Jerry Brown's Tough-Love California Miracle

The 75-year-old governor rescued the Golden State from financial ruin - and is reshaping a national progressive agenda

August 29, 2013 7:00 AM ET
Jerry Brown, governor, Golden State
Jerry Brown
Illustration by Tim O'Brien

As wind turbines spin like massive, inverted egg-beater blades against the bluest California sky, Jerry Brown steps into the sun. Since he took office in 2011, Brown's hawklike brow has been cemented in a scowl as he battled to stave off bankruptcy for the Golden State. But as he high-steps to the microphone today, the 75-year-old governor is loose and smiling. Soon he's riffing about his first stint in Sacramento in the 1970s as "Governor Moonbeam," joking of the nickname, "I earned it with a lot of hard work!"

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Brown has come to a warehouse district just south of Oakland to cut the ribbon on the Zero Net Energy Center – the first large-scale commercial building in the nation to be retrofit to consume no more energy than it produces. With function following form, the building will house a green-energy training program, where apprentice electricians will earn union wages while learning to install things like solar-power inverters and electric-car charging stations.

In recent years, California industry has received intense lobbying from Republican governors like Rick Perry of Texas – who has been trying to lure companies to his state by promising low taxes, cheap labor and minimal environmental regulations. For California's governor, the Zero Net Energy Center stands as proof that such efforts are "really screwed up" and that America's economic progress need not be a race to the bottom. "We're trying to make it work for everybody – corporations, workers and the environment," Brown says. "This is the wave of the future, and we're going to push it right across this country, and right across the world."

Just two years ago, the idea that California could be a global model for anything was laughable. When Brown took office, the state was staggered by double-digit unemployment, a $26 billion deficit and an accumulated "wall of debt" topping $35 billion. California was a punch line for Republican politicos – a cautionary tale, they said, of the fate that awaits the nation should it embrace Left Coast-style economic, social and environmental liberalism. On the campaign trail in 2012, Mitt Romney joked that "America is going to become like Greece, or like Spain, or Italy, or like . . . California."

But in astonishingly short order, America's shrewdest elder statesmen blazed a best-worst way out of California's economic morass. With a stiff cocktail of budget cuts and hard-won new taxes, Brown has not only zeroed out the deficit, he's also begun paying down the debt. "Jerry Brown's leadership is a rebuttal to the failed policies of Republicans in Washington," says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. "California is proving you can have sane tax systems, raise revenues, eliminate structural deficits and have economic growth."

Fed up with the state's own obstructionist Republicans, California voters have even given Brown a Democratic supermajority in the state legislature. As a result, the Golden State is now reasserting itself as a proving ground for the kind of bold ideas that Republicans have roadblocked in Washington – including a cap-and-trade carbon market, high-speed rail and education-funding reform.

As a younger man, Brown suffered an acute case of "Potomac fever," bidding three times for the White House and once for the U.S. Senate, suffering each time the sting of rejection. But after a career reboot beginning in 1999 that saw him serve as mayor of Oakland and state attorney general, he defeated Romney pal Meg Whitman for governor and returned to Sacramento with a clarity of purpose. "Very few people get to be governor 38 years after they first started," Brown says. "I spent some time in the wilderness. But I'm back."

Today, Brown is a deeply self-assured politician, not seeking public adulation. His brand of tough-love liberalism is defined by a pragmatic streak more familiar from center-right politicians like New York City's Michael Bloomberg. Brown attacks festering problems, demands durable solutions and isn't shy about calling for sacrifice – provided the burden is shouldered fairly. (These same unsentimental qualities dovetail with a regrettable law-and-order streak that Brown cultivated as state attorney general.) No longer thinking of his post as a steppingstone to higher office, Brown is instead determined to craft a durable legacy – the capstone to more than four decades of public service. His foulmouthed motto? "I want to get shit done."

The California that Brown inherited on his return to office appeared to be an insolvent, ungovernable mess. California's finances have been out of wack since the late 1970s, when right-wing, anti-tax activists passed Prop 13, a constitutional cap on property taxes that also requires a two-thirds supermajority vote to raise any tax through the state legislature. Moreover, it was a Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who hastened the recent fiscal calamity by slashing California's vehicle license fee. Promising to cut the "car tax" keyed Schwarzenegger's victory over the hapless Democrat Gray Davis in the recall election of 2003. But it also blew a $4 billion annual hole in the budget that Schwarzenegger simply papered over with bond debt.

When the Great Recession struck and the state's credit rating collapsed, California was in a bind: Its budget shortfall was too massive to resolve with cuts alone. But the state's intransigent minority of Republican lawmakers refused to raise revenues. Making matters worse, in the same 2010 election that returned Brown to office, Californians tied his hands by approving another hard-line anti-tax proposition that reclassified many state fees as "taxes" and even made closing tax loopholes subject to supermajority rules.

Brown realized he needed to mastermind a detour around the gridlocked legislature. A lifelong fiscal conservative, he led with austerity – approving bone-deep cuts to higher education and health services for the poor, among other vital state services. Most politicians seek to spare voters discomfort; Brown gambled that by making all Californians endure the pain of budget cuts he could then persuade them to raise taxes on themselves at the ballot box – the one place where a simple majority vote would do the trick.

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Brown then crafted – and made himself the public face of – Proposition 30, an initiative to hike California's sales tax as well as income taxes on the wealthiest, raising an additional $6 billion a year. It was a politically perilous move. "If he'd lost, he would have taken a hit for it – big time," says Bill Carrick, a top Democratic consultant who works out of Los Angeles.

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