The first time I laid eyes on Jerry Brown was in College Park, Maryland. The newly elected governor of California had belatedly plunged into the race for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, in which Jimmy Carter was marked as the favorite. With the help of the Baltimore political machine built up by Nancy Pelosi’s family, Brown stormed across Maryland. He was a good stump speaker, a refreshing contrast to Carter, with his earnest pledges about honesty and zero-based budgeting. Brown won the primary and went on to victories in California and Nevada.
Amid this bracing challenge to the peanut broker, I wended my way to Sacramento to view the governor in his local habitat. Whale song burst from loudspeakers in the street outside his office, in front of which was parked his demure official vehicle—a Plymouth Satellite. Stewart Brand, editor of the New Agers’ bible CoEvolution Quarterly, was at his elbow as an adviser. Tom Hayden was on the line.
By the time of my late spring visit, California had already peaked as the Golden State. Ahead lay accelerating destruction or misuse of the state’s natural assets, starting with water; the ruin of a marvelous system of public education; creation of a vast gulag (twenty-three prisons built since 1984); phalanxes of absurdly overpaid public employees; and paralysis of the legislature in Sacramento.
You can hang some of the blame around Brown’s neck, though not the seeds of legislative paralysis. Finger Earl Warren for that one. It was Warren’s Supreme Court that issued two decisions in the early 1960s—Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims—ruling that legislators should be apportioned on a "one-person, one-vote" basis. This required state legislatures to reconstitute themselves entirely by the measure of population. Rural counties lost their state senators. Los Angeles and San Francisco swelled in power. The reconstituted California Senate of forty—coupled with the two-thirds-majority requirement to pass the budget—permits a faction of fourteen senators to shut down the state once a year, and that is precisely what happens.
Nor can you blame Brown, who served as governor from 1975 to 1983, for the economic earthquakes that began in the late ’70s, when defense and aerospace contracts started to slow (California had been getting one in every five Pentagon dollars during the cold war boom); by the late ’80s as many as 2 million well-paid blue-collar workers and their families had quit Southern California.
The gulag is a different matter. Governor Brown didn’t start the "lock ’em up forever" boom—but he hopped on to the moving train nimbly enough. In 1977 the legislature passed a new sentencing law, which Brown swiftly signed. It amended the state’s penal code to declare that punishment, not rehabilitation, was now the goal. The law ended "indeterminate sentencing"—whereby convicts could win significantly shorter sentences by dint of good behavior, self-improvement as assessed by boards including guards and prisoners. Liberals thought this somewhat ad hoc procedure was inherently unfair. Enter, across ensuing years, mandatory completion of prison terms; shriveling of opportunities for convicts to improve themselves; virtual extinction of parole; and open-ended "civil commitment," with endless extensions of prison time. The result was a swelling population of cons, many of them now entering senility and the Alzheimer years, many of them nonviolent offenders, crammed into tiny cells or using beds stacked three tiers high in prison gyms, all maintained decade after decade at staggering public expense.
Among them are those incarcerated for life under the state’s "three strikes" law, passed in 1994. In 2004 a state initiative to soften three strikes was set to pass handily until Brown, along with several other former California governors, did a last-minute ad blitz that reversed the poll numbers and defeated the proposition. Brown appears to have been the most enthusiastic participant; he flew to LA to do a series of ads with members of heavy metal groups, including Orgy.
Brown failed to fight the Prop 13 initiative effectively, though this prototypical Tea Party rebellion was probably unstoppable. When Prop 13 passed in 1978, the local governments that had already lost all power in the State Senate also lost any ability to raise money by increasing property taxes. Since then the only way to get dollars for education has been to go to Sacramento and beg or dream up another bond issue to place on the ballot. These bond issues can pass only with support from public employees—especially police, prison guards and firemen, uniting with teachers, nurses, etc.—and so the never-ending upward spiral of public employee salaries and pensions has no discernible limits.
By that time Brown had the damaging Governor Moonbeam label stuck on him by Mike Royko, though uncharacteristically this meanspirited Chicago columnist later apologized, just like Green Party punk rocker Jello Biafra later said he was wrong to call Brown a Nazi. It’s hard to be absolute about Jerry, though his stint as mayor of Oakland was very unattractive. His tilt at Clinton in ’92 was most enjoyable, not least for the fun I had with Andrew Kopkind interviewing Brown for The Nation and with Robert Pollin when we jointly defended Brown’s flat-tax proposal in the Wall Street Journal, bringing down the wrath of the liberal nonprofit tax reform groups, which ardently defended the so-called "progressivity" of our existing tax code!
California’s problems are well beyond the curative powers of any one governor. Brown’s slogan in the mid-’70s was "We are entering an era of limits" (always excepting the prison population and the share of the very rich in the national income). So if he wins in November, there’s no need to nourish foolish hopes. I guess it’s Jerry’s last hurrah. I give him a decorous cheer, if only as homage to the ’70s, when politics were a lot more fun and more optimistic than they are now.