America’s most futuristic governor seems borne back ceaselessly into the past these days. As he shows me around his office on a crisp winter morning, California Governor Jerry Brown points out not just the desk that his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, used during his own term as governor from 1959 to 1967 but also photos of his grandparents and his great-grandfather, who came to California in the gold rush years. “He knew John Sutter,” Brown says. The only two governors in the past half-century who were native Californians, he points out, were he and his father.
At 74, Brown has lost little of the intensity that impressed and occasionally discomfited voters during his first tenure as governor nearly 40 years ago. His outfit—an open-collar shirt under a white pullover sweater, blue jeans—may be West Coast casual, his shaved head may call to mind the Zen monks with whom he’s studied, but Brown’s emotional repertoire does not include laid-back, except when he’s talking about California’s history and his place in it. He still interrupts his interlocutors, still questions their questions.
“I have a sense of our lives being shaped by what’s been done before us,” he says. “We had dinner last night”—the “we” being Brown; his wife, Anne Gust Brown; and 14 of California’s 40 state senators—“at the governor’s mansion,” a grand Victorian house in downtown Sacramento last occupied by his father. “There are spirits in that house,” he says. “It was Lincoln Steffens’s house before it was the governor’s mansion. Earl Warren lived there in the ’40s. When you’re there, the past is present.”
Nothing in Brown’s past, though, can compare with the political acclaim he is receiving today. His political stock has never been higher. In November, he persuaded state voters to approve an initiative that would raise the multibillions in taxes needed to end the state’s chronic and immense budget shortfalls. The measure’s victory capped an improbable two-year turnaround that Brown had engineered for the state.
The California that he had inherited from Arnold Schwarzenegger, his Republican predecessor, had all but become a failed state. When he took office in January 2011, California was still in the midst of a catastrophic recession and saddled with a government that had been gridlocked for so long that the legislature’s approval rating, in one poll, had fallen to a sub-congressional 9 percent. Inland California had been the epicenter of the nation’s subprime quake and had yet to recover. The state’s unemployment rate was still the second highest in the nation. Tax revenues had plunged, and with Republicans blocking any tax hikes, Brown and the legislature were compelled to cut $15 billion from schools, universities, and health and welfare programs in order to balance the budget. The consequences were immediate and dire. Although the number of California’s K-12 students held steady, the number of K-12 teachers was reduced by 11 percent. As the state’s support to the University of California declined, tuition rose by 68 percent from 2008 through 2012. Government finances were so beleaguered that Standard & Poor’s gave California the lowest credit rating of any state.
Much of the problem was structural. Although Democrats held sizable majorities in both houses of the legislature, state law required a two-thirds vote to increase any taxes, and tax-averse Republicans still clung to just over one-third of the seats in each house. Until voters changed the law by initiative in 2010, California’s constitution also required a two-thirds vote to pass the state budget, and at several points in the preceding decade, after Republicans had withheld their budget approval, the state was unable to pay its bills, once even resorting to issuing IOUs. Two scholars of California government, journalist Joe Mathews and former state financial official Mark Paul, voiced the exasperation of many residents when they authored a book arguing that the state needed to rebuild its government from the ground up.
Brown campaigned for the governor’s office in 2010 on the claim that he brought unique experience to the job—that he’d already served as governor, from 1975 to 1983, and knew what it took to fix things. Voters who remembered his adventurous but rocky tenure had cause to view his claim with some skepticism, but his performance over the past two years has largely silenced, and in many cases converted, the skeptics. The keystone of his comeback was the brilliant campaign he waged for Proposition 30, which was marked by a level of discipline and strategic suppleness that he had rarely displayed during his first tenure.
Faced with two competing measures that could have undermined Proposition 30, Brown eliminated one by adopting some of its provisions. The consolidated Proposition 30 raised the top marginal tax rates on the state’s richest residents for the next seven years and increased the state sales tax by a quarter cent on the dollar. The $6 billion the measure is projected to generate each year is chiefly designated to K-12 schools and the state’s public colleges and universities. Throughout 2012, Brown vetoed bills that might have led voters to conclude that Sacramento would fritter away the tax increase on inessential projects. He campaigned heavily for the initiative on college campuses, among students who’d seen their tuition soar. On Election Day, voters approved the measure with 55 percent support—the first time California electors had voted to increase income tax rates since 2004.
With the additional $6 billion and the state economy beginning to perk up, California’s budget this year will be in balance, perhaps even in surplus. The cloud that has hung over the capitol since the 2008 crash has lifted. Legislators no longer have to make further cuts to programs they support; no more teachers will be laid off for lack of funds; tuition at the University of California and state colleges will cease its dizzying ascent. Standard & Poor’s has even raised the state’s abysmal credit rating.
Brown’s approval rating now stands at 57 percent, well above any in the preceding two years. On the record and even off, labor and business leaders, consultants, elected officials, movement activists, policy advocates—legions, that is, of the characteristically disgruntled, many of them long-standing Brown critics—have nothing but praise for his leadership in steering Proposition 30 to passage and arresting the state’s decline. Brown’s intellectual firepower has never been in question, but throughout his long career, many have questioned whether he’s trained it on germane targets. He was once known, after all, as “Governor Moonbeam.” Today, however, he wins plaudits not just for his brilliance but also for his focus and his political instincts. “He’s very smart, and he understands the pulse of the people,” says Darrell Steinberg, President Pro Tem of the State Senate. “There’s no living person who knows California better than Jerry Brown,” says Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO.
The testimony to Brown’s acuity for all things Californian is remarkable because the California that Brown now governs has been so radically transformed over the past three decades that it bears scant resemblance to the state he once governed. While Brown has lived his entire life in politics and has been a national figure longer than any current American elected official, he has often seemed impatient with, if not downright contemptuous of, the workings of both politics and government and many of the most basic tenets of American liberalism. Yet, California today is again a state, as it has not been for decades, where the future that liberals hope will be America’s is happening first, and Jerry Brown, for all his skepticism about politics, government, and liberalism, is leading it there.
California's private sector has long had the reputation of hosting the nation's cutting-edge industries, from aerospace to media to high-tech. In the years of the post-World War II boom, its public sector had a similarly stellar reputation. Under the leadership of such progressive governors are Republican Earl Warren and Democrat Pat Brown, California built the nation's best public school and university systems, the swiftest freeways, the aqueducts that fed the world's largest and most efficient farms, the most generous social welfare programs, and the world's most skilled workforce. During Jerry Brown's first terms as governor, California led the world in devising environmental safeguards. But then came law-and-order Republicans, white backlash against Latino immigrants, economic dislocation, and political stagnation. If California remained a model, it wasn't for anything good.
For the first time in more than a generation, that’s beginning to change. Although President Barack Obama failed to persuade Congress to adopt a cap-and-trade program, California began operating the nation’s first such program in January, auctioning credits, initially to power industries, that will in time reduce the level of greenhouse gases emitted. Brown can’t claim credit for inaugurating the program; the legislature authorized it in 2006 and Schwarzenegger signed it into law. But, says Mary Nichols, the head of the state Air Resources Board, Brown first raised the issue of climate change as early as the 1970s, when he made the board a global leader in measuring and combating pollutants.
At Brown’s behest, the legislature has also authorized funding (with federal assistance) for a mega-green infrastructure project that is also an Obama priority: the construction of a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Work will begin this year on the first segment, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. Speaking of the 30 miles of tunnels that will have to be built through the Tehachapi Mountains at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, Brown expresses amazement that so little progress has been made on California’s rail lines in the past hundred years. “The top speed over the Tehachapis today is the same as it was in the 19th century, 24 miles per hour,” he marvels. Though funding to build the entire line is as yet nowhere in evidence, Brown is convinced, as he said in his State of the State address, that “electrified trains are part of the future.” His campaign for high-speed rail also dates back to his first tenure; he established the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority in 1982.
In 2011, Brown expanded the rights of undocumented immigrants by signing the California Dream Act, which enabled undocumented students to attend the state’s colleges and universities at the reduced rates available to all California residents. He approved another bill allowing Dream Act beneficiaries to obtain a driver’s license (as any Californian can attest, the most important document that the state government issues). Brown’s ties to the Latino community date back to his first term as governor as well, when he befriended Cesar Chavez and made California’s farmworkers the first in the nation to have the rights and protections of collective bargaining.
California’s renewed embrace of liberal policies is ultimately due less to Brown, though, than to far-reaching demographic changes. In 1980, 76 percent of state residents were white; by 2010, the white share of California residents had shrunk to just 40 percent, as the state’s Latino, Asian, and multiracial populations skyrocketed. Both the state’s Democratic Party and uncommonly savvy unions succeeded in bringing these new groups into the Democrats’ orbit, while a stubbornly nativist Republican Party managed to repel them even more.
The political mobilization of California’s Latinos dates to 1994, when Republican Governor Pete Wilson backed Proposition 187, which would have denied to undocumented immigrants almost all public services, including the right to attend school. (The measure passed but the courts struck it down.) The Los Angeles labor movement channeled the outrage in the Latino community into voter registration and mobilization campaigns so successful that in 1998 almost every Republican congressional and legislative district in suburban L.A. County fell to the Democrats.
In the years since, conventional wisdom has assumed that the more heavily populated coastal California was solidly Democratic, while more rural and less populous inland California would remain solidly Republican. But as inland California also became more Latino and Asian, and as the state Republican Party maintained its nativist stance, Democrats and labor began targeting that part of the state as well. Last November, Democrats ran the table in California, picking up four traditionally Republican U.S. House seats, all in inland or exurban California, and winning more than two-thirds of the seats in each house of the state legislature. The state’s only Republican big city, San Diego, elected a liberal Democrat as its mayor, and Democrats also now govern Modesto in the Central Valley, “which hasn’t had a Democratic mayor since God knows when,” in the words of state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton.
It helped that President Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein carried the state with more than 20-point margins. It helped that right-wing interests put a measure on California’s ballot that would have curtailed unions’ ability to raise funds for political campaigns; the unions ran a massive get-out-the-vote effort that handily defeated it and padded the Democrats’ majorities in other races. It helped that the state labor movement had been targeting Asian voters for several election cycles; Asians constituted 12 percent of state voters and gave Obama 79 percent of their vote. It helped that the state activated an online voter-registration program six weeks before Election Day; 800,000 new voters, nearly half of them under 30, registered online, 85 percent of whom voted. It helped that the state party and labor had been registering minority and young voters for years. And it helped that Brown waged a skillful campaign for Proposition 30.
Of particular note among the Democratic pickups was the ouster of longtime Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack by Democrat Raul Ruiz, an emergency-room physician, in a Riverside County district encompassing some of the nation’s wealthiest winter residences around Palm Springs but also the growing Latino working-class communities of the Coachella Valley. The issue that Ruiz rode to victory wasn’t immigrant rights but Medicare. Bono Mack had voted for the Paul Ryan budget bill to voucherize Medicare, a position that proved toxic to the district’s Latino voters.
That the race turned on Medicare provides a clue to California’s political future. Latinos may be more culturally conservative than other groups within the Democrats’ orbit, but on economic issues, 20 years of exit polling on ballot measures makes clear their deep support for government programs that provide opportunity and security. More than the state Brown governed 30 years ago, the new California believes in activist government.
Brown is an unlikely figure to spearhead a liberal resurgence in California. In the 1970s, he seemed to be in filial rebellion against his father’s generation’s belief in government’s capacity to solve social problems. Today, however, some of those Oedipal tensions appear to have subsided. As Pat built the freeways and aqueducts, so Jerry is building a high-tech railroad and pushing for a new water system.
But his skepticism about government’s ability to fix the world—more precisely, to fix more than a few things at a time—has deepened. He was mayor of Oakland, the most economically and socially beleaguered of California’s major cities, from 1998 to 2006, and his tenure there only sharpened his sense of government’s limitations. While he helped revive downtown Oakland’s commercial district, increased its stock of new middle-class housing, and opened both an arts high school and a military academy, Brown failed to significantly reduce the city’s historically high poverty and crime rates. In 2006, Brown was elected California attorney general, a post that was widely and rightly regarded as his launching pad for his 2010 campaign for governor. As the state’s chief law-enforcement official, he routinely opposed the appeals of convicts sentenced to death, though he has opposed the death penalty since his days as a seminarian. Brown insisted his job was to uphold state law.
As governor, though, Brown is wary about making new laws. At his direction, California is on track to become one of the first states to set up its “Obamacare” health exchange, but in his view, the complexity of that task precludes the state from taking on many other ones. “People still want more?” he says. “How much can the mind of state government process in nine months?” In his 2013 State of the State address, Brown even asked legislators, essentially, to pass fewer laws. In a moment that would have delighted Edmund Burke and should have delighted George Will, Brown quoted a passage from Montaigne’s “Essay on Experience”: “The most desirable laws are those that are the rarest, simplest and most general; and I even think that it would be better to have none at all than to have them in such numbers as we have.”
Brown is not opposed to big government, but his version of big government would only undertake a discrete number of tasks too big to be performed by smaller, more local governments or the private sector. Teaching methods, he argues, should no longer be mandated by the state but left to principals and teachers, but only the state has the resources to provide high-quality university educations to its young people. Not that Brown is convinced that California’s public university system, or academia in general, is pursuing the proper mission. “What the university is has to be rethought,” he says. “The faculty’s primary role is teaching. Research is important, but it’s not the students’ job to subsidize that research.” This isn’t anti-intellectualism; it’s more his irritation that the academy has grown to the point where he doubts the value of some of its inquiries. “Some of the talk of producing new knowledge,” he says, “it’s like GM producing new tailfins rather than a new kind of engine. Research into reality is good. Academic novelty isn’t so much of an imperative.”
Brown’s skepticism about governmental endeavors—even as he champions a rail system that may become the biggest public-works program in the nation—has been a hallmark of his career. After some years in a Jesuit seminary, and with a degree from Yale Law, Brown first won public office in 1969 when he was elected to Los Angeles’s newly established Community College Board of Trustees. The next year, he was elected California’s secretary of state, its chief election officer. In 1974, at age 36, he was narrowly elected governor, succeeding Ronald Reagan, who in turn had ousted Brown’s father in 1966 when he sought a third term.
During Brown’s first eight years as governor, he often went out of his way to break with the practices and assumptions of both politics and liberalism. His father had funded universities and social welfare programs by raising taxes, disproportionately but not exclusively on the rich. Jerry, by contrast, proclaimed in 1976 that the state (and the nation and the planet) had entered an “era of limits.” In lieu of the Democrats’ romance with growth and public works, he preached the need to clean up the air. His budgets for the universities and for social benefits were no more generous than Reagan’s, and sometimes even less so. “When Jerry Brown talks about lowering expectations,” Jerome Lackner, briefly Brown’s state health director, said at the time, “he’s really talking about lowering expectations for the poor, the mentally ill, and the disabled.”
The watershed event of Brown’s first tenure as governor was the 1978 enactment of Proposition 13 over his opposition. With housing values—and thus property taxes—soaring at a time of high inflation, right-wing gadfly Howard Jarvis authored a ballot measure that cut and then froze property taxes and created additional roadblocks to raising other state and local taxes. Passed by voters in that year’s June primary, Proposition 13 proved to be a slow-motion disaster, degrading over the next 35 years the quality of the state’s once standard-setting schools and services. Brown hadn’t seen this tax rebellion coming; indeed, as homeowners grew desperate for tax relief, the state had amassed a $5 billion surplus that he neither spent on programs nor rebated to taxpayers. Once the measure passed, however, Brown quickly vowed to implement it and put his fiscal conservatism into high gear. Jarvis appeared in an ad praising Brown during the governor’s re-election bid later that year, and Brown moved so far right that he backed a constitutional convention that would add a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Brown’s ideological mood swings, his willingness to move not just a little left and right but a lot left and right, were never more apparent than on his three presidential campaigns. During his first term as governor, in 1976, Brown mounted a spirited but last-minute presidential bid in the Democratic primaries, marketing himself to voters as an anti-doctrinaire new face. By winning a number of late states—not just California but also some heavily Catholic Northeastern states where voters were uncomfortable with Jimmy Carter’s born-again religiosity—he managed to drag out the primary season. He essayed a perfunctory presidential effort in 1980 as well. In 1992, he ran for president yet again, this time styling himself as the more populist alternative to Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas. The political professionals who had helped run his earlier efforts were nowhere to be found by the time of his third bid. The campaign was necessarily more of a guerrilla operation and, not by necessity, memorably quirky. Staffed by a cadre of leftist activists and an aging Parisian bohemian, Brown called for increased worker rights, but he also backed supply-side economist Arthur Laffer’s proposal to supplant the progressive income tax with both a flat tax and a value-added tax.
As he broke with his father’s politics, Brown parted even more decisively from his father’s profession. If Pat Brown never saw a hand he didn’t want to shake, his son kept a studied distance from most everyone, at least by the super-social standards of politics. He did his own research. He kept his own counsel. His personal life seemed at times that of a grad student with state power—living in an apartment whose bed was a mattress on the floor, holding impromptu talkfests late into the night, dating a variety of women (most prominently, singer Linda Ronstadt). Politically, Brown was never as unconventional as he seemed at the time. Like Clinton, Tsongas, Gary Hart, and other Democrats who came to prominence in the 1970s, he espoused the socially progressive, fiscally conservative views of the party’s emerging neoliberal wing. Personally, unlike Clinton and Hart, Brown was not a libertine. The onetime Jesuit seminarian who immersed himself in Zen Buddhism had—and has—a certain disdain for human desires. When liberals talk to him about California’s social needs that remain unmet, he says, “I tell them that needs are often really desires, and desires are endless.”
That attitude—which is a deeply held conviction—may soon put Brown at odds with fellow Democrats who believe that California’s economy has needs, not desires, that if not endless, are surely overwhelming.
In the years of Brown’s first governorship, California was still at the center of the nation’s post–World War II boom, with a mammoth aircraft, aerospace, and defense industry that anchored a thriving middle class. The state was also the second-largest center of auto manufacturing in the U.S., after Michigan. But in the recession of the early 1980s, Detroit shuttered its California auto plants, never to reopen them. Ten years later, following the end of the Cold War, the state’s aerospace industry imploded. These industries had employed not just well-paid engineers but hundreds of thousands of unionized production workers who had commanded good wages. Today, while some of the world’s best-known manufacturing companies, such as Apple, Cisco Systems, and Hewlett-Packard, are still California--based, their production is almost entirely offshored.
The disappearance of the state’s once-mammoth manufacturing sector means that between Brown’s first stint as governor and his current one, the middle fell out of the California economy while the bottom burgeoned. The immense wave of immigrants who began coming to California in the 1980s, fleeing Mexico’s economic woes and Central America’s civil wars, found jobs as construction and restaurant workers, housekeepers, janitors, and nannies. They worked in warehouses, in garment shops, in car washes, and in off-the-books factories. Los Angeles County, where more than one in four Californians resides, became home to an army of the working poor, with its aerospace factories shuttered and its low-wage workplaces booming.
California’s official poverty rate today is 16.6 percent, ranking it 19th among states. In 2011, however, the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics came up with more inclusive metrics for measuring poverty. The new Supplemental Poverty Measure factors in local variations in taxes, government transfer payments, the expense of holding a job (such as transportation), and medical and housing costs. The difference in the national poverty rate when measured by the old and new metrics wasn’t significant; the official poverty level over the three-year period of 2009–2011 was 15 percent, while the level under the supplemental metrics was 15.8 percent. The difference in California’s poverty rates, though, was stunning. The new measure found the state’s poverty rate to be the highest in the United States: 23.5 percent. This means that 8.8 million Californians, many of them full-time workers or their children, live in poverty. The state also has the second-lowest rate of homeownership.
Like most Democrats, Brown doesn’t talk much about what government should do to fight poverty. By backing such big-ticket infrastructure projects as the high-speed rail, he does have an ambitious employment program. The AFL-CIO’s Pulaski estimates that building and running the rail line will eventually create 450,000 jobs, though spread across several decades. Brown also has an on-again, off-again industrial policy. Asked whether the state should require the railcars to be manufactured in California, Brown says, “I’m not averse to local content at all” but then cautions that he’s soon to lead a trade mission to China, partly in the hope that companies there will invest in the rail project. Suppose their condition for investing is that they manufacture some or all of the railcars? “I’m not going to foreclose having an expansive relationship with the Chinese,” he says.
Brown also is calling for legislation that would direct more money to school districts with high percentages of low-income pupils, students from households where English is not the primary language, or foster children. “Equal treatment for people in unequal conditions isn’t justice,” he tells me. “That’s from Felix Frankfurter, originally from Aristotle.” The governor’s combination of progressivism and stinginess is epitomized by the bill he signed enabling all California workers to set aside 3 percent of their earnings into a retirement fund-—but only after he compelled its author to excise the clause committing $500,000 in state funds for a feasibility study. The money is being raised from private sources. He is also pushing a reluctant legislature to drop the proposed Medicaid expansion if the federal government’s support for the program falls below 90 percent of its costs.
Restoring all the education, health, and welfare programs cut during the state’s fiscal crisis requires more revenues than Proposition 30 will yield. Many of those cuts went deep. Over the past several years, the state eliminated Medicaid coverage for adult dental care and psychiatry. The state’s monthly workfare grant for a family of three, which was set at $723 in 1990, was reduced to $638. Even with Proposition 30’s additional monies, Brown’s budget calls for boosting the University of California’s funding by 4 percent this year, well short of the 11 percent the university requested.
When I asked Brown if he would consider any further tax increases, his response was emphatic: “The answer is no. We are already a high-tax state. State spending on schools will go from $47 billion to $63 billion in the next five years. I think we should digest this great leap forward before we contemplate anything further.”
Brown’s opposition to additional tax hikes is shared—at least for now—by most of the Democrats in the legislature. Senate leader Steinberg says his colleagues are not calling for more tax increases. Any surplus dollars that pile up over and above projected revenues, he says, should be split three ways between paying down debt, bolstering the state’s rainy-day fund, and restoring programs like dental care. Democrats, he says, are chastened by the state’s boom-and-bust cycle: “Nobody wants to go back to those really bad days when we had to make unbelievable cuts.”
California faces a revenue conundrum. With the share of the state’s poor near record highs, with the middle class diminished, and the wealthy now paying among the highest tax rates in the nation, raising more money to meet the state’s social needs will be difficult. The era of limits that Brown heralded more than 35 years ago has arrived.
Still, there are ways to raise revenues that don’t involve increasing income and sales taxes, and many liberals are eager to pursue them. A bill establishing a tax on oil extraction is likely to be introduced this year. North Dakota, Wyoming, Texas, and Alaska have one; California doesn’t. The discovery of what may prove to be an oil reserve that dwarfs North Dakota’s—the Monterey Shale reserve—makes this an increasingly attractive option. But when I asked Brown about creating an oil-severance tax, he said no.
Cities, counties, and school districts are also looking to the legislature this year for a bill that would relieve them of the obligation to win two-thirds voter support, rather than a majority, for tax increases. When I asked Brown if he would support such a measure, he answered, “Not this morning.”
An emerging coalition of unions, community-organizing groups, and other progressive organizations is researching how best to present voters with a ballot measure in 2016 that would repeal Proposition 13’s freeze on taxes on commercial property. Such a measure, says Lenny Goldberg, the longtime executive director of the California Tax Reform Association, would generate roughly $10 billion to $12 billion a year for the state’s cities, counties, and school districts. Given the commitment that the state’s Asian and Latino voters, in particular, have shown to increasing public investment in education, the strategists working on the proposal believe it has a good chance of passage. A ballot initiative, of course, doesn’t need the support of the legislature or the governor to go before the voters, but after his star turn on Proposition 30, Brown’s support would be particularly important.
If such an initiative passed, it would bookend California’s anti-government era that began with Proposition 13’s passage during Brown’s first term as governor. “He was around at the start of the anti-tax revolution,” says Michael Herald, the public-benefits advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Maybe he’ll be around for the end of it.”
Today, Brown is widely regarded as a shoo-in to win re-election in 2014. If he does, he will complete his fourth term in 2018, 44 years after he first won election as governor. He will be 80 years old then, but as he points out, his parents lived into their nineties with their mental capacities undimmed.
It is, all in all, not just a remarkable career but also a peculiar one. A skeptic about government’s capacity to solve many problems, he has nonetheless spent virtually his entire adult life in government. An ascetic not given to social graces, he has spent almost his entire—not just his adult—life in politics. His father first ran for San Francisco District Attorney when Brown was a year old and won that post when Brown was five. As the elder Brown ascended from district attorney to attorney general to governor, he displayed his children at campaign rallies, at which the younger Brown was visibly uncomfortable. Jerry Brown’s retreat into the confines of a Jesuit seminary marks the only period of his life when he escaped the political world entirely.
His manner has always been somewhat abrupt, often bordering on the gratuitously confrontational. When I ask him about how he assesses the potential of online education to reduce college costs, he turns the question back on me: “Hasn’t it affected your business?” he asks. “Unless we can return from the screen to the book, it’s going to have a huge effect, though I’m not going to predict the pace.” Longtime associates say he clarifies his thoughts by challenging and interrogating. “He argues like a Jesuit to find out where the weaknesses are, to test his arguments,” says one adviser. “That’s how he learns about things.”
Brown’s is not the epistemological method employed by most chief executives. While he has appointed able and sophisticated operatives to head his cabinet departments—more than a few, like the Air Resources Board’s Nichols, serving again in the same jobs they held during Brown’s first tenure—he does not rely on his staff to amass information for him. “There’s no storehouse of bureaucratic knowledge in the governor’s office,” says the AFL-CIO’s Pulaski. “He reads all the bills himself when they come to him for his signature. But then, he knows the state better than anyone on his staff.”
But if Brown can still come off as a snapping turtle—Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, two veteran political reporters and editors, routinely refer to him as Governor Crusty—many people who knew him then insist that his manner has grown less quarrelsome as he’s aged. “He’s gotten not mellow,” says John Burton, the Democratic Party state chairman, “but semi-mellow.”
Many attribute this change partly to Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown, a former chief administrative officer for The Gap whom Brown married in 2005 when he was 67. Gust Brown’s role is far more than social; she serves as his full-time unsalaried special counsel and top aide. Longtime Brown associates praise Gust Brown not just for smoothing some of Brown’s rough edges but for getting him to focus more on immediate priorities. “When you saw him during his 2010 governor’s race,” says one friend, “he’d come over and want to talk about some issue you knew about. After a few minutes, Anne would try to pull him away to work on his campaign.” Gust Brown is present at most of Brown’s meetings—a second pair of ears, a sounding board for her husband’s presentations, a link between ideas and implementation. Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg notes that Brown began his State of the State address by effusively praising the legislature for having the discipline to have made the cuts that laid the groundwork for the passage of Proposition 30, an act of courtesy that might not have occurred to him in his first go-round as governor. “Before, he might call you up and do more talking than listening,” says Burton. “Now, he listens more and talks less.”
That suggests a deeper change in Brown than anything that can be attributed solely to his wife—a growth, perhaps, of Brown’s appreciation of his own limits. The Brown of the 1970s darted from project to project. He had the attention span of a housefly. During the past two years, by contrast, he assessed virtually every position he was required to take by its effect on his ability to bring the state out of its fiscal crisis. With sharper focus has also come a higher level of ideological stability. If Brown’s resistance to health and welfare spending seems unlikely to alter, so, too, is it less likely that he’ll embrace the half-baked theories of the next generation of Arthur Laffers.
“My father first ran for office when running ads on the radio was the new thing,” he tells me. “Each city then had its own family-owned newspaper. I grew up in a political culture that’s changed significantly, but its shape today is still continuous with its past shape.” He pauses for a moment to make sure the last point is understood. “I believe in California exceptionalism,” he says. “It’s exceptional in all the things that have changed over time and that are changing today.”