California’s only living Democratic governor is no longer a Democrat. Which hasn’t stopped Jerry Brown, now a political independent and Oakland’s brand-new mayor-elect, from casting a giant shadow over the party’s 1998 and 1994 nominees for governor.
While the former, Gray Davis, was his chief of staff, and the latter, Kathleen Brown, is his sister, in a metaphorical sense, they’re Jerry’s kids.
With Davis winning a dramatic primary victory and Republican Dan Lungren promising to campaign against Brown himself, it’s time to address the question of the Jerry Brown legacy in California politics. Of course, the legacy is still unfolding, with a possible Davis administration on the horizon and the man himself working to make Oakland, where he just won a landslide victory, his laboratory for urban change. But though his legacy, like the future, is something of a moving target, a number of things are clear.
First, he was a much more accomplished governor than many elites are willing to admit. Brown is flat-out hated by much of the media and political class. In his apostate, post-gubernatorial mode, he stands as an implicit rebuke to their increasingly unpopular way of doing things, an outrider on the storm of a devolving American democracy who could have been Bill Clinton, had he been so inclined.
Jerry Brown dramatically changed the face of government in California. Diversity was a watchword of his governorship, reflected in a multitude of appointments. This drive for diversity fused with his Catholic belief in social justice, leading to the Farm Labor Act and the California Conservation Corps. The former gave enforceable rights for the first time to our most downtrodden workers; the latter trained, employed and gave a fresh start to 50,000 urban youths.
His focus on stewardship fostered the movements to protect the coasts and control toxic chemicals. It also led him to block dangerous liquefied natural gas plants and prevent the littering of the California landscape with scores of unneeded nuclear power plants, saving ratepayers untold billions.
His emphasis on innovation and desire for an economic strategy that would reflect California’s seemingly contradictory character as a high growth/environmentalist state--one that would not accelerate the rate of resource consumption--led him to make California the world leader in conservation and renewable energy technology and to champion the then fledgling personal computer industry.
His belief in reform brought him to office in 1974 as the author of the first big post-Watergate initiative on campaign finance and marked his runner-up candidacy for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination as the prescient scourge of our corrupt big-money politics.
None of which is to say that Brown was a perfect governor. He made mistakes, a certain arrogance was never far from the surface and his often mercurial nature distracted him from bringing promising ideas to fruition.
No one sane would accuse Gray Davis or Kathleen Brown of being mercurial moonbeams. Neither is exactly an electrifying figure, and one senses that both have shied away from potential controversy in reaction to the Jerry Brown experience. Kathleen Brown went out of her way to emphasize a level-headed style that bordered on boring, declaring herself “a different shade of brown.”
The wiser heads around Davis take a different tack, as does the candidate himself. None criticizes Jerry Brown who, unlike the lieutenant governor, opposes the death penalty and is not a decorated Vietnam veteran. Indeed, Davis openly embraces the Brown legacy of diversity.
The would-be governor parts company with the former governor on questions of political reform and economic strategy. Davis is one of the most relentless big-check fund-raisers the state has ever produced, and his economics are more in the centrist Clinton mold than Jerry Brown-style technopopulism. Whether Davis can maintain these stances as governor when California’s endless boom ends is another question.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives. It’s a dictum in the process of being definitively disproved by Jerry Brown, who continues to invent his legacy even as it is inherited by the Democrats out to end the party’s 16-year-long drought and at last succeed him as California’s governor.