hollywood-style thing: separate press and communications offices that included, at their peaks, about seventeen total staffers. The slimmed-down Jerry Brown outfit has three: press secretary Gil Duran and two deputies (plus up to three interns at a time and a fellow).
The idea, says Duran, who has been in the top job for just over two months, is “about having what you need. If everybody works hard, we have adequate staff.” It’s a byproduct of Brown’s more as-it-comes philosophy. “Some people think they can control every news cycle and how things are perceived,” says Duran. “We simply focus on getting the governor’s message out. I think we’re more a traditional press shop.”
Sacramento’s press corps—itself cut, slashed, and hacked in recent years—has had to adjust. For the most part, the capital’s reporters seem pleased to see things getting “back to normal,” a return to the pre-Arnie days when reporters could catch the governor in the halls of the Capitol or swilling bourbon after hours at the Torch Club. But there are grumbles about a slower flow of information out of the newly svelte press office and its effects on transparency. And nearly all wonder how well the governor’s press trio will serve them when a bumper news cycle hits. In scandal-rich California, that test is likely to come sooner rather than later.
In some ways, Jerry Brown doesn’t need a press office at all, big or small. Brown is like his own press shop—and always has been—personally returning calls, happy to give frank if shrewd comment. He’s been back in office just three months and a number of reporters are already enjoying the retro vibes he’s brought to the capital. Unlike the celebrity governor who was perennially encircled by his entourage, Brown is out and about in town, striding down the corridors in the Horseshoe—the section of the Capitol that houses his office—and just as available for a quick comment or long spiel as he was while in office in the late seventies and early eighties.
“It sort of reminds me of every other governor besides Schwarzenegger,” says Bob Salladay, a senior editor at California Watch who covers Sacramento. Salladay, who worked for the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle before joining California Watch, recalls the days when governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis were often seen walking Sacramento’s alphabet streets. “My editor almost ran Pete Wilson over crossing the street in the capital,” says Salladay. Brown seems to operate in much the same free and visible way—nearly every reporter I spoke to mentioned a time they’d snatched the governor in a hallway for comment or spotted him out. Schwarzenegger, who would stay at the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento, took a car from the Capitol building to the hotel’s doors, half a block away.
Schwarzenegger and Brown’s style differences are just as pronounced when you get either man in front of you, say reporters. At press conferences, the former governor would take three to four questions before bowing out; the current governor spoke for forty-five minutes at his budget unveiling. One-on-one, some say, it’s just as hard to stop him.
Duran says the governor’s personality is a significant part of the reason the press office can function with such a small staff. Schwarzenegger’s communications office focused heavily on creating events around policy initiatives—sometimes using cheesy set pieces like fountains flowing with red ink to underscore the point—and the governor liked to be well prepared with detailed briefings. Brown prefers events that others have put together and likes to fly off the cuff when he attends them. There is just as much work, Duran and his staffers say, it’s just focused differently.