For Jerry Brown, the Face of California’s Old Order, the Ranch Is Calling

Source: By ADAM NAGOURNEY, New York Times • Posted: Monday, January 29, 2018

SACRAMENTO — When Jerry Brown became the 34th governor of California in 1975, he was a young and impetuous bachelor who slept on a box spring and took pleasure in defying political convention. He was the vanguard of the left, the face and spirit of a new generation of a state that — politically and culturally — was proudly distinct from the rest of the nation. He has been such a fixture ever since that it seems impossible to imagine California without him.

Now, as Mr. Brown enters the final 12 months of his second tour as governor, and as he prepares to deliver his final State of the State speech here on Thursday, he has become the face of the old order — admired for his long stewardship, but also seen as a roadblock for some younger Democrats who have impatiently awaited change.

This is a decidedly more liberal class of Democrats, on issues ranging from single-payer health care to the impeachment of President Trump, and many of them have long said the time has come for Mr. Brown’s generation to step aside.

“He is a middle-of-the-road sort of guy and if I’m being perfectly honest, he is not completely in touch with the way the majority of folks in California feel,” said Kimberly Ellis, a Democratic leader from the Bay Area who lost a fight last year to lead the state Democratic Party. “In many ways, with respect to single-payer and other issues, he and others play the safe role — the conservative role.”

Now, with a spirited race to succeed him underway, the talk has turned to Mr. Brown’s next chapter and the resilience of the imprint he has left on a state with which he has been identified for so long.

Mr. Brown, left, was sworn in as California’s secretary of state in 1971. Associated Press

After more than 45 years, Mr. Brown, 79, is entering what he says are his final months in public life. He has been governor (twice), attorney general, mayor of Oakland, secretary of state, state Democratic Party chairman, and a candidate for president (three times). Mr. Brown is barred by term limits from running yet again.

Sitting in the sun-washed first-floor salon of the Governor’s Mansion, he talked of finally leaving politics and of retiring to his isolated 2,514-acre family ranch, Rancho Venada, an hour’s drive north of here. His years of running for office, Mr. Brown said, are over.

“I think it’s getting close to the end,” Mr. Brown said, as his dog, Colusa, slept in the next chair. “I think I’m going to be O.K. with that.”

After two turns as governor, marked by many ups but also quite a few downs, a pollby the Public Policy Institute of California released in December found that 53 percent of Californians approved of how he was handling his job, compared with 28 percent who did not. That compared with a low approval rating of 34 percent in February 2011, right after he took office, to a high of 62 percent a year ago.

And though he is by most measures exiting on a high note, he has yet to deliver on some of his biggest agenda items, including high-speed rail and repairing the state’s water systems. He also predicted in the interview that California would soon enter a recession, an unusual assertion by a sitting governor.

There will, no doubt, be some Democrats who will be glad to see Mr. Brown move on; while he is celebrated in some quarters as a centering force for California and the state Democratic Party, Mr. Brown is a moderate in a state that is moving left. His departure clears the way for candidates waiting in the wings who have not shied away from expressing their eagerness for new faces to take it in that direction.

“We’re going to see a new generation of Democratic leadership being ushered into new political positions,” said Kevin de Leon, 51, the California Senate leader challenging Senator Dianne Feinstein, 84, who is seeking a sixth term.

Senator Kamala Harris, 53, who replaced Senator Barbara Boxer, 77, when she retired, has emerged nationally as what Mr. Brown once was — a potential presidential candidate representing the nation’s most populous state and embodying the hopes of its liberal wing.

“There has been a generation of really incredible leaders that have come out of California and proven themselves to be national and global leaders,” Ms. Harris said.

Mr. Brown said he was ready for his exit, but demurred when asked if he was confident he was leaving California in good hands. “Well, that’s a loaded question,” he said. “What if I say I am not confident? That’s one damn headline. So I have to say I’m confident.”

Mr. Brown campaigned to be the Democratic nominee for president at the University of Maryland in 1976. Associated Press

Still, the state under Mr. Brown is prosperous: Its economy is booming and Mr. Brown’s latest budget projects a $6.1 billion surplus in the next fiscal year, compared with the more than $26 billion deficit he faced when he proposed his first budget. Since the election of President Trump, California has emerged as a rare bright spot for the Democratic Party, a workshop for the party’s ideas on the environment, immigration, housing and criminal justice.

California has been spared the partisan battling that has afflicted Congress and statehouses in many parts of the country. That reflects both the overwhelmingly Democratic control of government, but also Mr. Brown’s knowledge of how Sacramento works. He is the son of a legendary governor, Pat Brown, who served from 1959 to 1967.

“Give him credit: he inherited a $26 billion deficit, and when he leaves office he’ll have an $11 or $12 billion rainy day fund,” said Gray Davis, a former governor and also a Democrat. “He took a state that everyone was cracking jokes about to one where analysts are truly impressed with the financial progress that has been made.”

That said, the future of Mr. Brown’s two most ambitious initiatives — building a high-speed train line from San Francisco to Los Angeles and repairing the state’s water network — is far from assured. As several critics noted, Mr. Brown has not extended his considerable political clout to take on some of the tougher challenges California faces — among them, a volatile tax system that, because of its reliance on high-earner taxes, has fueled repeated booms and busts, and a public pension system facing ruinous shortfalls. California continues to be saddled with one of the most severe affordable housing and homelessness crises in the nation.

Mr. Brown predicted California would fall into a recession within the next two or three years. He and other Democrats are worried about the toll the Republican tax overhaul could take on the state’s economy and housing market. And it is hardly clear that the Democrats fighting to succeed him will champion the kind of fiscal restraint that was a hallmark of Mr. Brown’s tenure.

Pete Wilson, a former Republican governor who defeated Mr. Brown in a race for the United States Senate in 1982, said Mr. Brown had held the line on spending “to a degree.” But he said spending and taxes had still risen and he faulted Mr. Brown for failing to take on public employee pensions.

“I’ve heard a number of people say that Jerry’s the most conservative Democrat in Sacramento,” Mr. Wilson said. “That may be, but that’s not setting the bar too high. Jerry has cultivated an image of himself as a skinflint, which has caused most conservatives to smart and laugh.”

Asked if there was anything that he regretted not accomplishing, Mr. Brown responded: “Not particularly.”

“I’m sure there are a lot of things — I’ve done a lot of things,” Mr. Brown said. “You can’t do everything. You don’t create perfection.”

In the course of a 70-minute interview at the mansion, Mr. Brown was relaxed, discursive, self-reflective and at times quarrelsome as he spoke about his past and his future. (“You’re asking me predictions — let me get my crystal ball here,” he said when asked if the congressional tax law would hurt California. He went on to expound at length about why it would, in his view, do exactly that.)

Mr. Brown and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, at the family’s ranch in Williams, Calif. Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Mr. Brown said national Democrats needed to recruit new and stronger leaders to steer the party back into control.

“The Republicans have been more effective,” he said. “They were able to stigmatize the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration in an incredible way. Republicans are very effective propagandists.”

Mr. Brown argued that the Republicans were ripe for attack.

“We have a lot of needs,” he said. “We know the population is aging. We know the cost of Medicaid and Medicare are going up. You are increasing the social divisions in America which will make America less governable and therefore less secure.”

In his remaining months, Mr. Brown said he would be turning his attention to finishing up his California business.

“I think he realizes that he is running out of time,” said Mr. Davis, who was Mr. Brown’s chief of staff when Mr. Brown held the office in the 1970s. “If he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, he has to accomplish big things. But certainly, high-speed rail, fixing the state’s water system and righting the state finances are three big things.”

Mr. Brown said he would use the rest of his year to advance the water tunnels and the high-speed train, both of which have faced rising opposition as Republicans gained control in Washington. State officials announced last week that the cost of building just one section of the train — 111 miles of track through the Central Valley — was now projected to cost $10.6 billion, up from an original estimate of $6 billion.

“It’s challenging because no great infrastructure is ever built without federal help,” Mr. Brown said. “Certainly I would hope we get help in the post-Trump era. We can keep going. But at some point we need the help of the federal government.”

Given that strategy, the project’s future may rest with the next governor. There are two Democrats leading the field to succeed Mr. Brown: Antonio R. Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, and Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor. Mr. Villaraigosa supports the project; Mr. Newsom, after initially supporting it, has expressed reservations about its cost and financing.

Mr. Brown predicted his successor would face demands for “virtually limitless spending” from lawmakers that would be almost impossible to meet. “They will have a very short honeymoon of spending,” he said.

California has been a touchstone for the Brown family since the governor’s great-grandfather arrived on a wagon train more than 150 years ago. There are no members of the Brown dynasty waiting to step in, to run for office or to pick up Mr. Brown’s role as the state’s ambassador, advocate and historian.

Mr. Brown seems at peace with that.

“I will do some,” he said. “But I am not going to commit myself to a torrid travel schedule. Not when I have the ranch calling.”