Jerry Brown in the Stratosphere

With every public poll showing him coasting to a landslide re-election, California Governor Jerry Brown is on the verge of completing one of the great comebacks in American history. 


Elected governor of the nation’s most populous state in 1974 at the age of 36, but later a three-time loser in presidential races, he was thought to be washed up before his 45th birthday. In 1982, after eight years of antics such as dabbling in Zen Buddhism, dating rock star Linda Ronstadt, and two failed presidential campaigns, California voters sent him to what seemed to be early retirement with a humiliating loss to the uncharismatic Pete Wilson in a U.S. Senate race. “I will return someday,” Brown said in his concession speech, but almost no one believed him. 

Brown’s second tenure as governor — nearly four decades after the first — is proof that if a politician has enough time, he can recover from almost anything.

Since he has a virtual lock on re-election, we’ll skip this year’s campaign and instead analyze his career over the long run, his current policies, and his possible prospects.

Brown was swept into the governor’s office in 1974 during the Watergate election that devastated the Republican Party nationally. The son of Governor Pat Brown (generally considered to be one of the best governors ever), his name helped him win the Democratic primary with bloc votes from minorities and liberals. In the general election, the anti-Nixon backlash vote provided his margin of victory.

Upon taking office in January of 1975, Jerry Brown proclaimed a new “Era of Limits” on spending and the big public works projects that his father was so famous for. His first budget message directed state administrators to strictly restrain spending and to avoid a general tax increase. When critics accused him of pandering to fiscal conservatives, he replied: “I’m not a conservative, I’m just cheap.”


Jerry Brown was the first in a line of what would become known as “New Democrats”: fiscally moderate, but liberal on social issues and the environment. (Other New Democrats included Gary Hart and Bill Clinton.)  

Brown declared his personal credo to be: “Serve the people, save the planet, and explore the universe.” After  hearing Jerry Brown talk about “planetary realism” and sponsor a California state space satellite, tough-talking Chicago columnist Mike Royko dubbed him “Governor Moonbeam.” (Royko would later admit that, for all his faults, Jerry Brown was one of the few Democrats talking about much-needed new ideas in the wake of landslide losses by Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Mike Dukakis.)

The first phase of Jerry Brown’s career unraveled in his second term, when he disobeyed California voters’ distinct wish that he not run for president in 1980. (He bombed, and finished last in the primaries.) Californians viewed him as neglecting his job in order to serve his own ambitions while crises grew in public safety, agriculture, the environment, traffic, and education. His controversial judicial appointments (such as California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, who kept overturning the death penalty) also caused his standing to severely deteriorate.  He got a reputation for flip-flopping when he first opposed the Proposition 13 tax cut, then declared himself a “born-again tax cutter” after it passed.


Voters refused to send Jerry Brown to the U.S. Senate even after a bland campaign by his opponent Pete Wilson.  He seemed washed up well before his 50th birthday. As Bill Schneider of CNN said: “He went from being interesting to annoying in about three minutes.”

Although he put up a vigorous challenge to Clinton in 1992, he still received less than 25% of the total vote, and few people took him seriously as a future contender.

Jerry Brown’s career rehabilitation began when he was elected mayor of Oakland in 1998. He helped turn around that troubled city by hiring more police officers and capitalizing on the high-tech boom in the San Francisco bay area. Able to offer lower rents than San Francisco or San Jose, he attracted over 20,000 high-tech workers to live in downtown Oakland. (Critics called this “Jerry-frication.”) But there was widespread agreement that he left Oakland in better condition than he found it. Jerry Brown left Oakland with a new reputation for being focused and accomplished.

In 2006, he was easily elected California attorney general in a Democratic wave year, and in 2010 he reclaimed the governor’s office in a Republican wave year as Republican nominee (and former eBay CEO) Meg Whitman self-destructed.

Brown’s second run as governor has been a night-and-day change from the first. He inherited a multi-billion dollar deficit and closed it mostly with spending cuts. (His popularity with minorities has largely muted attacks that he was hurting the poor.) He also kept his 2010 promise not to raise taxes without voter permission: Brown was able to persuade voters to pass Proposition 30 in 2012 by raising taxes on the most affluent to keep the California university system running. Brown’s endorsement of gay and women’s rights, which were seen as outré causes in the 1970s, is in the mainstream now.


His judicial and other appointments the second time around have caused him no trouble. He’s probably the most popular big-state governor in the country now, a stunning change from his earlier “Moonbeam” image.

His comeback not only demonstrates the healing power of time, but the fact that it is much easier to govern a one-party state. With 2-1 Democratic legislative majorities, California Republicans are essentially irrelevant. As the Democratic governor of a deep-blue state — Obama twice carried California by a record three million votes — perhaps his current popularity should not be surprising.

Besides balancing the budget and preserving the University of California, Brown’s main policy goals are environmental protection through much higher energy standards, building high-speed rail, and attempting to solve the state’s seemingly endless water crises.

While Proposition 1, Brown’s effort to alleviate the water shortage via a $7.5 billion bond for water infrastructure projects, will pass handily this fall, his “Supertrain” project has hit repeated bumps. Voters passed a $10 billion bond for high-speed rail in 2008, but that was contingent on receiving federal matching funds, which Congress may not approve after the Obama administration leaves office. Even worse, the project’s costs have ballooned, with some estimates reaching as high as $70 billion. However, despite the cost overruns, Brown’s rail project will likely go forward in some form, as the California  Supreme Court recently rejected a lawsuit attempting to halt construction.


With his present currently secure, what lies ahead for Jerry Brown? Is there another presidential campaign in his future (perhaps against another opponent named Clinton)? The national polls do not even list him yet as a potential candidate. Yet former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown is adamant that Jerry Brown will run in 2016, calling the presidency “unfinished business” for Jerry.

Jerry Brown’s main pitches to Democratic primary voters are that he opposed the Iraq War, he has the right experience, he cleaned up California’s budget mess, and he can win the presidency by carrying key Western swing states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and maybe Montana. (Winning those states would make up for his presumed loss of the South.)

Would Brown really take on the Clintons again? While I was working on a 2011 special California state Senate race, Gov. Brown came to campaign for the nominee I was aiding. I told the governor I had voted for him in 1992, and he replied sharply: “That was against Bill Clinton, right?” The resentment in his voice was palpable. Running again is probably in the back of his mind. Additionally, 2016 will be his last chance, at age 78. As one California political consultant said: “I gave up a long time ago trying to predict what Jerry will do next.”


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