Jerry Brown: older, not wiser

Now that California Attorney General Jerry Brown is an official candidate for governor, we’re getting to relive some California political history as pundits and reporters think back to Brown’s first stint as governor (1975-83) along with some of the entertaining facets of his long and bizarre political career.

The basic Democratic and media line: Brown, who turns 72 on April 7, may be a bit of an odd duck, but he’s a lovable guy who in no way threatens the state’s business climate and who is smart enough not to raise taxes. In other words, don’t worry; he’ll be a fine governor.

Given the boring and craven candidates on the Republican side, Brown’s intellect and lively diatribes no doubt will liven up a drab election, but I’m worried that Californians will shrug off Brown’s crazy statements as inconsequential blasts from the past, overlook his record as governor and pay insufficient attention to his ongoing behavior as attorney general.

No doubt, the reminiscences make for great fodder. The New York Times recently recounted how Chicago columnist Mike Royko bestowed upon Brown the “Governor Moonbeam” nickname to reflect his nontraditional leadership of a state Royko termed “the world’s largest outdoor mental asylum.” California Watch recounted last week the infamous 1980 Dead Kennedys song, “California Uber Alles,” a silly punk rock ditty that depicted Brown as someone who supposedly wanted to use fascist techniques to implement his liberal agenda (“You will jog for the master race; And always wear the happy face; Your kids will meditate in school; Mellow out or you will pay!; Die on organic poison gas!”).

For those who care, Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra now thinks he might have been wrong about Brown after all.

Who can argue with moonbeams, mental asylums and Dead Kennedys songs? This is fun stuff. I heard Brown speak a couple of years ago to a heavily Republican crowd in Orange County, and the audience was eating up his stories and unique perspectives.

But as part of my effort to understand the real Jerry Brown, I went back and read the online archives of some of the “We the People” shows he hosted on a Berkeley public radio station in 1996-97 as well as some of the speeches he gave in the mid-1990s. He made some reasonable and provocative points at times (especially on the futility of the “war on drugs” and on the state’s prison-industrial complex), but the transcripts are filled with diatribes against free markets and hosannas to unions and government intervention.

Here is Brown on welfare reform:

“The Republican members of the House and Senate indulged in a perverse excitement in sadistically cutting the very life-support systems out of millions and millions of defenseless people.”

And here he is on inequality:

“The gap between rich and poor also keeps increasing because of computers, because of the declining power of unions and union membership, because of technology that replaces people in unskilled and semiskilled jobs, because of workers in foreign countries merged into the employment base of American companies, and because of the use of part-time workers putting people at a disadvantage and lowering their benefits. The focus ought to be on making low-income work pay more. And where there aren’t those jobs, let the government step in like they did in WPA [Works Progress Administration], community service … and all the rest of it.”

There are many tired clichés about the evils of “industrial capitalism,” about the need for a “living wage,” about the ravages of the marketplace. Brown argued to me during his race for attorney general against Republican Chuck Poochigian in 2006 that he was simply stirring the pot as a radio host.

Indeed, Brown’s defenders insist that, at his core, he is a fairly mainstream guy. In a recent Sacramento Bee column, Peter Schrag points to Brown’s “uncanny ability to reinvent himself.” Schrag reminds readers that Brown campaigned against tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978, then “after it passed called himself a born-again tax-cutter, embraced it, got the endorsement of Prop. 13 author Howard Jarvis and won re-election by a landslide.” Schrag argues that Brown is running this time around as a sort of moderate Republican – someone who won’t raise taxes, will help lure new jobs to the state and who will even “downsize government.”

Brown no doubt will run this way, but would he govern this way?

My sense is that, despite all the reinventions and occasional good stuff – his embrace of school choice in Oakland when he was mayor (1998-2006), for instance – Brown remains the same anti-free-marketer revealed in his governorship and his 1990s radio shows. This is not some irrelevant, academic point. It goes to the heart of his governing strategy.

Indeed, the Brown campaign spokesman Sterling Clifford, told me that Brown “has always stood for the same things.” He still agrees with the sentiments expressed in those quotations above, Clifford added, although he probably wouldn’t use the exact same language today.

Take a look at how he has behaved as state attorney general, where he has used the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, Assembly Bill 32, to wage a state-led campaign to force developers to build the high-density residential developments environmentalists prefer, so that more land remains open space. Brown has argued that wealthy and elitist Marin County, with its Draconian growth controls, is the development model for the state, and he’s doing what he can to promote the types of environmental policies that will make it increasingly tough to start a business and own a home in this state.

I’m not sure how this amounts to governing like a moderate Republican. When he was governor, Brown governed as a slow-growther, whose anti-infrastructure campaign paved the way (or, actually, didn’t pave the way) for the state’s sometimes-gridlock level of traffic congestion. And it was Brown, don’t forget, who legalized public employee unions and played a key role in creating the massive level of debt the state is bearing to pay for gold-plated retirements for public employees. It’s no surprise that the state’s powerful public-sector union, the Service Employees International Union, has vowed that electing him governor will be its “first priority.”

Let’s not get too caught up in this reinvention thing. Brown is now what he always has been – an opportunistic leftist who will moderate his views to get elected, but who believes that government has the answers to the state’s problems, that unions aren’t powerful enough and that the private sector is a hotbed of fraud and abuse and must be carefully controlled. Brown is brilliant and entertaining, but it’s fair to ask, especially in these tough economic times and with the state’s crushing business climate, whether these are the policies that the state’s voters should be entertaining.

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center (

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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