June 26, 2019

The Evolution of ‘Governor Moonbeam’

California Governor Jerry Brown delivers his final state of the state address in Sacramento, California, U.S., January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Fred Greave

Nearly 2,285 weeks ago, in January 1975, when Jerry Brown was sworn into office as California’s governor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Jack Nicholson starred in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and songs by Barry Manilow, John Denver and the Bee Gees appeared atop the pop music charts.

So it’s been a while.

In between Brown’s two terms as the state’s youngest chief executive in over a century and returning to office in 2011 as its oldest, Brown ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and for president; traveled to Japan to study Buddhism and to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa; and hosted a radio talk show, and served as chair of the California Democratic Party, mayor of Oakland and the state’s attorney general.

Derided as “Governor Moonbeam” during his first two terms in office, the younger and more impetuous version of Brown transformed into a leader often referred to in recent years as “the adult in the room.” As California’s political march to the left accelerated, Brown was frequently challenged by restive and impatient Democratic legislators pushing for more aggressive action on a number of policy fronts.

Brown’s curmudgeonly persona and tight-fisted approach to the state budget often frustrated his own party regulars. But he won grudging admiration from across the political spectrum for his fiscal restraint, and he will leave his successor with a $15 billion budget surplus. His transition from Moonbeam to the “get-off-my-lawn” governor has served California well.

But they don’t build statues for politicians who balance the budget. Perhaps unfairly, the difficult decisions that went into achieving such an accomplishment are forgotten as soon as the next economic downturn hits. Budgetary cycles are merciless when it comes to political legacies, and a savvy fiscal steward tends to end up as a latter-day Ozymandias, Percy Shelley’s king of kings whose monument lay half-buried and forgotten in the desert.

“[Brown’s] evolution from young firebrand to mature leader speaks to the value of experience gained and lessons learned.”

Ironically, it is Brown’s father who is remembered as California’s “Great Builder.” The state’s highways, universities and viaducts are tangible and material evidence of Pat Brown’s years in office. Brown the younger, who was famously dismissive of his father during his early years, has since developed an appreciation for accomplishments that can be touched. Over the last eight years, Jerry Brown has persistently advocated for two landmark projects — a statewide high-speed rail system and a mammoth set of tunnels under Northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that would help secure the movement of water to Southern California.

With only a few weeks remaining in Brown’s final term, it’s clear that neither of these projects is going to happen. Incoming governor Gavin Newsom has already begun speculating about less ambitious alternatives to both. Brown also seems to realize the likely fate of these goals, and although he has not publicly admitted defeat, his attempts to build public and political support for them has been intermittent at best.

Brown’s other primary areas of policy focus have been climate change and crime. His ability to work with energy companies and other commercial interests on environmental matters has brought him criticism from the left, but his balanced approach has allowed him to make considerable progress and to become a respected voice on climate change matters in the international community. His efforts on criminal justice reform have also been popular in deep-blue California, but relaxing parole and sentencing standards may lead to a political backlash in the years ahead. 

Nearly 44 years after starting his first term as the state’s chief executive, Brown will leave the governor’s office with a healthy public approval rating and an even healthier budget surplus. His evolution from young firebrand to mature leader speaks to the value of experience gained and lessons learned. Both his supporters and opponents can take something valuable from his imperfect, elongated and ultimately admirable path.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.