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The Man of Tomorrow: As Jerry Brown Leaves Office, He's Still Focused on the Future

Unlike most politicians, California's outgoing governor has made planning ahead a staple of his leadership -- even if it means going against his own party.

Most politicians are short-term thinkers. Their desire to cut ribbons and get programs up and running means that few of them spend much time thinking about anything beyond the next campaign. Right now, however, there is at least one exception. Jerry Brown, as he completes his final term running California at age 80, is looking far into the future, governing in the belief that many of the state’s most important problems are ones that may not ripen for 20 or 30 years.

Much of Brown’s final year in office has been dedicated to projects that will come to fruition long after he leaves Sacramento. The question of moving water to thirsty Southern California has been a matter of political dispute throughout Brown’s six decades in public life, and indeed well before. His plan to reengineer the system with a pair of 35-mile-long tunnels, at a cost of $15 billion or more, won approval from the state’s water agency in April. When the work is done, many years from now, it will have the effect of extending Southern California’s water claims and contracts for an additional half-century. Construction began this summer in multiple counties on Brown’s $100 billion bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a project that is at the very least more than a decade from its opening.

But the centerpiece of the governor’s final term is his crusade against climate change -- perhaps the issue with the longest time horizon of all. Last year, he helped convince legislators to extend the state’s energy cap-and-trade program, designed to reduce fossil fuel consumption. At the start of this year, Brown signed an executive order calling for 5 million electric vehicles on California’s roads by 2030. As the legislative session ended in September, Brown signed a bill that reaches even farther into the future, calling for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. “The standard statement about the politics of climate change is that the future doesn’t have a constituency, that it’s hard for politicians to make hard choices when those choices are going to have bad effects now and the benefits are in the future,” says Kathryn Olmsted, a historian at the University of California, Davis. “It’s unusual to have someone like Brown to think about the future.”

Brown comes from a distinguished political family, but he is really sui generis as a politician. No one else has combined training in a Jesuit seminary and a sojourn in Japan to study Zen Buddhism. Other governors have had separate runs in office, but none have begun them 28 years apart, filling various lower-level political posts in the interval. When he was 36, Brown was the youngest governor California had seen in more than a century. Now he is the oldest. (Insiders distinguish his long-separated runs in office by borrowing somewhat dated Silicon Valley terminology, referring to his time in office in the 1970s as “Jerry 1.0” and his current stint as “Jerry 2.0.”)


Jerry Brown, left, with his father, former Gov. Pat Brown, in 1980. Jerry ultimately rejected much of what his father stood for. (AP)

Because he is unusual, Brown has always been caricatured. But he returned to the governorship in 2011 not just older, but also more grounded. Politicians in Sacramento can tell you what books he’s been reading lately, which may include histories of the Weimar Republic or the treatment of American Indians, but they insist he is not some ephemeral, abstract thinker. He explores ideas not for their own sake but for how they might be put into practice. He’s had the discipline in his later terms to promote his big ideas in small batches, setting clear priorities each year. He’s gotten better both as an executive overseeing the government and as a policymaker able to win legislators over to his point of view. He may quote Latin in his spare time, but on the job he does his homework. “He’s this combination of a cigar-chomping politician and a philosopher king,” says Leonor Ehling, director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State University.

Thad Kousser, who chairs the political science department at the University of California, San Diego, describes Brown’s uniqueness a little differently: “I can’t see anyone patterning themselves on his persona.” Kousser describes that persona as “be grouchy and supercheap, quote obscure philosophers, avoid social media and never make a public presentation without a doomsday-predicting graph.”

Perhaps the most telling example of Brown’s forward-looking stewardship has been his handling of the state budget. Throughout his last eight years in office, he’s worked with a legislature thoroughly dominated by his fellow Democrats. But he’s never given them everything they wanted. He signaled his intention to act as a brake on the legislature right away, vetoing the first budget it sent him in 2011 because it didn’t include enough spending cuts. As the state’s economy has boomed during his tenure, he has resisted his party’s impulse to spend whatever was available. “In the last four or five years, there were plenty of chances for him to spend, and he chose to save,” says state Sen. Steve Glazer, who once served as a political adviser to Brown. “This is the key to good executive leadership, thinking not only about what it will cost this year but the projection of the out-years going forward.”

While exercising restraint on the spending side, Brown has helped increase the state’s revenue intake. California has a highly progressive tax code that relies heavily on taxing income and capital gains earned in more affluent places like Palo Alto and Beverly Hills. But Brown showed no hesitation in asking voters in 2012 to further raise taxes on those with personal incomes over $250,000 as part of a package that also raised the sales tax. In 2016, voters gave him a 12-year extension of the income tax increase.

All these factors together -- Brown’s fiscal constraints, his willingness to raise taxes and the overall health of the state’s economy -- have turned California’s finances around. Before he took office, it was common to hear that California, which faced chronic budget shortfalls larger than most other states’ budgets, was going to be the next Greece. The state was unable to pay its bills, often resorting to IOUs. California led the nation in municipal bankruptcies. Kevin Starr, a celebrated California historian, wrote that it was on the verge of becoming America’s “first failed state.”

You don’t hear that kind of talk anymore. Brown inherited a shortfall of $27 billion, but he’s leaving with $18 billion stashed away in the state’s rainy day fund. He paid down much of the short-term debt his predecessors had taken on, as they dug their way temporarily out of holes while leaving bigger messes behind. Now, the state has its highest bond rating in two decades. At one point this year, it was sitting on $31 billion worth of voter-approved but unsold bonds.

Every American governor elected in the large Class of 2010 is leaving his or her state in better financial shape in 2018, thanks to the long recovery that followed the last recession. But none has accomplished as dramatic a turnaround as Brown, who is leaving plenty of money in the bank for his successor (almost certainly Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom) to play with. “He held the line single-handedly,” says state Sen. Bob Hertzberg. “He made a lot of tough choices. The credit goes to him 100 percent. Not 96 percent, 100 percent.”

With Republicans dominating Washington and a majority of states, California has been a beacon for progressives and a target of scorn from conservatives. The state is an incubator for liberal legislation on matters such as the minimum wage, paid sick leave requirements, automatic voter registration, immigration protections and LGBT rights. This fall, Brown signed a law that requires women on the boards of public companies. Opening an environmental summit he hosted in September, Brown was asked how he thought President Trump would be remembered on the climate issue. “I think he’ll be remembered on the path he’s on now -- liar, criminal, fool,” Brown said. “Pick your choice.”

Simply by virtue of his age, Brown is not among the many Democrats plotting a 2020 campaign against Trump. (He has run three times before, in 1976, 1980 and 1992.) Brown has kept a low profile in Washington, makes relatively few national television appearances and -- most of the time -- makes less noise about “resisting” the president than California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who sues the administration practically on a weekly basis.

If Brown does not cut as sharp a profile on the national stage as he did earlier in his career, he’s certainly had an outsized impact on his own state, which is home to one out of every eight Americans. “Jerry 2.0 has been one of the most successful governorships in California history, and also far better than Jerry 1.0,” says Ethan Rarick, associate director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of a biography of Pat Brown, Jerry’s father. “Jerry 2.0, in my opinion, deserves to be up there with his father and Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren as among the most consequential governorships in the state’s history.”


Much of Brown’s final year has been dedicated to projects that will come to fruition long after he’s gone, including a $100 billion bullet train and a $15 billion water tunnels project. (California High-Speed Rail Authority)

During his early career, Brown rose like a rocket. He won his first election, for a seat on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, in 1969. He used that position as an unlikely launching pad to statewide election as secretary of state the following year. In both jobs, he showed a knack for earning publicity. He used the issues of campaign finance and lobbying restrictions as a platform for his first successful run as governor. In the post-Watergate year of 1974, Brown succeeded Ronald Reagan, who had unseated his father eight years earlier. 

To win the Democratic nomination that year, Brown defeated the state assembly speaker and a senior member of Congress. He clearly benefited from his father’s name. (His formal name is Edmund G. Brown Jr.) But Jerry Brown rejected much of what Pat Brown stood for, sharing Reagan’s sense that state government had grown too big and unwieldy. “I almost lost because of you,” Brown told his dad during an Oedipal election night moment caught by stage microphones. “People remembered you as such a big spender.”

Frugality has always been a Brown characteristic. He was Mr. Era of Limits in the 1970s, believing the state couldn’t afford the type of spending that typified his father’s tenure. State spending did go up by 5 percent during Brown’s first year in office, but that was a much slower pace than the 12 percent average growth seen under Reagan. He became known for his “small is beautiful” approach, cutting his own office budget and creating the nation’s first energy efficiency standards. The showier side of Brown’s asceticism -- he ditched the state limousine in favor of a Plymouth and refused to move into the governor’s mansion, sleeping instead on a mattress on the floor of a $250-a-month apartment -- helped earn him national attention. So did his relationship with singer Linda Ronstadt. 

Just two years after being elected as governor, Brown ran for president. He got into the race late, announcing his candidacy in March 1976, but he won five out of the six primaries he entered, finishing second to Jimmy Carter in the overall Democratic primary vote. “If he came in a month earlier, he probably would have become president,” Hertzberg says.

Back home, thanks to Brown’s refusal to sign off on many new initiatives, the state ran up a $4 billion surplus, worth about $14.5 billion in today’s dollars. That rankled voters chafing at property tax bills that were rising fast, along with home values. They wanted to see some of that money returned to them in the form of tax cuts. But Brown, in one of his biggest career failures, was unable to shepherd a tax relief bill through the legislature. That led to the passage in June 1978 of the ballot measure known as Proposition 13, reducing taxes for homeowners by 57 percent and imposing a requirement for two-thirds votes in the legislature to approve future tax increases. Prop. 13 set off a tax revolt across the country and severely constricted state and local finances in California. “A lot of historians attribute the passage of Prop. 13 to his inability to come up with a reform package in time,” says Olmsted, the UC Davis history professor. “It was an opportunity to pass property tax reform that was not nearly as draconian, and he muffed it.”


Brown’s inability to get a tax relief bill through the legislature led to the passage of Prop. 13, which cut property taxes and required two-thirds legislative approval for future tax increases. (AP)

Running as a self-described “born-again tax cutter,” Brown easily won reelection as governor in the fall of 1978. But, passing up a campaign for a third consecutive term as governor, he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and lost. Having failed in all his attempts at federal office -- including a second-place finish to Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries -- Brown started over, reinventing himself as a local politician. As mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007, he was an early rider on the downtown revival bandwagon, seeking to lure 10,000 residents to a city center that was then mostly derelict. (As mayor, Brown himself was sleeping on the floor again, this time on a futon.) He left the Oakland mayoralty to become state attorney general, and immediately began planning for his gubernatorial comeback in 2010. 

Brown may never have been a quasi-hippie, as he was portrayed during his first stint as governor, but he clearly brought more discipline to the job upon his return in 2011. He’d learned both from his earlier terms in Sacramento and from the other jobs he held along the way. With his national ambitions curbed, he’s lost the interest he showed early in his career in trying to drive headlines all the time. “By all accounts, back then he was not a very good manager of the state executive branch,” says UC Berkeley’s Rarick. “The second time, there’s been a much more focused, disciplined, ordered administrative role.”

Rather than dating a rock star, Brown is now married to Anne Gust, a lawyer and business executive who has been widely credited with helping to keep him focused and on schedule. She’s an indispensable adviser, part of a “troika” formed along with the governor and Nancy McFadden, his chief of staff, who died in March. “Anne was just perfect in terms of the relationship and her strategic skills,” Sen. Hertzberg says. “Jerry Brown is not really a gracious guy who picks up the phone and says thank you. That’s what his chief of staff did, Nancy McFadden.”


Brown talks with Chief of Staff Nancy McFadden, who died this year, on his way to announce a new budget in 2015. (AP)

Brown runs a lean staff and has been disciplined about his policy proposals. His State of the State addresses are not run-on affairs. Instead, every year he has picked two or three major initiatives that he’s wanted to see happen. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a list of big proposals he wanted and didn’t get. “In moments of celebration, people will talk about the next thing,” says Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. “What I remember about those moments is how argumentative he could get. In his office talking about cap and trade, he’d lean over and say, ‘Well, we’re not going to do anything about fracking like you want to.’”

Brown wants other politicians to know that celebratory moments don’t last, and that it’s necessary just to keep governing. He’s also “fearful of nostalgia,” as Rendon says, reluctant to talk about what he’s already done. Brown has certainly spurned any talk this year about his legacy. Having said that, he’ll often tell legislators why they shouldn’t do something that was tried and failed during his 1.0 days, or that he wants to undo mistakes he made during his first governorship. Notably, he changed from being a public safety hard-liner back then to questioning mass incarceration of nonviolent criminals.

But there are some challenges Brown hasn’t taken on. He never expended his political capital to try to roll back aspects of Prop. 13, which has led to decades of complaints about inadequate financing of the state’s schools and infrastructure. Setting aside Brown’s high-profile rail and water tunnel projects, the infrastructure problem will grow markedly worse if voters approve a proposition this month rolling back a gas tax hike that was enacted last year. And, despite the billions that Brown has socked away in the state treasury, California remains highly sensitive to boom-and-bust economic cycles because of its progressive tax code. The tax on top earners that he convinced voters to approve and extend has made that problem worse.

There’s also debate about what sort of overall shape the state itself is in as Brown prepares to leave office. California has plenty of strengths, aside from its enviable climate and natural beauty. Its tech and innovation economy remains the envy of the world. If California were a nation, as is frequently pointed out, its economy would be the fifth-largest in the world. The state is home to more billionaires than anywhere other than the rest of the U.S. and China. California’s unemployment rate fell to record lows this year. 

But lots of people are not sharing in the wealth. The state’s housing prices continue to spiral out of control. A package of 15 housing bills Brown signed last year has yet to result in a single dwelling being built. In large part due to exorbitant housing costs, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, with one out of five residents living below the poverty line. If the 7.5 million poor Californians constituted their own state, it would be the 13th-largest in the country. Adding in the millions who live in near-poverty, or those who receive Medicaid assistance, California’s low-income residents would be the fifth-largest state in the nation. 

Brown has been skeptical about expanding some traditional safety-net programs, but it would be wrong to say he hasn’t addressed income inequality. He helped enact the state’s earned income tax credit and expanded it twice. Prodded by labor unions and community groups, Brown approved a $15 per hour minimum wage. He changed the state’s education funding formula to give more aid to districts with concentrations of low-income children. His last budget similarly increased funding for community colleges serving low-income students. It also boosted funding for early childhood education, with most of the new dollars dedicated to day care slots for poor kids. 

One sign of Brown’s pragmatism is his willingness to work with just about anyone who can help him get a deal done, whether it is organized labor on the minimum wage or the Chamber of Commerce on the gas tax hike. He’s always subscribed to the “canoe theory” of politics, that you chart a straight course by paddling a little bit left and then a little bit right. “Others would do well to steal some of his tactics: run to the center, make transparent cuts that don’t cripple services or anger unions, use the credibility that buys you to sell a tax increase,” says Kousser, the UC San Diego political scientist. “Be loud when you are in the zeitgeist of public opinion -- taking on Trump and climate change -- and quiet when you are not.”

During his early years in office, Brown sometimes had to bring along traditionalists in his own party who were dismissive of his forward-looking ideas. Over the past few years, he’s been the clear leader of a party that has grown more progressive than he is. “He’s gone from being a young renegade to being the senior person of a party that sometimes he has to rein in a bit,” says Raphael Sonenshein, who directs the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

After Brown finally leaves the political scene, the younger politicians who follow will benefit from his insistence on planning ahead. “While the economy is booming, he’s constantly reminding you that it’s not always going to boom,” says Rendon, the Assembly Speaker. “When we’re in the midst of the next economic crisis, when Jerry is out on his ranch, we’ll have him to thank for the cuts not being as draconian as they’ve always been.” 

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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