A Chameleonic Career

By Tom GallagherMay 22, 2018

A Chameleonic Career

California Comeback by Narda Zacchino

CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT FROM his party’s recent San Diego convention was the state’s top Democrat, the longest serving governor in its history, a man touted nationally as the de facto leader of the opposition to the Trump administration. Why was Jerry Brown not there for his own party’s party? Well, as the Los Angeles Times noted, at a previous convention he had “faced protests and heckling from critics who did not agree with his stance on fracking” (he doesn’t oppose it). And, if you witnessed the 2017 convention razzing of even nominal single-payer health insurance backers whose support was deemed superficial or insincere, you knew what Brown could expect if he showed up (he doesn’t support it). After all, retiring California Nurses Association executive director Rose Ann DeMoro did tell the San Francisco Chronicle that “not convincing Jerry to do single-payer” counted as “my greatest failure” — and there was a large and vocal CNA contingent at both conventions. This issue, entirely missing from California Comeback: The Genius of Jerry Brown, Narda Zacchino’s otherwise fine review of the governor’s career, does suggest that the author goes a bit too far in her subtitle — which is not to say that the long-time Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle journalist is off base in considering Brown’s career as one characterized by seriousness and intelligence beyond the political norm.

Calling California “a nation-size state famous for its progressive models” and “the key test case not only for the United States but also for the entire world,” where “observers will learn if a multicultural, democratic, and postindustrial society can remain united, functional, and progressive in the face of globalized, high-tech capitalism” (whew!), Zacchino is particularly impressed with the “radical moderate” Brown’s shepherding of 2012’s Proposition 30 tax increases, effectively closing a tax-cutting era that began with the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 during his first stint as governor.

Prop 13 reduced the state’s real estate taxes, previously soaring in tandem with its real estate values, to no more than one percent of assessed valuation. Its passage, coming at a time when California had a $4 billion surplus — equivalent to $14.6 billion in 2015 — was epochal. A counter measure allowing local governments to create a “split roll” — taxing owner-occupied residences at a lower rate than commercial properties — had also been placed on the ballot by the legislature, but the 20 percent cut it offered was too little, too late, and Prop 13 carried with a 65 percent majority, immediately reducing property tax collections by 52 percent, from $10.3 billion to $4.9 billion. Additionally, Zacchino writes, it set off “a flurry of initiatives, most of them constitutional amendments,” so that between “1978 and 2014, California’s state constitution was amended seventy-three times, compared with forty-seven amendments in the preceding sixty-five years,” making it “the third longest constitution in the world.” Although Brown, then finishing his first term as governor, had been a staunch opponent, he immediately declared that “the people have spoken” and, as Zacchino notes, “did a turnaround and embraced it with such fervor that a Los Angeles Times poll three weeks after the election revealed that a majority of people thought the governor had supported it all along.”

After a single year on the Los Angeles Community College Board, Brown — the son of Edmund “Pat” Brown, California governor from 1959 to 1967 — made the leap to statewide office as Secretary of State in 1970, where he succeeded an arguably even more remarkable father-son act — the Jordans, Frank C. and Frank M., Republicans who had held the office for all but two years since 1910. (Frank M.’s widow ran in 1970, but lost the Republican primary.) Four years later, at age 36, Brown became the youngest governor in the state’s history, winning California’s closest gubernatorial election in 50 years and replacing Ronald Reagan, the man who beat his father.

To the rest of the nation, Brown seemed echt California — a one-time Jesuit seminarian who dated pop star Linda Ronstadt and took a post-campaign vacation at the Tassajara Hot Springs Zen retreat house (although Zacchino notes that “ironically, he has never been a politician to mix God and politics in his speeches or persona”). He eschewed the Reagan-era armored Cadillac and the privately funded governor’s mansion constructed at the behest of outgoing First Lady Nancy, preferring his own Plymouth and a “modest $250-a-month, sixth-floor apartment furnished with a few things from the governor’s mansion and other state apartments” — bedsheets and towels that Zacchino reports were “provided by the state’s psychiatric hospital in Napa.” He canceled his inaugural ball and spoke about the right of farmworkers to unionize in his inaugural address. He floated the idea of the state launching its own communications satellite and hired an ex-astronaut as a space advisor. He ran for president in 1980 (his second try) on the slogan “Protect the Earth, serve the people, and explore the universe.” Although Zacchino describes his resulting nickname, Governor Moonbeam, as “a moniker he still disdains,” when the Trump administration recently threatened to discontinue collecting climate change-related data, Brown reminded scientists: “I didn’t get that moniker for nothing. […] [I]f Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite. […] We’re going to collect that data.”           

Brown lost a US Senate race in 1982 and would not hold office again until becoming mayor of Oakland 16 years later. He did, however, run for president again in 1992, accepting only individual donations of $100 or less, a stance fueled by his distaste for the corporate fundraising he’d done during a stint as chair of the state’s Democratic Party. During the race, Zacchino tells us, he “developed a dislike for the Clintons — or certainly their brand of ‘Democrat’ as part of the Democratic Leadership Council,” a group that included “among its membership tobacco lobbyists, who are in the business of killing people.” Over the years, his career has exhibited something of an inverse relationship between power and radicalism. In the years when he hosted guests like Noam Chomsky on his We the People radio show, he sometimes appeared to be flirting with socialism. He got over that, though, as soon as he returned to elective office.

One of the book’s stories most worthy of wider recollection comes in a chapter contrasting the economic development strategies of California and Texas and actually doesn’t involve Brown at all. Gray Davis, Brown’s one-time chief of staff, occupied the governor’s office during the passage of the state’s 1996 energy deregulation law, which the Center for Public Integrity has called “the most costly public policy miscalculation ever by state lawmakers.” The bill passed with no legislative dissent from either party, in either branch — a useful, if unpleasant reminder of the Clinton-era business-oriented neoliberal ideology that then dominated the Democratic Party and continues to haunt it to this day.

A 1998 repeal initiative failed in the face of a $40 million industry-funded campaign against it, coming on the heels of “an $87 million advertising campaign — the cost being passed on to ratepayers — explaining the new system to the state’s residents.” Reality begged to differ, however, and Zacchino reports that, in San Diego, “[t]he average price of residential electricity increased 413 percent from the third quarter of 1999 to the third quarter of 2000.” Corporate reaction to this windfall was revealed in audio tapes released in a lawsuit involving one of the laws’s greatest beneficiaries, the Enron corporation — George W. Bush’s largest campaign contributor over the years. The conversations, she says, “sound like a Hollywood parody of amoral greed, and in nearly all of them Enron traders are heard laughing. […] [I]n one crass example […][,] two unidentified Enron traders celebrated when a forest fire shut down a major transmission line into California, cutting power supplies and forcing an increase in prices.” Says one, “Burn, baby, burn.” At one point, the company’s top West Coast trader compliments a co-worker: “He just fucks California. […] He steals money from California to the tune of about a million.” When interrupted and urged to rephrase, he says, “Okay, he, um, he arbitrages the California market to the tune of a million bucks or two a day.” All in all, she writes, it was,

[A]n opportunity for master manipulators to rip off consumers, plunge the utilities into near bankruptcy, cost the state tens of billions of dollars, and subject nearly every man, woman, and child in California to rolling blackouts not experienced since the days of World War II, when the reasons for what was happening were at least comprehensible.

At this point, Brown was making his political comeback, starting with two terms as mayor of Oakland and then one as the state’s attorney general. Transformed from visionary to administrator in his more methodical second rise to power, his breadth of knowledge has served him well as he has taken on a leadership position in the opposition to Trump over the last two years, when he has been the oldest governor in California history. And he has not shied away from challenging the shibboleths of more liberal administrations, either — for instance, telling Obama administration Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “You assume we know how to ‘turn around all the struggling low performing schools,’ when the real answers may lie outside of school,” and explaining to Zacchino that “the latest effort principally by hedge fund and other individuals at the top of the income scale to apply business practices, performance metrics, to the school, is an untested set of propositions. There’s not empirical data that justifies them.”

A recurrent theme of Zacchino’s book — which is a revision of her 2016 tome, California Comeback: How a “Failed State” Became a Model for the Nation — is the sheer size of the issues in California, where, as Newt Gingrich once noted, “in thirty-three years, the state built twenty-two prisons and only one additional public university.” And lest we think that the Golden State’s famous environmental problems began with fracking or anything like that, Zacchino recounts how mid-19th-century gold diggers revived the ancient Roman technique of hydraulic mining, blasting away entire hills to uncover the bits of gold they might contain — at one site, seven nozzles each spewed a million gallons of water an hour, 24 hours a day. As a result of this largely forgotten practice, she writes that “in some areas, land levels were raised as much as seven feet by the aquatic transfer of some twelve billion tons of earth, the equivalent of eight times the earth that was removed to carve the Panama Canal.” In comparison, current problems like the fact that it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond may come to seem like, well, peanuts.

Returning to the vexed politics of single-payer health insurance, the state’s Democratic leadership has engaged in an elaborate charade on this issue for some years now. In 2006, a single-payer bill actually passed both Democratic-controlled legislative houses before being vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a scenario repeated two years later. So with a Democrat taking over as governor during the next legislative session, it should have been problem solved, right? Alas, no — during the next two legislative sessions, the bill died in committee. And in the session after that, it wasn’t even filed — despite considerable pressure on legislators known to be sympathetic to the idea. Not that there’s anyone talking about it, but the legislative leadership obviously gave the members to understand that they were not to file the bill (that is, if they wanted any bills important to them to be passed). It seems equally clear that the reason for this ban had to do with the fact that Governor Brown does not wish to see single-payer legislation passed on his watch.

Here we have another instance of the Jekyll/Hyde nature of Jerry Brown’s career. In 1992, the out-of-power Brown argued in a presidential primary debate with Bill Clinton that “through a single payer, as we’ve seen in Canada, you can eliminate tremendous amounts of paperwork both for the doctors, the hospitals, and the […] insurance companies.” But 25 years later, when he is in a position to shape a state-level single-payer system that would be larger than Canada’s, we find him asking: “Where do you get the extra money? This is the whole question. I don’t even get … how do you do that?” The bill was refiled in this, the last legislative session of Brown’s career, but the co-chair of the single-payer advocacy group Campaign for a Healthy California told the Sacramento Bee, “We’re hearing the governor is doing everything he can to make sure this never gets on his desk.”

If Jerry Brown really were the genius Zacchino thinks he is, or wants him to be, surely he’d remember how “you do that.”


Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools (2015) and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex (2016).

LARB Contributor

Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex. He is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


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