Jerry Brown: How California Governor Turned State Around - Rolling Stone
Home Politics Politics News

Jerry Brown’s Tough-Love Miracle: How He Turned Around California

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

Jerry Brown, governor, Golden StateJerry 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!”

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.

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.

Without new revenues, Brown warned, voters would face a new round of cuts that would decimate K-12 education. And he meant it. “There were no more games to be played with the budget, no other places where one could cut,” recalls Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor. But even raising money for schoolkids was a tough sell in the state where the nation’s anti-tax hysteria first took root a generation ago. “Brown was fighting against 30 years of lies that a tax cut is the greatest good in the republic,” says fellow Democrat Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland.

Brown’s all-in gamble paid off. Austerity-weary voters approved Prop 30 by a 10-point margin last November. And despite the warnings of right-wing ideologues, higher taxes on the wealthy have not sent millionaires running for the borders or crippled California’s “job creators.” Far from it: The Silicon Valley economy is roaring, driving 3.5 percent growth statewide; California’s jobless rate has tumbled to 8.7 percent, the lowest since 2008; and the housing market is on a tear. Entrepreneurs are doing so well, in fact, that state coffers got an unexpected bump this spring, thanks to a windfall of $4.5 billion, largely from capital gains.

Signed in June, Brown’s newest budget will reverse cuts to public education and certain health services, put the state on a path to pay off its debt – and even create a $1.1 billion rainy-day fund.

“After two and a half years of struggle and difficult times,” Brown declared this spring, “California’s budget is balanced and sustainable into the future.”

The land that gave us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, tax revolts and the nation’s harshest three-strikes laws, California was a reliable red state in presidential elections from the late Sixties through the 1980s. But in a script that should sound familiar to anyone who follows national politics, California Republicans undermined their own easy dominance of state politics by moving abruptly to the right, alienating the state’s increasingly urban and Latino population with harsh stands on social issues and get-tough immigration laws.

In short, Golden State Republicans have been locked in the same “demographic death spiral” that South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham says haunts the national party: They’re too old, too white and too rural in a state that’s trending young, multicultural and urban. “California Republicans are hopeless,” says Carrick. In the 2012 election, the party all but crashed and burned, as voters elected a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, rendering the GOP moot.

With the budget in balance and Republicans sidelined, Brown has shifted gears, and the Golden State is emerging, again, as a laboratory for ambitious progressive governance. “Ideas go West to East in this country,” says Mickey Kantor, the Los Angeles attorney and former commerce secretary, who also managed Brown’s 1976 presidential bid. “We’ve got to do big things as a country. And with a legislature of two-thirds Democrats, Brown ought to be able to get big things done.”

Thinking big has never been Brown’s problem. When he first took office in 1975, the 36-year-old governor was like a New Age Bulworth. He mixed expansive ideas for the future with unvarnished contempt for the pomp of politics. “I don’t believe in the cult of personality,” he declared, “having my portrait hung all over the place like Ronald Reagan or Mao Tse-tung.”

The son of former governor Pat Brown – a gregarious figure known as the “Architect of the Golden State” for his expansion of California’s university system, highways and water infrastructure – Jerry Brown was more cerebral and policy- focused. He’d studied Classics at Berkeley, law at Yale and the New Testament during a three-year detour in a Jesuit seminary. In Sacramento, Brown powwowed with futurists like Carl Sagan and Buckminster Fuller. He dated rock superstar Linda Ronstadt. A Chicago columnist dubbed him “Moonbeam,” a name that has haunted him ever since.

Some of Brown’s thinking was literally celestial – he once called for California to launch its own space academy. But most of what made Brown seem alien to the Eastern establishment was just environmentalism far ahead of its time. “He preceded Al Gore,” says Tom Hayden, the counterculture icon whom Brown appointed as the first chairman of his solar-energy council. “He’s out there with solar beanies and rooftop collectors, and it’s 1974 and people think he’s a lunatic.”

Brown’s first gubernatorial legacy was one of pathbreaking environmental reform. He cleaned up L.A.’s smog and created tax credits for solar and wind power. Most important: He decoupled utility profits from consumption, rewarding efficiency. While nationwide demand for electricity has soared 50 percent since the Seventies, California’s has remained nearly flat – avoiding the need for building some 30 power plants.

A generation later, Brown has picked up where he left off. In 2011, he signed a law requiring California to generate one-third of its power from renewable sources by 2020 – including a target of 1 million solar rooftops. He is also reshaping the auto industry, mandating that 15 percent of cars sold in California by 2025 be electric. (Since California has the largest auto market in the country, this mandate will have an influence nationwide.) “We’re the most aggressive in the Western Hemisphere in terms of our clean-energy goals,” he says. Cap-and-trade may be a dead letter in Congress, but Brown has launched one of the world’s most advanced carbon-pollution trading markets, committing the world’s ninth-largest economy to reduce its climate pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. “It can serve as a model for the rest of the country,” says Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House energy committee.

The governor recently solicited a climate report through UC Berkeley, now signed by more than 1,300 scientists, that lays out the consensus on what’s required to preserve “humanity’s life-support systems.” “We’ve got to wake up!” he insists. As he travels his state, Brown foists the document on every captive audience he encounters, whether it’s a convention of nurses, a meeting with his state’s top mayors – even the president of China, where Brown traveled last spring.

“Jerry Brown is an American hero,” says Dr. Michael E. Mann, a leading climate scientist and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. “When it comes to climate change, he gets it – the science, the impacts and the urgency of action.”

Curbing climate pollution is just one way Brown is working to breathe new life into the ambitious agenda President Obama pursued in his first term. The nation’s most populous state is also leading the country in the implementation of Obamacare – providing a critical test case that a model pioneered in Massachusetts can work, at scale, in a massively diverse state where nearly one in four residents lacks health coverage. “It’s not too much to say that the success or failure of California will determine the fate of the legislation going forward,” says Tanden, who helped craft Obamacare as a senior administration adviser. “I believe it will be a success – they’re way ahead of everyone.”

In June, Brown signed legislation adopting Obamacare’s generously subsidized expansion of Medicaid to the working poor. Ever budget-conscious, Brown had been wary of the “big costs” and “big unknowns” of growing a program that already accounts for 20 percent of the state’s general fund. But unlike GOP governors – such as Perry in Texas – who have rejected the program out of hand, Brown pragmatically embraced the challenge and the opportunity to cover 1.4 million state residents. “We’re going to move with commitment,” Brown said, “because I do believe people do need decent health care.”

California also made headlines this spring when it unveiled sample rates for individuals in its new insurance exchange, which will serve up to another 5 million residents. Many had predicted sticker shock as premiums adjusted to cover Obamacare’s expanded benefits. Instead, the increases were modest and plans affordable. Even before federal subsidies, 25-year-olds can get coverage for $141 a month; 40-year-olds for $219. The system is working, health advocates say, because California used its bargaining power to force insurers to offer uniform products and compete on price. “We held insurers’ feet to the fire,” bragged Peter Lee, the governor’s executive director for California’s insurance exchange.

During a recent pit stop in Silicon Valley, Obama himself praised California’s execution of the health care law: “Competition and choice are pushing down costs,” the president said, “just like the law was designed to do.”

Having waged and won his 2012 ballot initiative by focusing on education funding, Brown is now transforming how that money gets spent. The governor’s new budget begins by restoring school districts to their pre-recession funding. But it targets additional spending for districts with high concentrations of at-risk learners. “A child in a family making $20,000 a year or speaking a language different from English requires more help,” Brown said, pitching the plan to the legislature. “Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.” Of the state’s 6 million public schoolchildren, 3 million come from homes that don’t speak English. Two million live in poverty. Under the new formula, per-pupil funding in Fresno – a city in the agricultural Central Valley, where 92 percent of students are disadvantaged – will nearly double by 2020 to more than $12,000.

Obama’s New Education Proposal: Change, or Changed Subject?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Brown have clashed on policy in the past, with Brown decrying federal testing regimes that force students to regurgitate “quiz bits of information.” But in June, Duncan praised Brown’s “real courage” for implementing a reform that may sound like “common sense” but – given how America’s schools have historically been funded – “is actually revolutionary.”

Even in lean economic times, Brown is pressing forward with two historic – and controversial – infrastructure investments: a high-speed rail line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, and a massive tunnel system to safeguard the state’s water supply. The governor’s attraction to these megaprojects underscores a paradox: Brown can sometimes sound like an old-school Republican when he touts fiscal discipline and “subsidiarity” – entrusting local governments with maximum control over delivering public services. But Brown is no standard-bearer of small government. He believes in letting localities sweat the small stuff so the state can handle the biggest of big projects.

High-speed rail has tantalized Brown since his first stint in Sacramento. Impressed by Japanese bullet trains, he created the state’s high-speed-rail authority way back in 1982. A generation later, in 2008, voters finally caught up with his vision, approving a $9.95 billion bond measure to begin construction of a 200-mile-per-hour train to link San Francisco and Los Angeles in just over two and a half hours.

In the throes of the Great Recession, many called on Brown to ditch the project with its all-in price tag of nearly $70 billion. “It would have been very easy for him to say we don’t have the money for this,” says former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. But Brown stayed the course, enabling California to seize the lion’s share of high-speed-rail funding from the 2009 stimulus bill – around $3 billion – including cash that Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio forfeited. Ongoing legal battles could still derail the project, but the state received the green light in June to break ground on the first 65-mile stretch in the Central Valley.

Returning to a megaproject first proposed by his father back in the 1960s, Brown also wants to invest $14 billion to build a pair of 30-mile-long tunnels to connect the Sacramento River directly to the state’s southbound aqueducts, bypassing the fragile levees of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. California’s water infrastructure has been crumbling for decades because the politics are treacherous – pitting San Francisco against Los Angeles, and the state’s agricultural interests against environmentalists determined to protect creatures like the Delta smelt.

But Brown says he’s willing to risk his political capital on a new water war to ensure that the state won’t be crippled in the event of a big earthquake or climate-driven sea-level rise. “If the Delta fails, the disaster would be comparable to Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy,” Brown told lawmakers. “I am going to do whatever I can to make sure that does not happen.”

During the state’s budget crisis, the nation’s oldest sitting governor was routinely referred to as “the adult in the room” – a label Brown strenuously rejects, insisting that his “intellectual arteries” haven’t hardened. “The problem is that the older you get, the more habituated you become to your own thought patterns,” Brown says. “But I’m not habituated – I disrupt my own thought patterns every day. I have learned to disbelieve almost everything I think!”

In fundamental ways, Brown is unchanged from the free-thinking iconoclast who first took office in 1975. Back then, Brown was out of sync with the times. “Jerry Brown was the first one that I know of,” says Kantor, the former commerce secretary, “to stake out a Democratic brand that was liberal on social policy, conservative on fiscal matters and looking to drive big issues like the environment.” Today, Brown’s unique mix of fiscal restraint and big-government ambition has not only righted California, it could provide a model for Democrats nationally. Most thought-provoking: Brown is proving that a government that lives within its means can simultaneously pursue bold, liberal policies and programs. “Without fiscal responsibility, no other progress is possible,” says Gov. O’Malley of Maryland. “I’m hugely impressed with Jerry Brown.”

If Brown is arguably the most accomplished progressive governor in America, he does have a dark side. His path back to the governorship ran through the state attorney general’s office, leaving him beholden to California’s formidable law-enforcement interests. The state prison system is so dangerously overcrowded even the John Roberts Supreme Court declared it a form of cruel and unusual punishment in 2011. But rather than use the ruling as cover to undo the damage of decades of draconian sentencing for potheads and other low-level offenders, Brown has dragged his feet – maintaining the prison system at 150 percent of designed capacity. In June, a panel of federal judges rebuked Brown for his “repeated failure” to “remedy the constitutional violations in the prison system” and threatened the governor with contempt if he didn’t schedule the release of 10,000 inmates. Brown angrily appealed the ruling back to the Supreme Court. “He does have a problematic side,” says Hayden, who first profiled Brown for Rolling Stone back in 1974. “He’s the kind of guy who, when he knows he’s wrong, argues harder.”

Brown’s law-and-order streak also makes him a wild card on issues like gun control and drug reform. The state legislature is pushing a raft of bills that would toughen California’s gun laws, already the strictest in the nation, including a measure to ban semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines. But it’s anyone’s guess whether Brown – who has recently called for both “much greater control” and a “sensible middle path” on guns – will sign the bills. On pot, the governor seems to be opening his mind. Campaigning for governor in 2010, Brown opposed the legalization of cannabis. But after voters in Colorado and Washington moved to tax and regulate marijuana last year, Brown demanded the Justice Department respect the sovereignty of the states on drug reform. “We’re capable of self-government,” he said. “We don’t need some federal gendarme to tell us what to do.”

Brown is a year short of what’s likely to be his last campaign – a cakewalk re-election bid. But with his successes so far, Brown has again elevated California’s governorship into a rarefied platform for ambitious politicians. Crowding the wings for 2018 is a formidable slate of contenders with national profiles – including Newsom, a hero to progressives for his leadership on gay marriage; former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who would become California’s first Latino governor since the 1870s; and State Attorney General Kamala Harris, a rising political star of Indian and Jamaican descent whom some have dubbed “the female Obama.”

For his part, Brown now has a relatively small window – between now and the ripe old age of 80 – in which to pursue his grand ambitions for California, the nation and the planet. Understanding the urgency that drives Jerry Brown today is no mystery, says Hayden: “He doesn’t have time to waste on flops.”

This story is from the September 12th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone 

In This Article: California, Jerry Brown


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.