Top 10 Movers and Shapers of the Golden State


What this world really needs before leaving the century is one more list of “10 most important people.” And I’m about to provide it.

This is not a list of national figures, although a couple on it certainly did make enormous marks nationally. It’s my all-Sacramento list--of the Capitol politicians who had the biggest impacts during the 20th century; the elected officials most responsible for shaping California and its government.

Three giants stand high above the rest and have no peers. They are, in chronological order:


Hiram Johnson (Republican-Progressive), governor 1911-1919: The political reforms enacted by Johnson and fellow progressives established the system of weak parties and relatively clean government that still prevails in California. He gave us the initiative, referendum and recall, nonpartisan local elections and a Public Utilities Commission that crushed the railroad monopoly. He also created “cross-filing,” allowing a candidate to file for any or all parties’ nominations. This lasted 46 years and greatly helped the GOP.

Earl Warren (R), governor 1943-53: He was the only California governor elected to three terms, so immensely popular that once he even won the Democratic nomination. Both a visionary and upbeat leader, Warren shaped California for generations by salting away wartime tax revenues and spending them later on highways, education, health care and parks to meet exploding growth. An astute pol, Warren swung the state’s GOP delegation to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and later was rewarded by being named U.S. Supreme Court chief justice.

Pat Brown (D), governor 1959-67: A builder and visionary, Brown was a Warren disciple, but with less charisma in an era of public discord. No governor had more courage. His greatest achievement was enactment of an enormous state water plan that had bitterly divided Californians. He also vastly expanded the highway and university systems, and won passage of a bill barring racial discrimination in housing. We’ve been living off him for four decades.


Then come two very important politicians who changed things forever and were contemporaries, as well as adversaries:

Jesse Unruh (D), Assembly speaker 1961-69: Called “Big Daddy” for both his power and physique, Unruh modernized the Legislature. He increased the staff to reduce reliance on the governor and lobbyists, and pushed successfully to upgrade lawmaking to a full-time job. Because of Unruh, the California Legislature was heralded--in that era--as the nation’s best.

Ronald Reagan (R), governor 1967-1975: The future president created the mood that led to California’s anti-tax revolt, preaching limited government and ending the expansionist era of Warren-Brown. A nonthreatening conservative who appealed to working-class Democrats, Reagan won his two election victories over Brown and Unruh. But he tended to govern as a pragmatic moderate.



Three other influential politicians also had significant impacts:

C.C. Young (R), governor 1927-31: An orderly former schoolteacher, Young was a progressive who established the nation’s first major old-age pension plan, helped the disabled, created the border pest control stations and began the state park system. Wrote longtime Senate Secretary Joe Beek: “He was a man whose performance always exceeded his promise.”

Hugh Burns (D), Senate leader 1957-69: A big, jovial man, Burns presided over the Senate’s golden age, an era of unsurpassed legislative productivity. He himself was a joint author of Brown’s water plan. But it wasn’t always pretty. Friendships--often with lobbyists--counted more than ideology. Reformers ultimately ousted him.

Pete Wilson (R), governor 1991-99: He guided California through its worst recession since the 1930s and several natural disasters. He launched school reform with class size reduction. His bold moves against illegal immigration and racial preferences were divisive, but most voters sided with him.

Completing the Top 10 are two charming stars who had a huge impact, much of it negative:

Jerry Brown (D), governor 1975-83: His vacillating over a $3-billion tax surplus led to Proposition 13, the historic property tax cutter. Another colossal mistake was naming Rose Bird, who had no judicial experience, as state Supreme Court chief justice. Voters rebelled against her and two other justices, and the court turned conservative.

Willie Brown (D), Assembly speaker 1980-1995: His story is compelling. A black raised in segregated rural Texas, he served longer as speaker than anyone and was a brilliant political insider. But because of his partisanship and occasional arrogance, Brown became the poster pol for term limits that have weakened the Legislature.

Anyway, that’s my list and I’m sticking with it.