If history concludes that Jerry Brown was among California’s most important governors — as very likely it will — that will have much to do with the fact that he had more time in the job than any of his counterparts. When he hands power to Gavin Newsom on Monday, Brown will have served four terms as governor, more than anyone else has (or will in the future, unless term limits laws are changed).
The extraordinary length of his tenure, spanning more than four decades with a 28-year break between his second and third terms, gave Brown a long view that other governors lacked, and allowed the public time to catch up to his progressive ideas on issues such as diversity on the bench, renewable energy and water security. Had he not returned for another two terms, Brown might have forever been remembered as “Gov. Moonbeam,” the hip, young politician who dated a rock star and had some strange ideas about harnessing the power of the sun. Instead, he leaves office this week as the idiosyncratic but sagacious senior statesmen whose deep understanding of the state’s unique political landscape and shrewd tactical skills made him the governor California needed at this crucial point in its history.
It wasn’t just age that improved him; he also expanded his political resume between gubernatorial stints, serving as chairman of the state Democratic Party, as mayor of Oakland (which no doubt gave him an appreciation of how state policies and funding decisions effect real people in their communities) and as California’s Attorney General.
Brown was not a perfect governor. He has blind spots and character flaws, and, like any public official, he has stumbled on occasion. Some of his backroom deals, such as the one he cut with the beverage industry in 2018 on soda taxes, struck us as cynical. He paid insufficient attention to certain issues, such as poverty and housing, leaving them for future governors and legislators to sort out. He devoted much of his political capital (and much of the state’s actual capital) over the course of his four terms to a water project and a high-speed rail enterprise that may have been prescient — but may also prove quixotic. He vetoed some bills we thought he should sign, and signed others he should have vetoed.
But when taken in full measure, he deserves a heartfelt thanks for leaving the state in much better condition than when he found it. There have already been many articles written about his accomplishments, so we won’t belabor the details, but here are a few areas in which Brown deserves special appreciation before he heads off to his Colusa County ranch.
He was a strong and steady champion of fiscal stability, working diligently to transform the irresponsible culture of budgeting and spending in Sacramento. With the economy still growing and an expected $15 billion state budget surplus this year, it’s easy to forget how bleak the financial picture looked in January 2011 when Brown was sworn in for his third term. Services had been slashed, and still the state was facing a $28 billion hole in its operating budget; only a year and a half earlier, a cover story in the Economist magazine had declared California to be “ungovernable.”
When the Legislature, controlled by his fellow Democrats, brought him a budget that he thought relied on gimmicks and wishful thinking, Brown vetoed it. That set the tone for the next seven years. In a remarkable political triumph, Brown persuaded voters to vote for a package of temporary tax increases in 2012 (some of which later became permanent) to close a yawning deficit and then pushed through Proposition 2 in 2014, reinvigorating the state’s rainy day fund. Even when the economy rebounded and the state’s finances were back in the black, Brown never stopped preaching fiscal responsibility, warning that the next downturn was coming. We hope the message will not be forgotten.
Brown took important steps to ease the crisis in the state’s overcrowded prisons with the ”realignment” policy that gave counties more responsibility for felons; he followed up with the controversial but important criminal justice reforms in Proposition 57. (In part, Brown was making up for signing the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act in 1976, which he later told the Los Angeles Times editorial board was his biggest political regret.) He also diversified the state’s judicial branch dramatically by appointing a significant number of women, people of color and non-prosecutors to the bench. That will reshape the delivery of justice in California for decades to come.
His final gift in the criminal justice arena was a signature on a bill ending cash bail, an imperfect but important step toward equity and fairness.
Brown fought for — and eventually signed into law — the Local Control Funding Formula, which drove additional dollars to school districts with high concentrations of poverty, English language learners and foster youth. He also persuaded the Legislature to pass a fuel tax to pay for highway repairs and transportation infrastructure improvements.
And of course Brown stood up to the bully in Washington, D.C., in his inimitable way. When President Trump retreated on climate change and adopted draconian immigration policies, Brown kept California on the right side of history.
It remains to be seen what will be the future of the high speed rail project for which Brown has been an enormous and articulate proponent. He supported the concept beginning in the 1970s, and although he wasn’t responsible for the 2008 ballot measure that authorized its construction, he remained a resolute champion of the project even as its price tag soared and public and political enthusiasm waned. In a 2018 conversation with The Times, Brown said the project was “in the spirit of the great governors of California” and that to “turn tail and join with the naysayers” would be a tragedy. “We’re going to complete it, oh you of little faith,” he said.
Gov. Brown was a political wheeler-dealer and a canny deal-cutter who understood that compromise was at the heart of politics, but he was also a big-picture thinker able to articulate a broader vision for California. Like his father, Gov. Edmund Brown Sr., who built the University of California system and the state water project, Jerry Brown fought for a bullet train many others couldn’t imagine (and many still can’t), for the multi-billion-dollar Delta tunnels, and for laws that put California at the forefront of the war against climate change, ahead of most nations. He saw California as a promised land, capable of anything, progressive in the best sense of the word.