Jerry Brown: Now and Then

California Governor-elect Jerry Brown speaks during a news conference at his campaign headquarters on Nov. 3, 2010 in Oakland.
California Governor-elect Jerry Brown speaks during a news conference at his campaign headquarters on Nov. 3, 2010 in Oakland.
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Next week, nearly three decades after he left it, former California governor Jerry Brown – who’s also a former Secretary of State, former Oakland mayor and former state Attorney General - returns to the governor’s office. He first served from 1975 to 1983.

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze takes a look back at Brown’s first stint as the state’s chief executive.

The son of former Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown succeeded conservative Republican icon Ronald Reagan as governor. At the time, many Californians hoped the young Democrat - he was 36 - would loosen the purse strings that Reagan had held so tightly.

But Brown didn’t, and in an interview this year he hinted at why.

“My mother. She was a very orderly, very frugal woman.”

Brown's mother, Bernice Layne Brown, was the daughter of a San Francisco police captain. She married Edmund G. "Pat" Brown in 1930 when she was 22, maintained a household while her ambitious husband started a law practice and later a political career during the Depression, and raised four children - with Jerry the oldest - during the war years.

Some observers called Brown tight, others thrifty like his mother. He told a reporter in 1976 that government didn’t need to spend to solve problems.

“People always say, ‘Give us more. Give us more planning, more experts.' Well, I would only cite the Vietnam War: the other side had less resources, less experts, less PhDs, and they won!”

Former Gov. Gray Davis served as Brown’s chief of staff.

He tells a story about the way Brown’s thrifty and political mind works. Customarily, the outgoing governor buys the incoming one a rug. Davis said Brown had refused.

“One day in his office, I noticed that there was a hole in the rug,” said Davis. He had spotted a 10-inch hole in the rug that had opened up next to Brown’s desk.

“So I told him I had asked General Services to come over and repair the hole. And he said, ‘You did what?’”

“He said, ‘Do you know that that hole has saved the state at least $500 million? Legislators can’t come in here and beat me up for more money for their pet causes if the governor has a hole in his rug.’”

That approach to governing didn’t always make for the best relationships with the legislature. Brown’s critics say he wasn’t the best steward of the state’s finances. In the 1970s, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters was a cub reporter who covered Brown.

“His decision after Proposition 13 passed was to take on a lot of the burden of local governments and schools, No. 1 – which now he said he wants to undo,” said Walters.

“And No. 2, he cut state taxes at the same time to get himself kind of in alignment with the voters - and threw the state budget into an immediate operating deficit.”

It should be noted that Brown mostly signed surplus budgets. Walters also faults him for a lack of follow-through. He said Brown virtually stopped highway construction for a time with the idea of moving to mass transit, but he didn’t seem to push hard for it. Then the governor proposed a state space program.

“He got an astronaut and put him on his payroll – Rusty Schweickart – and promoted a California space program,” said Walters.

“And he got a little publicity out of it and went on for awhile and then he just dropped it.”

Gov. Davis said his fellow Democrat frequently changed the subject because he liked to entertain a lot of ideas. That could have to do with the years he’d spent in a Catholic seminary. But in a recent address, Brown himself pointed out his aversion to long commitments.

“I took an oath to be a Jesuit once,” Brown told the audience. “I got a little tired of that.”

Brown then laughed and said, “I waited about, I don’t know how long, from 1958 to five years ago to take another vow – which is a marriage vow – so I’m real slow.”

The national media loved covering Brown during his first two terms. He was the son of a political family, California’s youngest-ever chief executive, and different: he lived in an apartment instead of the governor’s mansion and rode in a 1974 Plymouth instead of a limousine. He ran for president.

“Jerry Brown is a very brilliant man,” said historian and former California state librarian Kevin Starr.

“He is a somewhat enigmatic man. I think that history will judge the Jerry Brown as governor not in isolation from the ‘70s. This is act three of a three-act play.”

Starr predicts a better Brown, especially since he’s seen the state’s problems as mayor of Oakland. Jerry Brown – now 72 years old, the oldest governor in America - says he’s smarter now.

“The real skill here is to be able to stand back a little bit – a certain amount of role distance – not be in your role so totally that you get absorbed by it.”

Brown likes philosophical talk. But he swears he remains grounded thanks to his early years with his mother.

“Everything in our house was order,” said Brown. “And that gave me an opportunity to create chaos because the order was always restored. And I’ve always appreciated that interrelationship between order and chaos.”

As California faces the worst fiscal crisis in its history, there’ll be plenty of room for both.