Photograph by Alex Farnum
When considering his career, California attorney general Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. likes to invoke the word evolution. The son of celebrated California governor Pat Brown became secretary of state at 32 and won his first gubernatorial election four years later, serving two terms. He also ran populist long-shot presidential campaigns in 1976, 1980, and 1992. In the mid-’90s, he declared himself “a recovering politician” and became a public radio talk-show host, making observations about spirituality and the electoral system that weren’t exactly, well, politic. Then he quit to become mayor of Oakland in ’98, shifted back toward pragmatism, and helped reclaim the city’s beleaguered downtown.
As a septuagenarian, Brown is reseeking the governor’s office in a state that has devolved into essentially the same sorry condition it was in when he first took office 35 years ago. Now, as then, California is reeling from massive joblessness, soaring oil prices, environmental degradation, and an economic downturn so severe it has raised fears of another Great Depression. Once again Brown is vying to replace a Hollywood actor who came to Sacramento with no experience in public service and is leaving the state in worse shape than when he arrived.
It hasn’t been all déjà vu, though. In place of his pop singer girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt, is Brown’s wife, lawyer and onetime Gap executive Anne Gust (he married for the first time at age 67). And none of his rivals in ’74 was a billionaire, as is former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who has become the likely Republican nominee, in part by spending $27 million on her campaign in the first 11 weeks of this year. We met with Brown in Oakland at the converted grocery warehouse that serves as his campaign headquarters, where he tucked into a few slices of his wife’s leftover birthday cake and ate prunes out of a yogurt tub. The presumptive Democratic nominee (the primary is June 8) talked about the campaign, the state of the state, and being a politician who never quite fit in.
Why would you again want to serve as governor of a California that has the worst credit rating of all 50 states, will face a deficit of more than $20 billion by next summer, and is tied for having the third-highest unemployment rate in the country?
And we also have a gross domestic product of $1.8 trillion, which makes California an economy greater than all the countries of the world except seven or eight. So the potential is still fantastic. The workforce, the climate, and the culture of innovation all make California a magnet to the world despite its temporary setbacks.
It was also a pretty lousy time for California and the nation the last time you became governor—the oil crisis, stagflation, a looming state deficit, high unemployment. How would you compare the severity of that era with the one we’re living in now?
Today we’re in the aftershocks of the wild excesses on Wall Street and the financialization of the American economy whereby those who work in finance are paid enormous bonuses while huge parts of the rest of America are forced to take less and some are even immiserated. We’re in a different world now that the federal government has allowed a leveraging of as high as 40 to 1 to become the order of the day, with hundreds of billions—if not trillions—of dollars of our wealth. In terms of the confidence in government, in the banking institutions, in people’s savings and their future financial security—all of these have been undermined far greater than was the case in 1974.
Why do you think you are the only Democratic candidate running in advance of the primary?
I have no idea. People run for all sorts of reasons. It’s opportunity. It’s the people with the money or the name who can run. There was [U.S. congressman John] Garamendi, there was [U.S. congresswoman] Jackie Speier, there was Mayor Villaraigosa, and Mayor Newsom, Senator Feinstein—these were all people who considered it.
Considered it, maybe, but didn’t actively vie for it. Does it surprise you that you’re alone here?
Politics doesn’t surprise me. Obviously people calculated that it was not worth the effort. I have a strong following in the Democratic Party, so anyone who did run would have a difficult time winning the primary, and if they did, they would be depleted for a general election.
People were made aware that you wanted to run more than a year ago, but you only declared in early March. Why the wait? Did you turn over in your mind whether it was “worth the effort”?
Certainly I did give it a lot of thought, and I didn’t rush the decision. These kinds of decisions are not so easy to parse. I understand California. I’ve been here all my life. My parents lived here all their lives. My grandparents lived here all their lives. My great-grandparents on my father’s side came across the plains in a covered wagon. I have a sense of the history and the possibilities, so it’s natural for me, seeing the challenges and having been governor and attorney general, to want to jump in.
Which attributes do you think qualify you best to lead the state through these troubled times?
Familiarity and understanding of the dynamics of state government, local government, politics, and the California economy. Those are all crucial elements in the governing of the state, so I would think that would be very helpful. Instead of someone who has virtually never voted, has only an indifferent interest in government or politics to wake up and say, “Well, I have all this extra capital, so I guess I’ll run for governor.” That seems to me a far thinner set of credentials, given the enormous challenges we face.
In the mid-’90s, on the Bay Area radio show you hosted, you delivered a grim prognosis of money’s undue influence on political campaigns, saying, “If you spend more, your chances are nine out of ten or eight out of ten that you are going to win. Nobody in power can get there without mortgaging themselves to the tune of several million.” Assuming that Meg Whitman gets the Republican nomination, and assuming she spends the $150 million she’s set aside for her campaign, how do you beat nine to one odds against you?
Very difficult. A private takeover of the public airwaves through the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars has never been attempted before. It’s almost akin to a totalitarian ministry of information. Now having said that, there are still outlets. There are newspapers, there are news shows, there’s the Internet. There’s the people themselves. And I believe that a well-run, people-to-people campaign with adequate funding will offer an alternative so that the vote will be informed and will not be totally manipulated by consultants and Madison Avenue-type advertising.
Do you believe that odds are nine to one in your case?
I don’t believe they’re nine to one. I wasn’t running for governor then. I’m saying that, as a system over time, the danger of plutocracy is real. And yet we’ve seen in the past where the “rule by money” has been overcome, because people are revolted by the attempted manipulation of a public debate.
Do you think the experience that California voters have had with Governor Schwarzenegger, who is not popular now with either Democrats or Republicans, could be seen as a cautionary tale about what happens when an inexperienced person jumps into the governorship?
Well, it says that the private sector is not the golden road to political success. In the private sector one acts privately, one can make certain arrangements that are not allowed in the public sector, and one has one essential criterion, which is revenue over expenses. A CEO does act unilaterally in many cases and can outsource and fire in ways that a governor can’t. That really is the difference. Government deals with a range of political and civic expectations that are far different from running a movie business or an Internet auction house.
Southern, Northern, and Central California have interests that often conflict with one another. The state’s rich and poor, the native born and recent immigrants, also sometimes find themselves in opposition. How can you be governor to all these Californians?
With patience and insight and prolonged engagement of the different factions. California is divided politically and geographically and in the distribution of resources. And that’s been a part of the landscape since it became a state in 1850. So that all goes with the territory.
How do you account for the intensity of the political polarization in Sacramento?
The number one factor is how that devastating economic collapse, caused by unregulated risky business behavior—as much as $11 trillion in lost wealth—has slopped over into California and become the major contributor to California’s budget crisis. When you have huge growth in wealth, it’s easier to collaborate. Now we’re allocating economic stress, and that’s much more challenging.
And the number two factor?
The ideological sharpening and intensification of the two parties. The Republicans and the Democrats have to stop acting like cults and more like broad organizations of political involvement more carefully attuned to the average voter and not to the more activist minority that dominates the parties today.
Should you take office next year as a governor at least nominally affiliated with one of those two cults, how do you deprogram the Republicans and the Democrats?
In the way that I always have. I have been a critic of the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party. I’ve run against President Carter and President Clinton. I’ve stood against the status quo in Sacramento as well as Washington, and yet I’ve worked with all the establishment elements. So as I say, you need an insider’s knowledge and an outsider’s mind, and you listen to people and you realize that no one perspective will ever predominate in a diverse state. It always comes down to forging a consensus, which I was able to do as governor on many occasions.
Your father, Pat Brown, was such a builder when he was governor. His master plan for higher education elevated the state’s universities into the ranks of the world’s finest. His water resources plan gave rise to the California aqueduct, which now bears his name. In this era, can the governor of California possibly accomplish things of that magnitude?
I think that you can do what the people want. If the people wish to live within their current revenues, then we’re going to have to be very efficient and very lean. I think the first goal right now is to stabilize our budget and engage both parties and all 120 legislators in a serious scrutiny of every major item in the budget, and that will take months and months. And I intend to do that starting in December.
With the most recent tuition hikes, a University of California education with room and board now costs $27,000 a year, and more increases loom; a Cal State student living with her parents has to pay about $15,000 a year. Do you think your father’s achievement of providing affordable higher education to Californians regardless of need has been undone?
It’s getting undone, but I think we can curb the fees. Since my father’s time, and since my last time as governor, the prisons and prison medical spending have skyrocketed and absorbed more and more of the general fund of the state budget, so that uses up funds that would have gone to the universities. The universities are getting a pittance compared to what they used to get. I’d like to see that change when I become governor.
By releasing nonviolent drug offenders from state prisons?
I don’t think they are nonviolent drug offenders. It’s very hard to get into prison today. You have to really cause havoc in your community to get arrested, but prison health care is way overspent. It’s gone up dramatically to $14,000 a prisoner a year—the highest in the world. I’m fighting that excess, and I believe if we can get in front of the Supreme Court, we have a good chance of cutting it back. So I think there are savings in uniting and integrating our efforts, as in parole and probation. And if we develop differing sentencing structures, I think we can control criminal behavior at a lower cost, and that’s imperative for us to generate more funds for higher education.
More funds, maybe, but we’ll still be falling short of making higher education available to every Californian academically up to the task.
It’s not going to be that affordable. America has been increasing its inequality. It doesn’t fit with the norms of Christian humanism, but it just happens to be late-stage capitalism and how it functions. Technology, globalization, and financialization mean that those who work at the commanding heights feel entitled to huge bonuses and salaries while at the same time feeling like those at the lower end of the scale have got to compete with the people of China, India, and Mexico. That is where we are. It’s a very odd situation, and it’s certainly not been the historic pattern for what the U.S. has stood for.
Last year seemed like a pretty bad one for Christian humanism, with all the state cuts to programs for the poor, the disabled, and early childhood development. Do you see even more hardships ahead?
I do see a tough year, and you have to remember California does spend more than most places. There is no limit as to what people could spend through government, given the inequality of society, given the environmental challenges, given the breakdown of neighborhoods and the problems with crime and education—tens and tens of billions of dollars, if not hundreds of billons, that could plausibly be proposed. The only limit is the revenue we collect, and we’ve got to learn to live within that limit.
What can a governor do about these inequalities as they affect Californians?
The state of California can mitigate them, and certainly as a Democrat and as someone allied with the representatives of working people, I will do everything I can—as opposed to someone whose campaign embodies the very excesses we’re discussing.
So could Ms. Whitman expect a state income tax increase if you become governor?
No, I think the income tax is contributing an excessive amount to the state budget. When I was governor, the income tax was lower than the sales tax. It was about 33 percent of the general fund. Now it’s 55 percent. It’s far too unstable, and the tax base has to be broader than it is today. No, California taxes are very high on high-wealth individuals. They’re higher than they are in the rest of the country [except for Hawaii and Oregon]. If you make California such a high-tax state, you’re going to deter investment, and you’re going to deter people from wanting to live here. I mean, we’re in a competitive world. We can create a little island called California. If Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Texas all get to have less taxes, and if that’s where all of our business goes, we’re going to have even more of a problem than we do now. It’s really a loser to follow that path.
When you were governor, you opposed Proposition 13, which severely curtailed property taxes, and then you said you enforced it and implemented it to the best of your ability when it became law. Knowing what you know now about its impact on California, would you have fought more strongly against it, or less strongly, or would you not have opposed it at all?
Well, I couldn’t have fought more strongly unless I had billions of dollars to fight against it, but that was irrelevant because property taxes were doubling. Property taxes never jumped as high in the history of California than in the years leading up to Prop. 13, and that was a function of two things: property tax reform, which eliminated the discretionary authority of assessors such that when values increased, assessors had to increase the value of all property; they couldn’t hold back home owners’ taxes and just let commercial and industrial property taxes rise. And number two, the unprecedented inflation of the ’70s. Given that tidal wave of tax increases, the voters took things into their own hands and turned out in June of ’78 in greater numbers than any other time before or since in California history.
In a recent radio interview, you mentioned that the $5 billion surplus you had amassed as governor helped shore up police and fire departments and schools after Proposition 13 began to reduce funding.
Yes. Absent that money held in abeyance, we would have had the same crisis as now. You would have had massive layoffs in L.A. That didn’t happen because I did run a very frugal government. Some Republicans—they haven’t lived here that long, so they don’t know, but I ran a very tight ship. No one has been a more frugal governor than I was.
Some liberal Proposition 13 critics, among them Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post, have written that the anger leading to the bill’s passage was fueled in part by the public’s awareness that the state was sitting on a $5 billion surplus and wasn’t rebating it for tax relief. Do you think that’s an unfair characterization?
Completely. It’s called a rainy day fund, and that’s exactly what California needs today. Then when you go into a recession, you don’t have to lay everyone off, but you spend your surplus until the economy comes back. There were more than enough spending bills when I was governor to wipe out that surplus a couple of times over. But I didn’t let that happen, and that isn’t why people voted. They voted for Prop. 13 to lower their property taxes, not because I was able to run a frugal government. I know a lot of people believe what you just said, but that’s a canard. That’s what I call liberal revisionism.
Are you personally as frugal as you were when you were governor? I know you took a vow of poverty when you became a Jesuit novice.
I did take a vow of poverty, and I signed a will and gave all my meager possessions away. But I retracted that when I left the seminary, so I definitely have possessions.
But do you consider yourself personally frugal?
I live a decent life. Did my wife make my lunch today? Yes. Do we have leftovers for several days? Yes. Do we borrow money for vacations? No. Do we buy anything we can’t afford? No. I live well within my means, as did my parents and their parents before them.
So have you ever bought anything on eBay?
No, I go on eBay to see how well my old campaign buttons are doing. I find they’ve become more valuable than they were two years ago.
Whatever happened to the Dodge Dart you used to drive when you were governor instead of being chauffeured in a state limousine?
That wasn’t a Dodge Dart. Please do not revise history that much. It was a Plymouth, a Plymouth Valiant. And it was in front of my old apartment just last week when I had a fund-raiser there.
Would you forsake the mansion for the apartment this time around and drive yourself?
I don’t think I would drive the Plymouth Valiant because it was a new car in 1975. It’s a little old now. My wife’s upstairs. I’ll consult with her on my living arrangements. That will be a long family discussion.
As a onetime resident of Los Angeles, can you give us your impressions of the city when you visit it?
I lived in Laurel Canyon for 16 years, from 1973 to 1988. It’s definitely more crowded on the streets, with more people, more cars, more businesses. There’s certainly dynamism in Los Angeles that’s still there. Downtown’s more vital than ever, so that’s good.
What would it mean for campaign politics in California if Meg Whitman wins the election?
I think it will be the wave of the future if it works. I think you’ll see it in other states, and then somewhere along the line you’ll see a revolt from that and a reaction and a revolution that will result—hopefully in the same way that Roosevelt was able to curb the excesses of the laissez-faire of the Roaring ’20s.
As governor you signed legislation establishing a 55 percent solar tax credit.
It was the most extensive in the country, and California was the world leader for a period of years. It no longer is, though.
Because the people who were elected were not interested. They were more sensitive to fossil fuels, oil, coal energy, waste, and excess. Certainly Reagan as president preempted California’s state appliance energy standards and showed no interest in conservation or renewable energy and was very comfortable with the American people being dependent on Arab oil and other unstable sources of fuel. Through [Assembly Bill] 32, Governor Schwarzenegger has attempted to create the opportunity for more energy sustainability, which is very good. It’s important in the near term that we reduce oil imports and protect the environment and make our economy more efficient. But that is not going to be the rule when you say, “Let the market decide.” The idea that we don’t need a policeman on Wall Street makes as much sense as saying we don’t need a policeman in gang-filled neighborhoods.
At 37 you were the youngest California governor in the 20th century. And should you enter another term at 73, you’ll be…
The oldest. But probably not the oldest in the 21st century. In 2050, I’m sure they’ll be older.
Ed Leibowitz is a Los Angeles magazine writer-at-large. His article on road rage appeared in the February issue.