From Gov. Moon­beam to el­der states­man

Cal­i­for­nia’s Jerry Brown ends five decades on po­lit­i­cal scene

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Nation - BY KATH­LEEN RON­AYNE


It was a mat­ter of life and death in 2015 when Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jerry

Brown pon­dered an as­sisted sui­cide bill grant­ing ter­mi­nally ill peo­ple the right to choose when they die.

Af­ter much spec­u­la­tion, Brown signed the mea­sure, a vic­tory for “death with dig­nity” ad­vo­cates and a blow to the Catholic Church, which vig­or­ously op­posed it. Brown, who once con­sid­ered be­com­ing a priest, added to his sig­na­ture a five-para­graph state­ment out­lin­ing how he made his de­ci­sion: He sought con­tra­dict­ing per­spec­tives from the church, fam­i­lies of the ter­mi­nally ill, his friends and doc­tors. And he pon­dered his own ex­is­tence.

“I do not know what I would do if I were dy­ing in pro­longed and ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain. I am cer­tain, how­ever, that it would be a com­fort to be able to con­sider the op­tions af­forded by this bill,” Brown wrote. “And I wouldn’t deny that right to oth­ers.”

Brown, who leaves of­fice Jan. 7, has signed thou­sands of bills, but this one stands out to Dana Wil­liamson, Brown’s cabi­net sec­re­tary at the time.

“His abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late his de­lib­er­a­tions and why he landed the way he did — to me that’s quin­tes­sen­tial Jerry Brown,” she said.

Brown has honed that de­ci­sion-mak­ing style over five decades in pub­lic life , in­clud­ing a record 16 years as Cal­i­for­nia’s gov­er­nor, first from 1975 to 1983 and again since 2011.

He used the spot­light that comes with gov­ern­ing the na­tion’s largest state to mount three un­suc­cess­ful bids for pres­i­dent and urge swifter ac­tion on cli­mate change — some­thing he’ll con­tinue when he leaves of­fice — and he’s cred­ited with pulling Cal­i­for­nia out of a fi­nan­cial sink­hole that had ob­servers deem­ing the state un­govern­able when he re­turned to Sacra­mento in 2011.

The son of Gov. Pat Brown, Jerry Brown be­came gov­er­nor at 36 and built a rep­u­ta­tion as an ide­al­ist who es­chewed tra­di­tional trap­pings of wealth and power. Dur­ing his first term, he earned the con­de­scend­ing nick­name “Gov. Moon­beam” af­ter propos­ing a state com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite.

Now 80, he’s still an ide­al­ist but one who dur­ing the last eight years cham­pi­oned fis­cal mod­er­a­tion, a po­si­tion that some­times put him at odds with fel­low Democrats who wanted more so­cial pro­gram spend­ing. Yet Brown’s pop­u­lar­ity surged as he took the state from a deep bud­get deficit when he en­tered of­fice to a sur­plus and $14.5 bil­lion socked away in a rainy day fund.

He never gave up on the satel­lite idea. Last fall, at the end of a global con­fer­ence on cli­mate change that he or­ga­nized, he an­nounced Cal­i­for­nia would launch its “own damn satel­lite” to track pol­lu­tants.

“Jerry is an orig­i­nal and al­ways has been,” said his sis­ter Kath­leen Brown, the for­mer state trea­surer who ran un­suc­cess­fully for gov­er­nor in 1994.

Jerry Brown was 20 when his fa­ther was elected to the first of two terms in 1958. Pol­i­tics wasn’t his plan — he chose to at­tend a Je­suit sem­i­nary. There he learned the Latin motto:

Age quod agis, or “Do what you are do­ing.” He chafes when asked to re­flect on his ac­com­plish­ments or legacy.

“Tak­ing pride is not some­thing that I have been trained to pur­sue,” Brown said re­cently at a Sacra­mento Press Club ap­pear­ance.

But the priest­hood ul­ti­mately wasn’t for Brown; he in­stead got a law de­gree at Yale and a job at a Los An­ge­les firm be­fore em­bark­ing on his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer by win­ning a spot on a com­mu­nity col­lege dis­trict board of trustees.

Brown leaves the gov­er­nor­ship with an un­match­able his­tory in Cal­i­for­nia pol­i­tics. He was elected sec­re­tary of state in 1971 on a plat­form of trans­parency and re­form, and then gov­er­nor in 1974. Two years later, Brown was run­ning for pres­i­dent. He lost, but his star con­tin­ued to rise, pow­ered in part by his re­la­tion­ship with pop­u­lar singer Linda Ron­stadt. The two ap­peared on the cover of Newsweek mag­a­zine un­der the head­line “The Pop Pol­i­tics of Jerry Brown.”

Brown again ran un­suc­cess­fully for pres­i­dent in 1980, with a slo­gan that re­flected the same sen­si­tiv­i­ties he has to­day: “Pro­tect the Earth, serve the peo­ple, ex­plore the uni­verse.”

Af­ter los­ing a bid for the U.S. Se­nate in 1982, he trav­eled abroad, re-en­ter­ing pol­i­tics as Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic Party chair­man and, in 1992, seek­ing the pres­i­dency for a third time and los­ing to Bill Clin­ton. He re­turned to elected of­fice six years later as Oak­land mayor then be­came state at­tor­ney gen­eral. In 2011, he won the gov­er­nor­ship, and his po­lit­i­cal come­back was com­plete.

He prefers the sec­ond two terms to the first.

“I was more ex­pe­ri­enced, the peo­ple who work with me were more skilled, I had a won­der­ful wife who was my part­ner and com­pan­ion in all this,” he told The Associated Press in a re­cent in­ter­view. Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown, is a for­mer Gap ex­ec­u­tive who friends and ad­vis­ers say helps Brown ex­e­cute his am­bi­tious ideas.

The sec­ond time around, Brown more eas­ily per­suaded the Leg­is­la­ture and vot­ers to make po­lit­i­cally painful de­ci­sions such as cut­ting ser­vices or rais­ing taxes on them­selves. Law­mak­ers of­ten over­rode his ve­toes in the 1970s, but they did not do it once in the last eight years. Un­like his early terms, Brown didn’t have his sights set on the pres­i­dency.

“Jerry Brown One was quirky and an in­ter­est­ing gov­er­nor. Jerry Brown Two is not quirky. Jerry Brown Two is de­lib­er­a­tive, and he likes to have it his way,” said Repub­li­can state Sen. Jim Nielsen, who served in the Leg­is­la­ture from 1978 to 1987 and re­turned in 2008.

In the 1970s, Brown brought younger, more di­verse voices into state gov­ern­ment. He ap­pointed his cam­paign man­ager, Tom Quinn, to head the state Air Re­sources Board and quickly ad­vanced poli­cies to curb air pol­lu­tion. Quinn cracked down sharply on the auto in­dus­try for vi­o­lat­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s ve­hi­cle emis­sions stan­dards, still the na­tion’s strictest and now a tar­get of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He won pas­sage of the Cal­i­for­nia Agri­cul­tural La­bor Re­la­tions Act in 1975, the first in the na­tion to give farm work­ers col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. It was hailed as a vic­tory, but its long-term ef­fec­tive­ness re­mains dis­puted.

Brown also fell vic­tim to his pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions, giv­ing law­mak­ers and vot­ers the im­pres­sion he was fo­cused else­where. In 1978, a prop­erty tax re­volt led to the pas­sage of a bal­lot mea­sure that rad­i­cally changed Cal­i­for­nia’s fi­nan­cial pic­ture.

Al­though Brown op­posed it, his em­brace of the mea­sure once it passed earned him the en­dorse­ment of tax cru­sader Howard Jarvis and re­in­forced that

Brown’s ide­al­ism was wrapped in po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism.

When Brown re­turned to Sacra­mento, he turned Cal­i­for­nia’s $27 bil­lion deficit into a sur­plus for his suc­ces­sor; twice suc­cess­fully pushed tax in­creases at the bal­lot box; ag­gres­sively ad­vanced Cal­i­for­nia’s cli­mate change fight­ing mea­sures; and re­versed course on tough-on-crime mea­sures he adopted in the 1970s. He also cham­pi­oned two ma­jor and ex­pen­sive in­fras­truc­ture projects — a high-speed train be­tween Los An­ge­les and San Francisco and gi­ant twin tun­nels to reroute the state’s wa­ter sup­ply — that are mired in law­suits and may never be com­pleted.

And while he’s made sig­nif­i­cant strides on cli­mate change by ex­tend­ing a cap-and-trade pro­gram for emis­sions and ex­pand­ing ac­cess to elec­tric cars, crit­ics fault him for fail­ing to stop new oil drilling.

“There’s a slightly tragic qual­ity to the fact that he couldn’t in the end bring him­self to change his out­look, be­cause the thing that’s marked his ca­reer for decades is be­ing able to change his out­look and be kind of ahead of the curve,” said Bill McKibben, an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist who wrote “The End of Na­ture,” a call to arms against global warm­ing.

Crit­i­cism, bad press, po­lit­i­cal fights — Brown said he will miss it all when he leaves the gov­er­nor’s of­fice and re­tires to a ranch he built on fam­ily land in ru­ral Co­lusa County.

“I can’t think of a day I haven’t en­joyed since I’ve been gov­er­nor,” he said. “I can’t think of one day.”


Jerry Brown first be­came gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia at the age of 36. Now, 80, he re­tires next week to his ranch af­ter a record four terms in of­fice, 1975-83 and again 2011-19.


Two years af­ter be­com­ing gov­er­nor, Jerry Brown ran for pres­i­dent, the first of three times. He’s also been Cal­i­for­nia Demo­cratic Party chair­man, state at­tor­ney gen­eral and mayor of Oak­land, be­fore mov­ing back into the gov­er­nor’s man­sion once again in 2011.


Jerry Brown and singer Linda Ron­stadt, on stage with mem­bers of the Ea­gles, dated for sev­eral years be­fore go­ing their sep­a­rate ways.

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