From Moonbeam to mainstream: Jerry Brown in winter
SACRAMENTO — At a morning meeting early in 1975, about three months after Jerry Brown became the youngest governor in California’s history, Brown’s chief of staff, Gray Davis, told the governor he had asked the capital’s general services staff to mend a hole in the carpet.
Brown stopped the meeting. “Do you know how much that hole has saved taxpayers,” he asked. When a legislator came to Brown’s office with his hand out, looking for money for a new project, Brown could point to the hole in the carpet as evidence that the state needed to save money.
Forty years later, when Brown offers his State of the State address Thursday for the final time during his second tenure as governor, he will be speaking to a dramatically different state than the one he first took over.
Brown’s first budget proposed $9.1 billion in discretionary spending. His proposal this year, unveiled earlier this month, would spend $131.7 billion. California’s population has doubled. Its gross domestic product has increased more than tenfold.
The political universe has changed, too, and in Brown’s direction. What were once outlandish ideas that led a Chicago columnist to dub him “Governor Moonbeam” — on alternative energy, banning the death penalty and even space exploration — are now firmly within the political mainstream.
“When you talk about solar energy, wind, geothermal, those were radical thoughts in the ’70s,” said Steve Glazer, a California state senator and Brown’s on-again, off-again political adviser who managed his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. “He got the Moonbeam label for things that you’d think were just normal today.”
“In a lot of ways, the state and the country have moved to the left,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “So what seemed like a very liberal position back then is mainstream today.”
But Jerry — there is only one Jerry in California political circles — has changed little. He is still a penny-pinching fiscal hawk, ever concerned about the state’s financial health, at times to the chagrin of his overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. His budget proposal won stronger praise from Republican legislative leaders, who praised his proposal to fill the state’s rainy day coffers to the brim, than from Democrats, who anticipate negotiations and fights over spending on new social programs.
He is still cerebral and intellectual, the man who quotes the 16th century Dutch legal scholar Hugo Grotius and the 16th century French author Michel de Montaigne not because he found a clever line in Bartlett’s but because he has read their work.
He is still acerbic and at times aloof. Even those who count him as a friend say he rarely asks after their families or offers political help. Asked recently whether he was enjoying a United Nations conference on climate change in Bonn, Germany, he deadpanned: “No, I hate everything.”
And he still keeps the counsel of a coterie of close aides and friends. He listens most to his two closest advisers, his wife Anne Gust Brown and his executive secretary — or chief of staff — Nancy McFadden. Few political advisers remain.
“He’s the same person, just older and wiser,” said Davis, who served five years as governor two decades after Brown left office. Brown will turn 80 in April.
The son of Gov. Pat Brown, whose legacy endures in the infrastructure boom of the post-war years, Jerry Brown can frustrate some of his liberal allies who care more about social services than the high-speed rail system Brown has advanced or the massive water tunnels he would like to build.
“He will talk about planes, trains, automobiles and tunnels all day long,” said Holly Mitchell, the chair of the state Senate Budget Committee. “But not people.”
If many of Brown’s positions haven’t changed over time, his ambitions have. He was once a young man in a hurry; he launched his first of three unsuccessful bids for the White House just over a year after becoming governor. He ran a second time in 1980, against an incumbent Democratic president and a man named Kennedy, a campaign he has told friends was the biggest mistake of his political career.
Brown’s last run for president, in 1992, effectively ended when Bill Clinton beat him in crucial primaries in New York and Wisconsin. One source close to Brown said he had mulled a fourth run, in 2016, but that he concluded he could not beat Hillary Clinton in a primary.
He began a long political comeback that began as mayor of Oakland, where he felt the burden of statewide regulations on local government. The experience has led to his efforts to devolve at least some control from Sacramento back to localities.
“Oakland really ground Jerry Brown to be the governor he is now,” said Xavier Becerra, the state attorney general. “He got schooled. Oakland is a tough town. It’s a great town.”
Today, Brown’s ambition seems to lie in sounding the alarm.
He is worried about the existential threat of climate change. As the Trump administration rolls back Obama-era environmental rules, Brown has become the most outspoken advocate of swift action to curb emissions, striking deals with Chinese President Xi Jingping and European leaders. He will host world leaders in San Francisco for a Climate Action Summit in September, just months before he leaves office.
He is worried about the dangers of nuclear weapons in an uncertain world. Last year, Brown wrote 3,700 words — not including eleven footnotes — reviewing former Defense Secretary William Perry’s biography of the nuclear age.
And after eight years of economic recovery, during which California went from $20 billion budget deficits to a projected $7 billion surplus, Brown is worried about a recession he sees just around the corner — one reason he wants to squirrel away half of that surplus into the rainy day fund.
“We have a whole political system that judges our executives by the state of the economy, over which they have virtually no impact,” Brown said when he rolled out his budget. “The next governor is going to be on the cliff. … What’s out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline and recession. So good luck, baby.”
Most politicians would take credit for jobs created during a recovery, or the extra money pouring into their coffers. Brown, sources close to him say, is acutely aware that he has inherited an extremely lucky circumstance that allows him to pass a healthy economy to his successor, luck he does not believe will hold.
“Other politicians may have dark foreboding images of the future, but they keep it to themselves. He doesn’t have to do that,” Pitney said. “He’s the freest man in politics.”
Brown reviles talk of his political legacy. His interest in history makes him reflective, friends say, but not necessarily introspective. But the budget turnaround, which even Brown admits is not entirely of his own doing, will be what he is remembered for after he leaves office.
“His legacy, more than any of these other things that people talk about, will be that he brought fiscal stability to the state in a way unimaginable at the time he was elected,” Glazer said.
Brown declined interview requests for this story. But those close to him over the years say they have tried, without much success, to get him to talk less in doom-and-gloom terms and more about what he can do for his state. Those advisers say his outlook is borne of his own history, and the history he began learning as a classics major at Berkeley.
During his first tenure in office, voters passed Proposition 13, vastly reducing property taxes and sending the state into fiscal oblivion. That forced Brown to cut social programs deeply while raising other taxes.
“He suffered because there was not a rainy day fund. He had to raise taxes. He had to make enormous cuts. So it’s out of practical and personal experiences that make him very careful on spending,” Glazer said. “Combine that with his longer-term view of the world and events and it creates a little bit of pessimism about the ability of the human race to act responsibly.”
The young man in a hurry has also evolved into a politician who sees little value in having his name in the paper. During his first stint in office, he was known to share a glass of wine with reporters at David’s Brass Rail, a bar that once sat across the street from the Capitol. Now, he rarely interacts with the media, and sources say he had to be pushed early in his third term to hold brown-bag lunch sessions with reporters.
If Brown has missed an opportunity, it is to shape those who come after him in his own mold. In a state as big as California, progress takes decades.
“Real change takes more than one governor,” Davis said. “I believe in the theory of relay races. One governor can plant a flag. The next governor has to make sure it’s implemented.”
The race to replace Brown includes many ambitious younger Democrats, eager at a platform that could be a launching pad to the presidency. Neither of the two leading contenders, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), have pledged the same sort of fiscal restraint that is the cornerstone of Brown’s legacy.
“He hasn’t taken his style of governing, his philosophy, and tried to imbue it in the leaders that will follow him,” Glazer said. “If you’re trying to create a legacy, that’s the opportunity that you really do have, is trying to build a philosophy of governing that will carry on long beyond the deterioration of the asphalt or the rails of the high speed trains. He’s never tried to do that, and I think it’s the biggest missed opportunity.”
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