Op-Ed: Liberals skeptical of Joe Biden should look to the example of Jerry Brown

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown standing before the California flag.
For a model of how progressives might work with Joe Biden, look to former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s time in office, and how he was pushed to take more liberal stands than he might have otherwise.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Many California Democrats have misgivings about Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders handily swept the state’s primary in March, and in late June, Democrats selected representatives from the party’s progressive wing — including one of Bernie’s most prominent supporters — to lead the California delegation at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

But progressives wary of Biden should take heart. A model for how to proceed can be found in the legacy of a leader many California Democrats have fondly embraced: Jerry Brown. Biden and Brown have a lot in common, and those commonalities provide insight into what kind of leader Biden would be — and the role progressives will need to play in a Biden administration.

For starters, both men are lifelong politicians with decades of experience in policymaking and reputations for pragmatic dealmaking and a populist flair.

They have also both remained grounded, rejecting many of the trappings of power. During his first term as governor in the 1970s, Brown lived in a modest apartment rather than the governor’s mansion, and he drove a Plymouth sedan rather than use the usual limo. In his second swing as governor, Brown was known to fly around the state solo on Southwest Airlines flights rather than on a private jet with an entourage of staff.


Biden has shared Brown’s modest travel habits, regularly commuting on Amtrak between Washington and Delaware. And while Biden’s gaffes and blunders may be a vulnerability Trump hopes to exploit, they, along with his stories of family tragedy and his rank as the least well-off member of the Senate, have also humanized him.

And then there is the matter of timing. When Brown began his second stint as governor in 2011, the state’s economy was still stumbling out of the Great Recession. Deep cuts by the previous administration had left education, health and welfare systems in shambles.

Brown oversaw the beginning of a California renaissance. But he was not solely responsible for the state’s comeback. In that, he was both supported and pushed by California’s sophisticated social movements to do things that would raise the boat for all Californians, not just the wealthy. When he left office in 2019, the state was in a much stronger position: economically vibrant and boasting a budget surplus. And Brown had become an international leader in the fight to combat climate change even as the state became a pioneer in protecting immigrant communities from assertive federal enforcement mechanisms.

But let’s give credit where it is also due. The millionaire’s tax that helped right the state’s budget was first proposed by progressives organizing voters of color. The hike in the state’s minimum wage was forced into being by labor, with Brown actually seeking to moderate the increase. The enhanced protection of immigrants was facilitated in part by a vibrant set of immigrant rights organizations that changed the narrative and the political calculus.

And, while Brown certainly deserves credit for leading on climate, it was “climate justice” advocates who insured that environmental protections for poor communities were a key element of his efforts — something that helped earn the support of communities of color that are actually the most loyal of environmental voters.

From these examples, Biden can learn from Brown. If he becomes president, as seems increasingly likely, Biden will be, like Brown, inheriting a mess. To lead a deeply wounded nation to a better future, he will need to listen in the way Brown did. The California governor was never the type to join activists in the streets. But he did listen to the needs of everyday Californians and worked with a cadre of advocates from across the state to enact meaningful reforms, including driving education dollars to students most in need.

If elected, Biden will need to act in a similar fashion, soliciting input and heeding the voices of Americans calling for economic and racial justice. He has a good head start with the Unity platform that has been crafted by Sanders and Biden supporters working together. But he will also need to have the humility to understand that his highest calling is not as a dominating leader but as a vessel for American hopes.

California progressives frustrated that Biden won the party’s nod will need to understand and embrace their role. Biden might not have been their candidate of choice, but he has the potential to oversee great change with their guidance and support. The role of grassroots forces, as during Brown’s tenure, will be to provide wind to Biden’s sails when he is heading in the right direction and to hold him accountable when he is wrong — just as they did with Jerry Brown.

Sara Sadhwani is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College. Manuel Pastor is director of the Equity Research Institute at USC.