California's big question: What happens after Jerry Brown?

For the past eight years, observers say the four-term governor has been the adult in the room, modeling a method of leadership that seems to be seeping out of American politics: pragmatic governance.

Hector Amezcua/Reuters
Governor Jerry Brown delivers his final State of the State address in Sacramento, California, U.S. January 25, 2018.

California Gov. Jerry Brown wasted no time in his final State of the State address Thursday morning. Clocking in at just under half an hour, the speech dove right into a defense of the governor’s pet projects: grappling with the effects of climate change; the controversial water tunnel he wants to construct under and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Water Delta; and the overpriced high-speed rail that he’s dreamed of building since the 1970s.

He closed with a salute to his immigrant forebears, whose persistence, he says, California and its people will mirror “against storms and turmoil, obstacles great and small.

To some, it was a flat commencement to the four-term governor’s final year in office. Mr. Brown, who’s been a presence in state politics for nigh on 50 years, gave no advice to his would-be successors and outlined no vision for the future of the state’s economy. Even the shout-out to his ancestors wasn’t new: the Los Angeles Times’s John Myers noted Brown had invoked his Gold Rush grandfather in previous speeches.

In other ways, however, the address was typical Brown: direct, confident, practical. He celebrated bipartisanship in the state legislature, telling Republican lawmakers: “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back!” He applauded the GOP senators, none of whom are from California, who voted against their party’s effort to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act late last year. And he delivered the whole thing without a teleprompter.

“He’s authentic,” says Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who specializes in California politics. “He clearly doesn’t care about bells and whistles, and he’s not giving a lot of empty promises and pie-in-the-sky things he can’t do. California will miss that.”

Indeed, the general consensus is that Brown’s legacy – a word the governor resists applying to himself – is one of pragmatic governance. Sure, observers acknowledge, Brown has his moments of madness (see: high-speed rail), and he was lucky to have picked up the governor’s mantle at a time when California was enjoying an economic revival.

But for the past eight years, they say, he’s been the adult in the room, modeling a method of leadership that seems to be seeping out of American politics: one that cares more about keeping the state’s books in the black than toeing the party line. And as partisan forces intensify and California diverges further from Washington, that firm hand – borne from a combination of Brown’s personal philosophy and his decades of experience – could mean a great loss for the state.

“He’s more a problem-solver than an ideologue … [and] he’s exhibited a restraining influence on where California has moved leftward and on what issues,” says Jim Newton, a former L.A. Times journalist who’s working on a biography of Brown. “No matter who wins [the governor’s race], no one is going to have the command over the spectrum that he has, the sense of regard, the sense of fear people have had for him.”

Changing state, and changing governor

The California that Brown, at 36, first inherited in 1975 was far less diverse and far more conservative than the one he came to govern in 2011. The politics of the time were less cohesive and in some ways more radical: an era of cult suicides and mayoral assassinations. Back then, Mr. Newton says, Brown was viewed as an almost kooky idealist who preferred his Plymouth to a limousine and championed solar panels and space exploration at a time when most people’s idea of groundbreaking technology was the video game “Pong.”

The next 30 years saw a tech revolution that pulled Brown’s ideas into the mainstream. Politics also evolved, as both parties began their march to the fringes and a new, more diverse generation began to come of age. By the time Brown, at 72, launched his third bid for governor, California had become a more politically cohesive, liberal state – one that needed a “parental figure” to pull it out of the $27 billion budget deficit the Great Recession had left it in, Newton says. Brown, tempered by four failed attempts at the presidency and stints as mayor of Oakland and state attorney general, had grown into the role.

“They changed almost commensurate to each other,” Newton says. “He’s a more disciplined governor, and the state’s climate demands that.”

Today Brown gets credit from both sides of the aisle for his handling of the budget. He pushed the development of a “rainy-day fund” that would allow the state to weather a mild recession with no major tax increases or budget cuts for years. “He’s always been concerned with the next recession and padding the fund, and he’s to be commended for that,” says Ryan Williams, president of the conservative Claremont Institute.

To the chagrin of many Democrats, he muscled an end to redevelopment agencies early in his third term, calling them out as a breeding ground for corruption (though in 2015 he signed a bill that essentially revived the practice). At the same time he fought for reforms in the state’s criminal justice system, calling for more flexibility around incarceration and rehabilitation – and reversing some of his positions during his first governorship. He's currently working with legislators on policies to better protect Californians in the face of emergencies – a response to the widespread natural disasters the state has faced in previous months.

Above all, he championed climate change, fighting for bipartisan support to extend California’s cap-and-trade program.

“One of the skills he’s brought to the job is a centrist, pragmatic approach to governing,” says state Sen. Steven Glazer (D), who served as Brown’s chief political strategist during the governor’s 2010 campaign. “He’s had the name” – and the weight of experience – “to hold the center course.”

Role of resistance leader

Brown’s pragmatic approach to governance hasn’t stopped him from parading his progressive pedigree at President Trump’s expense. When Mr. Trump announced his plan to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, Brown took full ownership of the issue, stepping up to represent the state – and by default the nation – in climate meetings with world leaders. And the more the White House pushes policies and makes pronouncements that the majority of Californians view as contrary to their values, the more Brown takes on the role of leading figure for the resistance.

Critics are quick to note that California – far from being a progressive paradise – faces an affordable housing crisis, a growing homeless population, and soaring poverty levels. If this is the model that progressive politics is offering up, they contend, then perhaps conservatives are right to run for the hills (or Texas, or Las Vegas).

“The current policy trajectory of Sacramento is unsustainable,” Mr. Williams says. “Progressive states like California will continue to fancy themselves as a needed check and the last line of resistance against the Trump administration … and that’s not necessarily healthy.”

But even while Brown, as governor, bears the brunt of these criticisms, many also see him as a kind of anchor against the forces of extremism and partisanship taking over the nation’s political system. His potential successors, qualified though they may be, are more likely to support the state’s leftward march – and have less political capital to spend on fighting the Democratic supermajority even if they weren’t.

Because for all his shortcomings as the state’s chief executive, Brown’s years in office have provided a blend of power and prudence that makes him “a dominant figure in state politics,” says Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Particularly in the last eight years, he was the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”

“The next governor may surprise us all. But the next governor … will not be as politically powerful or as trusted,” Mr. Yaroslavsky adds. “What we’ll lose is a wealth of experience.”

It’s too bad, some say, that Brown didn’t spend much time passing on that wisdom to a new generation of leaders. “Because of his name and power – not in every case but in many cases – he’s been able to advance this more centrist view,” Mr. Glazer says. “I'll be disappointed as he finishes his service that we had not had more help advancing that."

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