First elected governor of California in 1974, after having served two years on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees and four years as California secretary of state, Brown was re-elected governor in 1978. After failing in his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1982, he bounced back in public life as mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007, followed by four years as attorney general of California. Along the way, of course, he also ran for president in 1976, 1980, and 1992.
In California, no governor can serve more than two terms in a row — with the exception of those who previously served as governor before 1990. So, in 2010, Jerry Brown performed the ultimate political hat trick. Thirty-six years after first winning the job, he ran for governor again. And won his third term. This year, barring some cataclysmic political reversal, he’ll again make history by winning an unprecedented term number four.
But, as I observed on a visit to Sacramento this week — where, in the interest of full disclosure, I once worked in the first Brown administration as director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research — Jerry Brown is not only back in charge. He is, on every front, at the top of his game.
Perhaps Brown’s greatest achievement is rescuing California from the brink of fiscal disaster — or, as they say in Sacramento, bringing California back “from IOU to A-OK.” He took office in January 2011 saddled with a $27 billion deficit (at one point, under conservative Arnold Schwarzenegger, it had ballooned to $42 billion). By 2012, the deficit was gone and Gov. Brown was able to balance the budget for the first time in 15 years.
Today, thanks in great part to Brown’s success in convincing voters to approve a temporary increase in sales and income taxes, California’s not only in the black, it’s enjoying a surplus. That presents the frugal Jerry Brown with a whole new challenge: preventing fellow Democrats from squandering the surplus with a round of new spending, which he hopes to prevent by winning voter approval of a November 2014 initiative setting part of the surplus aside in a “rainy day fund.” In other words, when every other governor’s trying to manage with not enough money, Brown’s trying to deal with too much.
On health care, California’s also out in front. According to HHS Secretary Diana Dooley, under her watch, 1.4 million people, more than any other state, signed up for “Covered California,” the Golden State’s version of Obamacare. For the first time, another 2 million became eligible for MediCal. California minimum wage workers currently earn $8 an hour, higher than the federal level of $7.25. The California minimum wage jumps to $9 on July 1, and to $10 per hour in January 2016 — with time and a half for over 8 hours on the job; double time for over 12 hours.
Congress refuses to act on climate change. Not California. In January 2013, Gov. Brown signed into law the nation’s toughest and most comprehensive cap-and-trade legislation. The program, supported by state utilities, is already up and running. The first emissions auctions have been successful. The economy remains strong. And, in his new budget, Brown has steered 25 percent of the new revenue from cap and trade to help pay for his pet project: a $68 billion high-speed rail system linking San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Brown has also tackled the age-old problem of California’s water supply — put simply, most of the people live where the water is not — by proposing two gigantic, 35-mile-long tunnels to deliver water directly from the Sacramento River into south-bound aqueducts, thereby satisfying thirsty Southern California while saving the San Francisco Bay and Delta at the same time. It may not work, but only Brown would dare try it.
Gov. Brown recently told PBS, “I really feel more equipped — physically, intellectually, and spiritually — to do this work than I ever have at any other time in my life.” Sure seems that way. It looks like Jerry Brown Act One, no matter how successful, was just a warm-up for Jerry Brown Act Two.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.