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Jerry Brown takes stock of the pandemic and the president

California Gov. Jerry Brown on his ranch in Williams, Calif., on Dec. 28, 2017.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown on his ranch in Williams, Calif., on Dec. 28, 2017.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

At first, Jerry Brown seemed to reject the question based on its premise. He has a penchant, as journalists know, for dismissing a question for no other reason than a misplaced word.

In a call placed to the state’s longest-serving governor who has retired to his rural Colusa County ranch, I had asked him to take stock of the challenging times in which we’re living — the state of his state and nation, so to speak.

“That is a real Rorschach test kind of question,” Brown said.

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As it turned out, though, he didn’t need much prodding.

Over the course of the half-hour conversation, the 82-year old Democrat painted the challenges of the time in broad strokes: how the devastating fires now burning across Northern California are a reminder of the dangerous legacy of climate disruption, why slowing birth rates and rapid technological change could exacerbate inequality, how the COVID-19 pandemic and social upheaval are reshaping the path ahead.

He then paused. “I don’t know if I can tell it to you in the time allotted,” Brown said.

Here’s a sampling of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Jerry Brown on the pandemic and presidential politics

How have you spent your time during the pandemic?

I’ve been pretty much right here on my ranch. My off-road vehicle blew a tire, so I went into Colusa to pick myself up a new tire. That’s maybe one of the times I went out. My wife goes shopping once a week, early. We’ve had some visitors. They stay outside. So I’m not moving. I’m right here. I’m here off the grid, watching the smoke.

California seemed to do pretty well holding down the spread of COVID-19 cases in the spring, but the state has struggled this summer. Where do you think the balance is between personal responsibility and the relaxation of government mandates?

Obviously, we need more surveillance of the virus. That’s just the way it is. And this will intensify, not diminish, in the years to come as other pandemics spread across the world. The big problem here is that Donald Trump completely failed his responsibility as president. What was it? It was ... to invoke the [Defense] Production Act and mobilize the manufacturing capacity of America, so that America could conduct millions of tests every day and identify — not in seven days or three days, but literally within an hour or two, certainly by the end of the day — who was infected, and then those infected be effectively quarantined.

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That’s only something a national government can do. ... It’s a real predicament. But now, in the absence of more rapid testing, wearing a mask is absolutely crucial. And these, these Trumpites that want to make a political issue of it are best characterized as true troglodytes.

We’re all in it together, and the federal government policies ought to recognize that.

The president keeps using California as a punching bag. [Federal Emergency Management Agency] funding threats, state policies are to blame for wildfires, these unproven allegations of rampant voter fraud. Broadly speaking, do you think it’s better to confront all of this when he says it or just ignore it?

I say a little of both. ... FEMA is giving billions to California, so definitely need that. But there’s plenty to confront Trump about and the 60 or so lawsuits from the [state] attorney general are doing that. And so will, you know, the candidates during the coming election.

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How much did you watch the Democratic National Convention?

Well, I don’t have a television ... I’m out here with the coyotes, the rattlesnakes and the elk. (Brown later admits he watched some of the events through an online live stream.)

How do you think the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris ticket fares at this point?

I think it’s dynamic. It’s a breath of fresh air. And even though I’m saying that about a man, only five years younger than me, I think it’s true because the combination together — in the face of almost four years of Trump — does present to people a fresh possibility, a new path forward.

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What makes her the right running mate for Joe Biden?

Well, I don’t say there’s any right running mate. But this combination is imaginative. I think it’d be highly effective. And as you can see, Kamala has a lot of energy. She presents herself well. I think she’s a good balance with Biden in every way — intellectually, politically.

A good politician seems, to me, to anticipate what the other side is going to do. What do you think Democrats should expect from Republicans and the president in the coming weeks?

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Trump telegraphs he’s trying to diminish absentee voting. He’s trying to denigrate Biden and Harris so as to discourage swing voters. You read all about how Putin allegedly affected the election. Well, Putin is an amateur compared to Trump and Fox News. They’re sowing disinformation and discord every day.

With Vice President Biden choosing Sen. Harris for the ticket, everybody says well, if they win, who’s Gov. Newsom going to appoint? And your name comes up as a replacement who could hold the Senate seat for a couple of years until another election in 2022. Would you ever consider taking that appointment?

First of all, I never close any doors. But secondly, I don’t think Newsom is going to want to appoint a caretaker. Usually, they like to put somebody in who could get a head start.

Well, you could run for it on your own in two years.

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Yeah, but I’m enjoying watching the egrets fly into the oak trees. ... I like where I am. I can think of a few missions that I might want to embark upon, but the U.S. Senate doesn’t seem to be at the top of my list.

So what would be at the top of the list?

I’m not going to tell you.

National lightning round

Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s most influential and longest-serving advisors, announced Sunday that she would be leaving the White House at the end of the month.

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— The Republican National Convention begins on Monday and the president will undoubtedly insist he’s kept his many campaign promises from 2016.

— President Trump’s older sister, a former federal judge, is heard sharply criticizing her brother in a series of recordings released Saturday, at one point saying of the president, “He has no principles.”

— Trump vowed an all-out fight against opioid addiction. But opposition to insurance coverage and a lack of follow-through led to more deaths.

— The president announced that the government had authorized the emergency use of blood plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients to combat the disease. But scientists said the therapeutic benefits of the treatment, which has already been used on some 70,000 patients, were not yet fully understood, and some public health experts questioned whether political considerations had colored the decision-making process.

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— Biden responded sharply to Trump’s attacks on his mental health in a national TV interview that aired on Sunday, his first with Harris as his running mate. “Watch me,” he said. “Mr. President, watch me. Look at us both, what we say, what we do, what we control, what we know, what kind of shape we are in.”

— North Carolina is a key state as Democrats try to redraw the political map. The state is trending blue, but it has disappointed them before.

— Three men charged with Stephen K. Bannon in an alleged border wall scheme have a shared history of trying to make money off Trump’s political movement.

Kristin Urquiza ripped Trump for her dad’s COVID-19 death during the Democratic National Convention. She hopes her fame will drive change.

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— Congressional Republicans in tight reelections are in a precarious position over the embattled Postal Service, one of the federal government’s few beloved agencies.

— A California court has ordered President Trump to pay $44,100 in attorney fees to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.

Today’s essential California politics

— A bill to toughen penalties for police officers who do not intervene when witnessing a fellow officer use excessive force was sidelined in the California Legislature, a setback that supporters said is particularly frustrating given momentum this year for police reforms after the killing of George Floyd.

— With less than two weeks before a statewide moratorium on renter evictions expires, California lawmakers on Thursday declined to back a plan that would have provided tax credits for landlords.

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— California is asking the federal government for a $300 weekly supplemental unemployment benefit for jobless Californians, Newsom said last week.

— In California’s first major case involving unemployment fraud during the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities allege 21 people were part of a fraud ring that stole $250,000 by submitting bogus claims on behalf of jail inmates.

— As COVID-19 continues to ravage nursing homes, the California Supreme Court has ruled that a law allowing residents to sue facilities limits compensation to $500.

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