We don't talk much about the good old days of Jerry Brown in California. Good old days, after all, are remembered for their serenity and comfort. For two terms as chief executive of the state, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. supplied anything but.
He trod on our toes and splashed ice water in our faces.
Almost a decade after his Administration in Sacramento, Brown remains fixed in memory as a fancifully futuristic, quirky, exhilarating, maddening, mischievous, inspiring and turbulent governor. His achievements ranged upward to the remarkable, which sometimes is forgotten. His failures were every bit as grand and rarely are overlooked.
He gave California what it needed and wanted, and plenty of what it did not. He was one of the most wildly celebrated and glamorous figures of his time, not to mention a frequent laughingstock. Oh, how he brightened the landscape; oh, how he hated mowing the lawn.
The years 1975 to 1983, to borrow the old phrase from Charles Dickens, were the best of times and the worst of times for California. . . .
Nothing so exemplified Brown the chief executive as the people he picked for his Administration and named as judges. These men and women represented Brown's deepest convictions, his farsightedness, his high-wire daring, his rebelliousness and ultimately his weaknesses.
"The most important thing a governor does is appoint people," he used to say.
Thus, Brown threw open the doors of power to the powerless like no one before him: 49.8% of his 6,150 executive appointments were women and minorities. He named the first woman and first black to a governor's Cabinet, and at times half of those at his Cabinet table were women. Of his 1,240 judicial nominees, 40% were women, blacks and Latinos, including the first woman chief justice of the Supreme Court.
And by no means did this tell the whole story. Many of his white male appointees were of a decidedly different cut from the traditional brokers of power. Among them were fresh faces like Ed Roberts, a quadriplegic bound to a wheelchair and an oxygen bottle, who ran the Department of Rehabilitation. Jerome Lackner, a physician who volunteered to care for farm workers, became state health director. Huey Johnson, a founder of the environmentalist group Trust for Public Land, became secretary of resources. Counterculture publisher Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalogue was a special adviser; Beat poet Gary Snyder headed the state Arts Commission.
Brown also ran the foxes out of the government henhouses by engineering a change in law to let him give the public a majority of seats on 41 consumer boards and business regulatory commissions.
No Administration by that time, maybe no Administration since, was so socially ecumenical, so culturally diverse.
Therein, however, stirred the breezes that blew into the storm that clouds Brown's legacy to this day.
Rose Bird. Those two words, that one name, this inexperienced, bright, strong-willed woman, was Brown's rashest appointment and one that haunts him still. A lawyer and campaign worker, Bird was first named to Brown's Cabinet as secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Services. Then, in 1977, Brown broke all convention and named her chief justice of the state Supreme Court. She had no judicial experience.
Hitting the Wall
Bird's combative style and her headstrong opposition to capital punishment led to her unprecedented ouster by bitter voters in November, 1986. Two other Brown-appointed justices, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, were brought down with her.
In his zeal to shake things up, Brown's most celebrated affirmative action ended up like cinders at his feet.
The results were not always so incendiary, but many of the other outsiders Brown brought into government had similarly limited experience at the give-and-take of politics. Instead of broad accomplishment, many of them found themselves frustrated. They came on a mission to change the world. But the world wouldn't budge by their will alone.
There was a common lament among those around Brown in 1981 and '82: By the time they had learned how to make things work, their time was up. In a 1982 interview, Brown himself said: "I am finding that my eighth year is perhaps my best. I am having my best relationship and the deepest level of trust among myself and legislators that I ever had in my entire life. Now, had I started doing this my first year. . . ." His voice trailed off wistfully. What might have been.
Brown's current presidential campaign poses a riddle: Can someone produced and nurtured by the political system convincingly stand apart from it and smash it as a way of winning office?
Well, you have to give him this: He did it once.
Echoes of the Reformer
The circumstances were eerily parallel, 18 years ago and now. In his first campaign for governor, Brown began from an utterly conventional position. In 1974, he was the work-a-day secretary of state, keeper of California's archives and administrator of elections. He even had been born into the political mainstream, bearing the name of his venerated father, former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown.
Just as now, the orthodoxy of his past yielded to rebellion as Brown tapped into the public's discontent with the Watergate scandal. He took up the cry that the system was rotten and championed a 1974 voter initiative, Proposition 9, known as the Political Reform Act.
The ballot initiative was going to clean up Sacramento--and bring to the Capitol "a new spirit"--by forcing politicians for the first time to reveal their economic holdings, disclose the source of campaign contributions and limit the influence of lobbyists.
"Two hamburgers and a Coke." That's how Brown wanted to curtail the lavish wining and dining of politicians by special interests.
Like much of Brown's futuristic legacy, it sounds like tame fare today. But at the time, the act amounted to near-revolutionary change.
The proposition won and so did Brown. But as Jimmy Carter's presidential Administration later demonstrated, being an outsider can get you in the door, but it does not make you welcomed by the insiders. The political friendships, favoritism and deeply ingrained protocols that made his father such a successful two-term governor were disdained by the younger Brown. Flouted might be a more accurate word.
Perhaps that was a mistake, given that these were rare days for modern California. A Democrat was governor and his party controlled both houses of the Legislature. Aided by that partisan advantage, Brown started strong. In his first year, he secured passage of the historic Agricultural Labor Relations Act, sought by United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez to give collective bargaining rights to field hands.
But in short time, the act became a lightning rod for discord.
He had promised farmers a fair shake on the farm board. What he gave them was a pronounced worker majority. Instead of leading farm workers into a bright future, Brown and his board led them into continuing conflict with growers.
A Rude Awakening
On a broader scale, his relations with lawmakers quickly turned chilly.
If Brown was trying to splash ice water on Californians to awaken them to the future as he saw it, he threw it by the bucketful into the chambers of the state Legislature, often just because he seemed to enjoy it.
He would strip the pomp from government and ride in a Plymouth sedan, eschew a mansion and sleep in an apartment. He would ridicule perks and pay raises. To the backslappers, he would turn a cold shoulder. There would be no political welcome mat at his doorstep. His schedule was frenetic. The competition for his time, keen. Holding his attention was a wearying, if not impossible, challenge.
"If it didn't excite his fancy, it was minutiae. And he was bored with it," said B.T. Collins, Brown's former chief of staff and now a Republican assemblyman.
Still, when legislative leaders and their governor happened to see eye to eye, which was more often than many now believe, powerful laws were passed.
Such was the case with the California Conservation Corps, a lasting and successful program to enlist wayward young people into public service. Brown and the Legislature teamed up to enact California's pioneering right-to-die law, which allowed citizens to sign a "living will" setting the bounds for their medical care in the terminal stages of life. And his Administration instituted "lifeline" utility rates to protect the poor when energy costs went through the roof.
But when legislators and Brown disagreed, party loyalty, shared philosophy, teamwork, compromise, even expediency, meant nothing.
When Brown would slip, lawmakers would all but come thundering out of their offices for a place in line to boot him on the way down. To this day, his memory can spark angry ridicule.
"Remember Sally Ride, the astronaut?" asks Lou Papan, a former Democratic powerhouse in the state Assembly, as he reminisces about his days with Brown. "She and I had lunch once and I asked her, 'Sally, were you able to look out the window of that space shuttle?' She said, 'Yes, sure.' So I asked her, 'Well, did you see Jerry Brown floating out there somewhere?' "
The Vision Thing
At his best, Brown was the kind of governor who could peer around corners into the future. He excited the public imagination about tomorrows unseen. His bright light attracted some of America's finest thinkers. They gathered around his conference table deep into the night, and he actually listened to what they said. But transforming their visions into action was not Jerry Brown's strength.
Judge him by his dreams.
Yes, California was the first state to enact efficiency standards for appliances. The first to enact solar tax credits. The first to successfully promote the applied use of industrial waste heat in lieu of new power plant construction. The first to force Detroit to make a special low-polluting "California car" to reduce smog.
Brown also foresaw the horrible consequences of an atomic power accident, and his Administration was instrumental in bringing an end to nuclear power plant expansion in the nation. And long before it was a popular cost-saving idea in business, he pushed--unsuccessfully--for the launch of a telecommunication satellite to serve state government.
But if leadership is measured by the size of the cheering crowd willing to cross the bridge behind the Pied Piper, Brown looked back after eight years and was wanting.
Some of his ideas wilted for lack of sustained political nourishment, while various programs sputtered without gaining consensus. He may have opened people's minds, but he was the salesman who didn't like the paperwork of closing the deals with his public. As his standing waned, so did the power of his ideas. When he left office, his energy program was popularly ridiculed as "windmills and wood chips." Only in retrospect does the giggling seem misplaced.
On more ordinary matters, Brown was no less a futurist. And the record is no less a teeter-totter of vaulting highs and hard-banging lows.
He practically invented the modern genre of "fiscally conservative liberal." A parsimonious man in his personal life, Brown advanced the notion that citizens could expect only so much from the government treasury. For a while, he counseled "lowered expectations." He envisioned "an era of limits." He suggested that educators accept smaller pay raises and take sustenance from the "psychic rewards" of their work. He popularized E. F. Schumacher's economic treatise, "Small Is Beautiful," although it was later discovered Brown had skimmed, rather than actually read, the book.
His legacy is one that many conservatives might be proud of. He outdid predecessor Ronald Reagan, for instance, by avoiding an across-the-board general fund tax increase during his two terms. Although he did raise gasoline and employer taxes, he cut income taxes by $1 billion and indexed tax rates so that inflation would not push wage-earners into progressively higher brackets. Overall, state tax collections actually dropped from a high of $8.44 per $100 of personal income in 1977 to $7.80 per $100 in 1982.
"I'm cheap," is how he once explained his philosophy.
But the costs of frugality were considerable.
Brown stockpiled a record high surplus of state funds in his first years in office and thereby helped trigger the Proposition 13 tax revolt in 1978.
Brown argued that Proposition 13's property tax relief would cut too deeply into the fiber of government and urged its defeat. Then he turned right around and threw himself zealously into the challenge of implementing the tax cuts in ways to minimize the pain.
A more graceful politician with more friends and champions in government would have emerged as an adroit chief executive who did what his constituents demanded. But Brown had too few champions and too many foes. Office doors in the Capitol came swinging open and a chorus of voices called into question Brown's most important political assets: his sincerity and principles.
Over time, his penny pinching took a lasting toll on two of California's most renowned institutions--its schools and roads.
In an infamous interview, Brown once explained that he was squeezing school budgets because he wanted reforms. What reforms? "I don't know yet," he replied.
In truth, education rarely made Brown's priority list. Yes, he had pledged to return "excellence" to schools. But during his governorship, school funding slid from 18th nationally to 31st. The school day was shortened, classrooms grew crowded, teacher salaries fell in comparison with other states, and maintenance and construction was deferred.
Highways became a flash point in his Administration, not so much from neglect but from Brown's intentional desire to de-emphasize the automobile. Even if handled with single-minded skill, such an idea would be a difficult sell in a state where the car is the foundation of daily life. And it was not handled skillfully.
His appointment of Massachusetts urban planner Adriana Gianturco as transportation director and her clumsy effort at a diamond-lane car pool experiment on the Santa Monica Freeway raised hackles. Her push for highway landscaping and her haggling over individual road projects created the impression that the Brown Administration had little sympathy for the daily struggle of the commuter.
Today, Brown argues that the 1,500 miles of highways built during his Administration were greater than that of his pro-highway successor, Republican George Deukmejian. Brown's critics respond that because he let the road system deteriorate so badly, it was all anybody could do to bring the existing highways back into shape.
When it came to issues of crime, Brown governed during a period of changing attitudes.
Consistent with the mood of the time, he signed legislation reducing penalties for marijuana possession to a traffic-ticket-style citation. He decriminalized homosexuality. And although his veto of a death penalty bill was quickly overridden, he handled the issue so adroitly that he escaped political damage and enhanced his reputation as a man true to the principles of his Jesuit training.
He also signed bills mandating prison terms for a laundry list of serious offenses, including using guns in crimes. The number of criminals going to prison more than doubled in his first term. In 1981, the state's violent crime rate decreased for the first time in 20 years.
Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Brown?
Environmentalists, meanwhile, seldom had such a friend in high office. He was a ground breaker in raising consciousness and expanding regulation of toxic materials and pesticides. He supported urban parks and open-space acquisition in the Santa Monica Mountains. He confronted business-as-usual in the timber and energy industries. By his own example, he challenged the popular view that material acquisition was the path to personal happiness.
He failed, however, when he tried to finish the north-to-south California Water Project and build a water transfer canal in the San Joaquin Delta. Environmentalists joined with Northern Californians in a ballot campaign that painted the idea as a water-grab by Southern California.
Today, as in 1974, Brown voices righteously high standards for political behavior. During his governorship, this meant he was held to a high standard himself.
Mostly, he seemed to live up to it. But there were ethical lapses now and again.
Brown's Administration was accused in the late 1970s of pursuing policies that favored the Indonesian national oil company, Pertamina. Brown's father was an investor whose law firm represented the Indonesians at the time. His son called the insinuations of favoritism on his part unfounded.
Perhaps a more significant tangle for today's voter was Brown's late-term metamorphosis from moralist critic of the system to ordinary pol.
In 1980, after his second presidential campaign sputtered to an unseemly conclusion, Brown returned to Sacramento less the reformer than the man worried about his drop in the polls.
He started behaving just like those politicians he had made a career of criticizing--he began rewarding political supporters with judgeships, he bargained like a flea-marketeer with the Legislature and the enemies of his enemies became his friends, even if he loathed them.
Wait a minute? Who is this guy? What happened? How did principle get respelled into pragmatism?
There is a Catch-22 here, of course, but it was of Brown's own manufacturing. As an aloof outsider who refused to play the game of politics, he was criticized for missing the chance to move more boldly and rapidly toward his goals. Then, when he suited up to play the game in the late innings, he was criticized as another run-of-the-mill guy clawing his way up the greasy ladder of political ambition.
In 1980, he was engulfed in a long-running controversy when it was disclosed that his office had used state funds to compile computer lists of his political supporters, just like some old Chicago ward healer.
Done In by a Fly
Then, in 1981, the new and old Jerry Brown--the pragmatist and the idealist--collided. The result was the messiest episode of his tenure.
A feared agricultural pest, the Mediterranean fruit fly, had infested the San Jose area. The pragmatic answer was to spray the region from the air with pesticide, and fast. The idealists said wait, was there another less-drastic alternative? Brown's Hamlet-like hesitation before ordering Medfly spraying angered everyone.
By 1982, it all had caught up with him.
In a rather conventional campaign against the rather conventional Pete Wilson, Brown lost a U.S. Senate race. But he proved he was not Humpty Dumpty. He did not shatter. He was made of ductile material, which had been pulled and stretched and flattened and beaten shapeless. But it had not, he knew, broken.
His would be a long rehabilitation, much of it alone, almost all of it outside the camera's eye of attention that he so loved. Brown retreated into his cavernous mind. He sought inner meaning, he traveled and read and tried to write. He fretted and waited.
Slowly, the contours of his character returned to their familiar, original shape. He re-emerged briefly as a team player, the chairman of the state Democratic Party. But that was only to open the door. It wasn't long before he grabbed a fresh jug of ice water and summoned the press. Look at all those comfortable toes out there blocking the path to the future as he sees it.
Jerry Brown would try again.
Times staff writer Douglas P. Shuit and researcher Doug Conner contributed to this story.
Brown's Highs and Lows as Governor
Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. sparked strong reactions among his California constituents when he served as their governor from 1975-1983. His highest job performance rating from the public easily exceeded those recorded by his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, or either of his successors, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. But Brown's lowest rating also was below that registered by any of the others.
Excellent/ Poor/ No Good Fair Very Poor Opinion BROWN Best, March '76 53% 32% 9% 6% Worst, Aug. '82 28 30 39 3 REAGAN Best, June '67 41 33 17 9 Worst, Oct. '72 29 35 30 6 DEUKMEJIAN Best, Feb. '84 43 34 16 7 Worst, Aug. '90 36 33 29 2 WILSON Best, Feb. '91 36 31 12 21 Worst, Jan. '92 28 32 35 5
Source: Mervin Field, Field Research Corp.