Jerry Brown as California Governor, Act 2: Can He Save the State?

Jerry Brown may be mellower and more experienced than when he first served as governor in 1975. Now he faces big challenges given California’s more diverse population and flagging economy.

Just as he did in early 1975, Jerry Brown on Jan. 3 takes the helm of California from a former movie star Republican governor: Back then it was Ronald Reagan; now it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s pretty much where the similarities end when it comes to governing the Golden State today compared with 28 years ago.

No, wait a minute. Back then the US economy was emerging from recession, too – though the state jobless rate of 9.4 percent didn’t hold a candle to today’s dismal 12 percent unemployment.

Indeed, 1975 may turn out to be a cakewalk for the once and future governor compared with the state of affairs that now awaits him. For starters, there’s the projected budget deficit of at least $25.4 billion. There’s more traffic congestion and pollution, and deteriorating highways, dams, and levees. The public education system is no longer the envy of the free world, and the national media are writing of the state’s declining influence. There’s evidence the middle class is fleeing the state, plus the perpetual complaints from businesses that taxes and fees are too high.

IN PICTURES: Jerry Brown Through the Years

But Mr. Brown has changed, too – and perhaps is better equipped now to lead California out of a funk and into, if not the sunset, at least stability, analysts say. Voters must be hopeful that’s the case as well. They handed Brown, a lifelong Democrat, a decisive 53.8 percent victory in November over Republican Meg Whitman.

“The good news is that reforms are in place and [Brown] has all of the skills to do everything California needs without his need to prove anything or aspire to higher office,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “The not-so-good news is that the recession is bigger, the state more diverse, and the legislature more partisan. People hate government and don’t believe a word that comes out of any politician’s mouth.”

A More Mellow Brown

Still pugnacious and spontaneous – qualities that won him both scorn and praise when he governed the first time – Brown is by most accounts mellower now. Gone are his bachelor days dating rock stars and “closing down the bars in Sacramento” – as he so baldly put it during a 2010 campaign debate, prompting the audience to laugh and his handlers to cringe.

Brown, in fact, has bulked up his political credentials since the days of the pet rock and “Kojak.” After his first stint as governor ended in 1983, he served two terms as mayor of Oakland and two terms as state attorney general. Those experiences have smoothed some of his rough edges, acquaintances say, as has Brown’s 2005 marriage to Anne Gust, a corporate lawyer and former chief administrative officer of Gap Inc. So have three runs for president.

He has a couple of other things going for him, too. Voters in November approved two measures that are expected to make it easier to govern a state that some pundits said had become almost ungovernable. One will allow the legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority vote, rather than the current two-thirds requirement. That is expected to eliminate the annual budget gridlock that had become as predictable as Friday afternoon tie-ups on Los Angeles’s I-405.

The other will revise the way the state draws legislative districts, potentially reducing the number that are gerrymandered to protect incumbents and that result in the election of uncompromising candidates (the second-biggest reason for gridlock, analysts say). Redistricting, which takes place this year and should be complete for the 2012 election, will now be in the hands of a citizens commission, instead of state legislators.

An ‘Era of Limits,’ in Spades

But if Brown in 1975 encountered what he called an “era of limits,” 2011 may give new meaning to that term. Even before he was sworn in, Brown convened town-hall-style meetings – and invoked apocalyptic language – to describe the budget reckoning that lies ahead. Severe cuts are no doubt in the offing, though at press time Brown had not outlined where he will recommend making them. His budget blueprint is due to the legislature in Sacramento Jan. 10.

All this comes against a backdrop of a state that, while still the nation’s most populous, is less influential than it used to be, according to California historian Kevin Starr. He also notes the difficulty of serving a megastate of such extraordinary diversity. The number of Latinos here has doubled in 20 years, and they have become a more potent political force. Larger concentrations of Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and African-Americans are expanding what Mr. Starr calls the state’s lab experiment in “global ecumenical civilization.” Indeed, 27 percent of California residents are foreign-born, as of 2009, compared with about 12 percent two decades ago.

Balancing the diverse interests of these groups – as well as those of unions and businesses, environmentalists and farmers – while also balancing the state budget will take all the political skill Brown can muster. Some doubt he can do it.

“California is doomed,” says Don Potter, founder of, a website for those age 65 and older. “We are about to go bankrupt, and none of the politicians, bureaucrats, or union leaders seem worried…. Since the politicians refuse to do anything about the out-of-control spending and rising debt, our only hope is that the federal government steps in and bails us out, as it did with General Motors, because California is too big to fail.”

Others are more sanguine.

“I’m optimistic and hopeful,” says Dr. O’Connor. “[Brown] has nowhere to go but up. He has always been sensitive to the state’s diversity and has no disdain for [people’s] differences.”