During his first eight years as governor, Jerry Brown was so imaginative about what state government could do that he won the nickname “Gov. Moonbeam.” It took Brown, then in his 30s, to theorize that a state could launch its own communication satellite. And that a governor should deal person to person with presidents and prime ministers of foreign countries. Common sense ideas today, but visionary in the 1970s.
Now, as Brown prepares for a likely record fourth term as California governor – having gone from the state’s youngest chief to its oldest – the question is whether he will return to the innovative mentality of his youth or stay with the steady, gradualist approach that’s served him well during his almost-expired third term.
All signs point to his continuing that more recent approach as he becomes a lame duck without an obvious successor in the wings.
Brown, of course, would say he accomplished a lot during his return to the governor’s office after a 28-year hiatus. His biggest achievement was bringing the yearly state budget into balance, even though he couldn’t do much about California’s outstanding debts of well over $100 billion.
That’s hardly Moonbeam material. He kept the wheels turning on the bullet train project pushed by predecessor Arnold Schwarenegger and backed by the state’s voters six years ago. Critics say the plan is impractical, and Brown has made it his baby, but it was never his own idea.
Brown has also been very gradualist in dealing with the ongoing drought. Potential ground water regulations he signed into law won’t do much until decades from now, and the ranch-owning Brown has made no major moves to shift water away from farms.
Even his prison realignment plan was forced on him by federal judges at three different levels insisting he had to clear tens of thousands of inmates out of state penitentiaries.
So there have been no brilliantly innovative ideas from the recent Brown, no new state agencies created as his younger version did with the Fair Political Practices Commission and others. No radical moves in education, either.
All this led his most recent Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, to call him “lazy and status-quo oriented.” A far cry from the old Moonbeam.
But now Brown will be essentially free. At 76, he can’t seek a fifth term and it’s likely he will never run for office again anywhere, whether for another go-‘round as mayor of his adopted city of Oakland or nationally, as the youthful Brown did while running twice for president and once for the U.S. Senate.
So far, he’s offered no clue about what he might do with this freedom. Will he try some daring environmental moves, as he did many years ago while fighting to reduce pesticide use in agriculture and strictly enforcing the then-new California Environmental Quality Act? Might he try for even more radical changes in school finance than his Local Control Funding Formula, which has just begun sending more state money to schools with the neediest students than to other schools?
Radical new actions seem unlikely. His Proposition 1 water bond embraces traditional priorities like more storage and cleanup of existing water sources. His Proposition 2 rainy day fund for state budget protection is scarcely an original idea.
The most innovative thing he proposed during his latest term might have been the notion for building giant “twin tunnels” to bring fresh water from the Sacramento River system under and into the Delta area southwest of Sacramento. As envisioned, the tunnels would help keep that area free of salt water intrusion while assuring steady supplies for the state Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. This puts him at odds with some environmentalists who once were his leading supporters and now have nowhere else to go.
Brown gave few hints during the fall campaign, where he’s been essentially unchallenged by the poorly-funded Kashkari and did very few interviews, none of them hard-hitting.
Which leaves open the question of where an unfettered Jerry Brown might try to take his beloved state, which has given him more time in its top job than anyone else has ever had.