Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. has been absent from this state capital for 96 of the past 100 days, and the prevailing view here is that state government is running fine without him.
The megastate of California, with its 22.7 million people and a budget larger than those of all but six nations of the world, functions efficiently "on automatic pilot," Brown told Lt. Gov. Mike Curb when he set forth on his presidential campaign.
In an interview last week during one of his rare days in Sacramento, Brown said he had "constant communication" with the capital when he was gone and looked forward the day when a far-away governor could keep up with developments in his home office by two-way video, the way space men do in "Star Trek."
But for the present, Brown is taking a lot of needling from those who think he should spend more time here. A recent Sacramento Bee column referred to Brown as "Edmund G. Absent Jr." The paper's state capital bureau chief, Lee Fremstead, says that Brown's administration amounts to "government by telephone."
Bureaucrats, legislators and reporters have taken to calling Brown's chief of staff, Gray Davis, either the "surrogate governor" or "Gov. Davis," appellations that Davis is said to have done little to discourage.
"Obviously, there's a vacuum, and I've tried to fill it and to give what happens a sense of order and structure, but, as always, it's Jerry's ideas that drive the government," Davis said.
Some of Brown's aides make it sound as if there was so much to be said for the governor's absence from Sacramento that the presidential campaign would have to be invented, if it didn't already exist.
"We're more organized than when he's here because we're conscious of the need to be," says legal affairs adviser J. Anthony Kline.
Davis says, in effect, that Brown's absences allow his staff to get some work done.
"When he's here, it takes an enormous amount of time to attend to his needs," says Davis. "'Sign this. Read that. Answer this phone call.'"
Davis, who presides over most of Brown's cabinet meetings even when the governor is in Sacramento, says that the cabinet now can work long hours without interruption.
"One of our cabinet meetings on energy went on seven hours," Davis says, "I'm lucky to get 15 minutes in there at a time when the governor's here. When he's here, we're more of a servicing organization."
Even Brown's critics -- and they are numerous in Sacremento -- acknowledge that the governor's office has functioned efficiently since Brown left Sacramento Sept. 14, not to return again until a one-day stopover Dec. 13.
For one thing, Brown is essentially an idea man, one who shrinks from decision-making and administrative detail. Those who hold this view, and it is popular in the higher reaches of the bureaucracy, say that many of Brown's most interesting ideas have never taken firm shape and that his absence gives his staff the opportunity to develop them.
"We have a warehouse of ideas," says Davis. "Our long suit always has been ideas. Our shortcomings have been in staffing and carrying out those ideas."
The good cheer that Brown's absenteeism has spawned is in part explained by the nature of California government itself. The state's civil service system is second only to the federal government's in independent operating authority; California has as well a tradition of public service and very little patronage.
"This is a highly sophisticated, capable bureaucracy," says one of its members who has served under three governors, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Ronald Reagan and the incumbent, Jerry Brown. "Decisions are taken within rather narrow guidelines and they tend to come out much the same" no matter who occupies the governor's office, he said.
Some Brown critics go further: the governor, they argue, provides so little leadership that it doesn't matter if he is in Sacramento or on the road.
Martin Huff, the outgoing executive director of the State Franchise Tax Board and a former legislative aide, is a liberal Democrat who rates Brown below Reagan in performance and far below Pat Brown.
"State government needs leadership, the bureaucracy needs leadership," says Huff. "It makes a difference whether a governor cares. Brown doesn't seem to care about anything, whether he's here or not."
Not everyone agrees, of course, that it makes no difference to California's welfare whether Brown is in Sacramento or on the road. A highly placed civil servant, who respects Brown's mind but not always his performance, says: "You can't master the budget in two days, and Brown hasn't mastered it. It is true that the state kind of runs itself, but leadership is needed." i
Republican Lt. Gov. Curb, with his own eye on the governorship, offers a barbed, mixed assessment.
"There's no question the day-to-day actions are there," Curb says. "What we're missing is the statesmanship. I don't see the long-range planning that a full-time governor would provide."
B is much ado about nothing. He reminds reporters that he has been in other parts of California, usually Los Angeles, for nearly 60 days of his absence from the capital and adds:
"It's baloney. When I was here, people said I didn't delegate. Now they say I'm not on the job. It's a commentary that lacks any depth."
Even those who find the Brown administration's present performance effective believe the situation could change in January, when the Legislature returns.
"Without the Legislature here, Gov. Brown's absence hasn't made much difference," says Thomas Willoughby a respected 19-year legislative aide. "Gray deals with things on a systematic basis, while Gov. Brown deals with things that interest him. Gray has an administrative discipline, and administrators prefer decisions rather than contact with the governor. But the legislators will want to talk to the governor, not Gray Davis."
For now, however, Sacramento seems happy when Brown is out of town. Last week, a Brown staff aide complained to a friend that the governor's presence in town for two days of budget work "upset the routine we have established without him."
As the aide's friend put it afterward: "They have the consistency of Jerry Brown's absence to work with."