Jerry Brown’s Greatest Legacy Is Proving California Is Governable

After disparate tours in which he served as California’s youngest and oldest governor, Brown never lost his quirky asceticism.

Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

LOS ANGELES—When Jerry Brown first took the oath as governor of California on January 6, 1975, he succeeded Ronald Reagan, who was still six years away from the White House. Gerald Ford was president, Paul VI was pope, the Watergate conspirators John Mitchell, H. R. Haldeman, and John Ehrlichman had just been convicted, the Khmer Rouge was beginning its bloody rise to power in Cambodia, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at around 600 points, and Bradley Cooper had been born the day before.

It is no exaggeration to say that Brown’s tenure as governor of the Golden State—two disparate tours, separated by nearly 30 years, four terms and16 years in all—bookends virtually the entire modern history of California. He is both the youngest and oldest man in modern times to preside over his state, and five years ago he surpassed Earl Warren’s tenure as the longest-serving California governor. He leaves office next month, at 80, at the top of his game, California’s once-depleted coffers bursting with surplus, his flaky youthful reputation as “Governor Moonbeam” long since supplanted by his stature as perhaps the most successful politician in contemporary America.

A onetime seminarian who has never lost his quirky asceticism—in his first term, he slept on a mattress in a small apartment in Sacramento and rode around in a modest blue Plymouth instead of a limousine—he is fond of quoting poets and obscure philosophers and has lived by the Jesuit maxim “Age quod agis”“Do what you are doing.” He famously dated Linda Ronstadt, but could be clueless about pop culture; in the summer of 1980, when billboards and T-shirts all over America were demanding, “Who shot J. R.?”—the smiling, so-bad-he’s-good villain of TV’s Dallas—Brown asked his press secretary, “Who’s J. R.?”

He was a dedicated environmentalist, promoting wind and geothermal energy before those technologies were in vogue, and a visionary when that quality was mocked in politics; indeed, the Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who tagged Brown with his lunar nickname (the governor had suggested California might launch its own communications satellite), could never have imagined that Brown would announce just this fall that the state was contracting for the launch of “our own damn satellite” to monitor global climate change. He was a socially liberal Democrat who embraced diversity when gay marriage was no more than a dream, but he was also wary of partisan orthodoxy and famously tight with a buck.

When he took office for the second time eight years ago, the state had a $27 billion deficit; now it has a dedicated rainy-day fund more than half that size, and a like amount in another one-time discretionary surplus for the coming budget year. In the past eight years, the state has added roughly 3 million jobs, refuting the canard that its tough environmental and labor regulations are impediments to growth. When he signed his last budget last summer, Brown was joined by legislative leaders—the oldest of whom was only 12 when he was first elected.

“There are so many things that are going on all the time, even as we speak, that it’s hard to pick out ‘This is the one,’ or ‘That is the one,’” he told me in a telephone conversation the other day when asked to name his proudest legacy, nevertheless ticking off more than a few of those listed in the previous paragraphs. “I think it’s just a privilege to be in California, and to have been the governor these many years. It’s an unusual experience and very exciting, and, I think most people would agree, fairly productive and innovative. So I don’t know. I’m not one to sit around watching the movie of my own life as a source of pleasure. I can tell you, I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing.”

Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University in Los Angeles (named for Brown’s father, who served two terms as governor from 1959 to 1967), said that the younger Brown’s greatest legacy was “proving that California was governable at a time when California’s image was under assault as the next Greece.”

“That’s a big deal in many ways,” Sonenshein adds. “Because it also plays into the partisan politics of the country, since the state was being held up as the poster child of what was wrong with progressive government. And it’s pretty hard to be a punching bag when you’ve got two reserve funds that are pretty gigantic, and a state that’s doing pretty darn well. It might not be the legacy he started out with 40 years ago, or that he necessarily wanted to have, but it’s a pretty big deal.”

When Brown left office after his first two terms in 1983, having declined to seek reelection and having been defeated in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat, nearly 60 percent of voters disapproved of his job performance. His reputation had been damaged by quixotic 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, and his awkward ambivalence about Proposition 13, the state-ballot measure that capped property taxes at 1 percent of assessed valuation and permanently altered the state’s finances. But he was thinking outside the box in ways that seem striking now; in the 1980 campaign, challenging President Jimmy Carter, he opposed both Carter’s call for an employer mandate to provide catastrophic health-insurance coverage and Kennedy’s call for universal national coverage. Instead, he proposed tax credits for nonsmokers.

Back in private life, he studied Buddhism in Japan and spent time with Mother Teresa in India, returning to California to claim the brass-tacks job of chair of the state Democratic Party, helping to expand its donor base and grassroots-organizing efforts. Under the guidance of his longtime strategist, an eccentric, beret-wearing Frenchman named Jacques Barzaghi, he mounted one last presidential campaign in 1992 but lost the nomination to Bill Clinton after a bitter race. Then came the late-life practical apprenticeship that most analysts agree paved the way for the success of his second tour in Sacramento: eight years as mayor of Oakland, from 1999 to 2007.

“He finally was far [enough] outside the bubble of state politics and the governorship to look at what he was doing,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired professor of public-policy communication at the University of Southern California who has watched Brown’s entire career. “He himself said at one point when he was mayor of Oakland that he was finally understanding that the regulations that he had implemented as governor were hamstringing localities. He had to deal with them as a practical reality.”

In his first tour as governor, Brown was famously aloof, shunning the veteran pols who had adored his father, an ebullient, backslapping glad-hander of the old school. He also eschewed the normal routines and conventions of politics, and expected the young, talented staff he’d recruited to keep pace.

“He was all-consumed, and those in his immediate orbit had to be as well if they were going to do their job,” remembers Cari Beauchamp, now a noted film historian, who was Brown’s press secretary in the late 70s. “One New Year’s Eve at 10 p.m., he turned to me to ask, ‘Oh, did you have something planned?’ and I responded with a laugh, ‘I wouldn’t dream of it.’”

Pat Brown, who is credited with overseeing the massive state investment that transformed California in the 1950s and 60s, died in 1996 and, Jeffe says, the son has grown “more self-confident, more mellow, more broad-minded since the passing of his dad—that’s pop political psychiatry at its worst, but I can’t help thinking it.” Then there is Brown’s 2005 marriage to Anne Gust, a former senior executive at the Gap whom he’d dated for years and who became his most trusted speechwriter and strategist, first in his four-year stint as state attorney general and, since 2011, in the governorship. And along the way, he acquired a pair of dogs that friends say help keep him grounded.

Brown returned to the “Horseshoe”—the U-shaped suite of the governor’s offices in the Capitol—after a period of turmoil in California politics. Gray Davis, the Democrat incumbent who once served as Brown’s chief of staff, had been ousted in a recall election in 2003 by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was reelected to a full term in 2006. Four years later, battered by the 2008 recession and other troubles, Schwarzenegger’s once-high approval ratings were roughly equal to Davis’s at the time of the recall, and the electorate was primed for Brown’s brand of practical, tell-it-like-it-is politics and his hard-won experience. The Republican candidate, Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay, outspent him by more than three to one with her own money, but Brown won easily.*

“You go through cycles when unorthodox politicians appeal to people, and he hit two of them,” says Bruce E. Cain, a professor of political science at Stanford University. “In his first tour, he had a period when he and governors like Mike Dukakis in Massachusetts were rejecting New Deal, big government solutions, and were for big ideas with smaller government, a kind of ascetic Democratic approach that was very much in vogue. Then we went through a period where that kind of outsider, outside-the-box stuff faded.” And then, Cain says, Brown caught another wave, distaste for “highly managed, highly groomed, highly coached, incredibly cautious politicians” (think Mitt Romney or Hillary Clinton), and won his third term in 2010. “He had the unusual fate to catch the wave twice,” Cain adds.

Brown resumed the governorship just as voters passed a ballot measure eliminating the requirement for a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass the state budget, and in 2012, he structured the budget so as to depend on passage of a ballot measure of his own, temporarily raising the sales tax by a quarter cent and imposing an income-tax surcharge on Californians making $250,000 a year. The measure passed comfortably and has since been extended, and has been key to putting the state back in the black. But the state’s finances remain too dependent on volatile personal income-tax revenues, which swell in boom times and contract when the bubble bursts. Brown also failed to crack the problem of underfunded pensions for state workers.

Two of Brown’s signature infrastructure problems remain unfinished—a pair of giant water tunnels under the Sacramento Bay Delta to improve conservation, and a high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco—and their ultimate fate is unclear. Just as unclear is how well Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, a much more conventional politician, will hold the line on fiscal discipline.

Brown is building a retirement house on Northern California ranch-land first settled by his great-grandfather during the Gold Rush, but he seems unlikely to fade from the scene. He has a $15 million campaign war chest that he says he will use to back ballot measures or other public campaigns on issues of concern to him, and he told me he’ll raise more before he’s done and will stay active. “You have to spend it,” he says. “Sooner or later, that money’s going to go out the door to issues, candidates.” There is every reason to believe he’ll remain a national and international leader on his signature issue of climate change as well. If it’s a poignant paradox that his advanced age all but disqualifies him as a presidential contender at just the moment that he may finally be an almost perfect candidate, he doesn’t dwell on it.

“I know a lot more about campaigning” now than when he last ran for president, he told me. “Probably could have run a better campaign in 1992 if I’d had ten more years of experience.” Does it bother him that the gerontological clock suggests his time has passed for a national campaign? “Well, I think it says that,” he allows, before adding drily, “Certainly those septuagenarians running around don’t seem to have any particular head start.”

In the end, the sheer longevity of Brown’s career has been its own reward. “Who’s had so many reinventions?” asks Miriam Pawel, whose history of the governor’s family, The Browns of California, was published this year. “That’s the terrific California part of it. He has this ability to reinvent himself, to focus on what he is doing in the moment. California is a place of newcomers and possibility, and yet it’s also interesting that there are families like his that go way back. I think that he really embodies in so many ways all of those very Californian characteristics, of reinvention, of possibility, of failure not being necessarily a bad thing. He really believes in California.”

*A previous version of this article misidentified Meg Whitman as the founder of eBay. We regret the error.