There are instructive parallels between the circumstances in which Gov.-elect Jerry Brown finds himself and those that confronted his father, Pat Brown, when he first took office in 1958.
Both were swept into office in epochal Democratic victories. Despite their party’s national reversals, Californians have elected Democrats to fill every statewide office (assuming Kamala Harris holds her lead in the attorney general race) and to an overwhelming legislative majority. In 1958, Pat Brown carried all but four of the state’s counties and helped propel Democrats into two-thirds of the Legislature’s seats, giving them majorities in both chambers for the first time in 80 years.
While independent and suburban voters overwhelmingly swung to the Republicans in the midterm, Jerry Brown swept those categories in California. Moreover, unlike a majority of Americans who tell pollsters they’ve lost faith in government’s ability to solve problems, a Los Angeles Times/USC survey found that Californians retain their faith in government and — perhaps most important — don’t want to see the budget balanced by major cuts in public services.
Much of what we value about California today was championed by Pat Brown, but his greatest achievement was the state water system, which made possible the explosive growth of Southern California and the Central Valley’s lower reaches. What’s often forgotten is that to build that system, Pat Brown had to surmount the fierce opposition of two of his electoral landslide’s most important constituencies — Northern California voters and organized labor (which had given him crucial support because his GOP opponent, Sen. William F. Knowland, proposed turning California into a so-called right-to-work state).
Earl Warren was the first governor to propose a serious study of moving water from north to south, but recalcitrant northern lawmakers made sure the idea never moved beyond that phase. Brown not only produced detailed plans for the Feather River Project and the California Aqueduct, he also goaded the Legislature into approving what was, at the time, the largest sale of bonds ever undertaken by a state.
Popular approval was required, and Brown turned the election of 1960 into a referendum on the water bonds, knowing that he’d be opposed not only by the Northern California voters (who’d overwhelmingly cast their ballots for him in 1958) but also by the unions. They were against the aqueduct because it would result in the “unjust enrichment” of the southern valley’s big landowners, including Southern Pacific, Standard Oil and the Los Angeles Times Co. Brown, however, barnstormed the state with his characteristic elan, and voters approved the bond sale. (At $1.75 billion, it turned out to be a historically shrewd investment.)
Just as organized labor’s support was a key to Pat Brown’s defeat of Knowland in 1958, unions also were crucial to Jerry Brown’s campaign, particularly in the summer, when Meg Whitman was using her vast personal fortune to saturate the airwaves with advertising. While Brown hoarded his resources until after Labor Day, union-organized groups independently spent at least $8 million on his behalf during July and August.
Even so, if Brown is to come up with a way to close the enormous budget deficit he’s inheriting without utterly gutting state services, he will have to persuade the unions to make painful concessions. He’ll also have to revisit his own popular promise not to raise taxes without voter approval, because it’s clear that no deficit solution is possible without reducing expenditures and increasing revenues. He might keep in mind that one of Pat Brown’s first acts was to push through unpopular tax increases that allowed him to simultaneously erase an inherited budget deficit and to increase spending on highway and school construction.
For all the regard in which the elder Brown is held as a builder, the most recent Times/USC poll demonstrates that historian Martin Schiesl was correct when he said Pat’s “final legacy was a generous and highly positive view of governmental power,” a belief that state government “could ease some of the distressing aspects of modern society, provide all Californians with a measure of dignity and assure for them a decent and durable standard of living.”
It is that legacy the majority of Californians still take to heart. Pat Brown’s son needs to keep in mind that he was elected because voters believed he would vindicate the faith they still share with his father.