As cap-and-trade evangelist, Gov. Brown shows he's the most effective politician Sacramento has seen in a long time

As cap-and-trade evangelist, Gov. Brown shows he's the most effective politician Sacramento has seen in a long time
California Gov. Jerry Brown testifies Thursday before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, arguing for his embattled cap-and-trade climate control legislation. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

"He's single-minded like a bull," said a close friend of Gov. Jerry Brown.

That was more than 42 years ago. Another Times reporter and I had tracked down friends and relatives of Brown, looking for some insight into the young man about to be inaugurated California governor for the first time.


The single-minded bull description came from Frank Damrell, a former college roommate of Brown and a fellow Jesuit seminarian. He's now a retired U.S. district judge.

The late Peter Finnegan, another longtime friend and fellow seminarian, said of Brown: "I don't think he's a mystic. But I sure as hell think he's got a spiritual dimension that you don't find in politicians."

Ironically, I had to cancel a luncheon with Damrell and some other old-timers last week because Brown simultaneously was doing his bull-spiritualist bit at a legislative committee hearing. It was too compelling to miss.

Those old descriptions of Brown are as accurate today as they were in 1975.

In fact, I've never seen Brown as animated, emotional and tenacious as he was before the state Senate Environmental Quality Committee, arguing for his embattled cap-and-trade climate control legislation.

He resembled a cross between the Clint Eastwood character Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino" — "Get off my lawn!" — and some street-corner preacher warning that the end is near. He's also the most effective politician Sacramento has seen in a very long time.

"I do get a little excited because, you know, as we get older we have less patience," the governor told the committee. "And I want to see this thing get done…. Whatever I've got to do, I'm going to do it."

"This is the most important vote of your life," he continued, sounding a tad hyperbolic.

"Unless you think I'm lying. And I was in the seminary for three years, studying to be a good searcher of the truth. And I'm telling you, this is the truth…. And the only way I can be wrong is … if I'm stupid and ignorant, and I'm not. I've been around this business a long time."

Brown's hands were flying, arms flailing. Critics might say he was ranting. I'll just call it shouting.

This isn’t for me. I’m going to be dead. It’s for you. And it’s damn real.

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Very rarely does a governor testify before a legislative committee. Never do I recall one sitting at the witness table for four hours — sermonizing, listening intently, writing notes and — presumably — taking names.

"Climate change is real," he warned. "It is a threat to organized human existence. Maybe not in my life. I'll be dead. What am I, 79? Do I have five years more? Do I have 10 years more, 15? I don't know, 20? I don't even know if I want that long."

Then he dramatically turned around and faced the packed audience, something legislative witnesses never do.

"When I look out here," he said, "a lot of you people are going to be alive. And you're going to be alive in a horrible situation. You're going to see mass migrations, vector diseases, forest fires, Southern California burning up. That's real, guys….


"So I'm not here about some cockamamie legacy that people talk about. This isn't for me. I'm going to be dead. It's for you. And it's damn real."

Brown fights global warming with religious zeal. But it doesn't seem plausible that he's not concerned about his legacy, his place in history. That's perfectly human and acceptable.

The governor relishes his role as arguably America's leading voice against climate change. He was ceded the mantle by President Trump when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

Trump "doesn't speak for the rest of America," Brown declared to foreign allies. The governor will hold his own international climate summit in San Francisco next summer.

Brown wants California to show the world how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without ruining its economy. This state produces only 1% of the planet's emissions. So our cutbacks won't amount to a hill of beans. But we can create a successful model that could be copied everywhere and have a worldwide impact, the governor believes.

That would be through the cap-and-trade program. But if Brown can't get his legislation passed, it would be an embarrassing step backward.

Here's another huge motivation for Brown: The cap-and-trade program has been keeping his bullet train project on life support. It receives 25% of cap-and-trade revenue. So far, it has totaled $800 million.

Cap and trade works this way: A cap is imposed on an industry's greenhouse gas emissions. But companies can trade for — buy — extra permits to pollute, either from the state or private investors. Caps are gradually lowered and emissions reduced.

This will be a crucial week for the legislation. It cleared the Senate committee on a party-line vote. The governor will attempt to push it through both houses before lawmakers adjourn for summer vacation Friday.

There are two bills. AB 398 would extend cap and trade until 2030. It's slated to expire in 2020. AB 617 would tighten controls on air pollution.

It's a close vote because Brown wants a two-thirds majority to guard against legal challenges. He's dealing, trying to entice Republicans. He has offered tax breaks for manufacturers and power companies, regulatory limits for oil refineries and repeal of a fire prevention fee hated by rural landowners.

Environmentalists don't like it. Big business does. Republicans don't like Democrats.

It's a vote-seller's market.

The single-minded bull will need to use all his political skills.

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