Jerry Brown’s father was the 32nd governor of California. Kevin de León didn’t know his father at all.
Yet they are California leaders working on an issue both see as the most pressing of our time, speaking over the weekend on climate change at the home of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
De León, “humbled” to address renowned climate scientists in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica, confronted Pope Francis’ apparent criticisms of cap-and-trade systems as benefiting moneyed interests.
The son of a housekeeper from Guatemala, he noted he pushed legislation that ensures California’s system benefits disadvantaged communities.
Brown, who once trained to be a Jesuit priest, said the path to transformational change must include the mass mobilization of the religious and theological leaders.
“We have very different personalities. We have very different backgrounds, but we do have an affection for each other,” de León said of Brown. “We’re sometimes like the ‘The Odd Couple,’ Felix and Oscar,” he added, referencing the mismatched roommates of TV fame, one fastidious, the other slovenly. “Don’t ask me who is who.”
The Democratic governor and de León, president pro tem of the California Senate, have been instrumental in fortifying California’s reputation as an international climate change champion.
Brown, 79, made it the cause of his second stint as governor, negotiating into law this summer a decade-long extension of the state’s cap-and-trade system that distributes carbon-emission permits while vowing to occupy the global space left by President Donald Trump’s retreat.
De León has helped Brown cement the biggest climate deals in recent years, carrying some of the measures himself and working behind the scenes to pass others.
Now, in the twilight of that partnership – with Brown closing in on an unprecedented four terms as governor, and de León using his Capitol record as a cudgel against Trump and the Democratic establishment in Washington – their careers reflect both the state’s shifting demographics and the challenges the next generation of leaders faces as it struggles to replace its elders.
De León, 50, arrived at the Vatican shortly after announcing a daring challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 84, a close friend of Brown. She officiated his wedding in 2005, and Brown is expected to endorse her for reelection.
“I don’t want to get into the endorsement story quite yet. I will,” said Brown, whose father appointed Feinstein to the Women’s Board of Terms and Parole in 1960.
“But sitting here,” he added, “standing between the columns and the palm trees of the Vatican at the Pontifical Institute, I don’t want to.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Brown and de León have diverged. Even the roots of their interest in climate change are different.
Orville Schell, who wrote a 1978 biography on Brown, says climate change for the governor is more than just a scientific threat. “It’s almost theological,” he said. “The arrogance of mankind to destroy God’s universe. I think for him in some very deep way it’s a kind of sin. A mortal sin.”
For de León, who said he spent more time growing up on the streets than in nature, his interest in the issue is more practical. Efforts to combat climate change are creating jobs, he says, in green technology.
“It’s no longer just the pastime of the privileged. We’re building a movement from the ground up. I like to say we’re teaching electric cars to speak Spanish.”
At the state Capitol, where Democrats have been reticent to publicly question Brown, de León at times has stood out as an exception.
Six years ago, when Brown vetoed a de León bill related to handgun ammunition restrictions tied up in legal challenges by the National Rifle Association, the governor said, bluntly, “Let’s keep our powder dry on amendments until the court case runs its course.”
De León responded with a four-page letter charging that Brown’s veto message “displayed a frightening lack of understanding of the consequences of our current wild-west approach to handgun ammunition sales and will saddle taxpayers with the cost of unnecessary litigation.
“While your action certainly thrilled the gun lobby by keeping alive their lawsuit,” he continued, “it puts my constituents and Californians across the state at unnecessary risk.”
Later, during budget negotiations where Brown had the upper hand over lawmakers, de León held his ground, declaring at a hearing that “this is not rule by fiat. This is not a monarchy.”
They went on to victories and legislative setbacks. Brown signed de León’s bill to generate half of electricity from renewable sources and double efficiency in buildings by 2030, but only after it was stripped of a heavily lobbied provision to cut gasoline use in half. It was a goal Brown announced in his own state of the state address.
The more people try to ingratiate themselves to Brown, de Leon said he has learned, the less it works.
“I believe he’s driven less by relationships and more so by whatever the clear objectives are that he may have,” he said.
The governor and Senate leader enacted a separate measure to extend the state’s climate pollution reduction target to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, along with cap-and-trade and the transportation tax.
In September, amid late voting on a package of affordable housing measures, de León tweeted photos of him with Brown under the caption “late night housing negotiations.” Brown was seen resting his tennis shoe on a coffee table, while de León listened to him speak.
The governor credited de León along with several others for their work, specifying that he “introduced some key bills.”
“That was important, and sometimes the Senate pushed things along in ways that were really important,” he said. “That’s true.”
Brown’s own career was once marked by unbridled ambition. He was just 32 when he became secretary of state in 1971 and already plotting what would be a successful race for governor in four years. Early in 1976, he announced he was running for president. Only once, however, did he take on an incumbent, when he challenged Jimmy Carter in 1980. Brown, in his early 40s, withdrew from the race in April.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara, a close friend of de León’s, said he was “very honest” with the state Senate leader when he learned he was thinking about trying to replace Feinstein.
“You are going to take on the most powerful Democratic monarchy in the state, if not the country,” Lara recalled saying. But he told him when he’s attacked, or questioned his own decision to run, that he should think about what their immigrant parents went through, from being “slapped down” for speaking Spanish to ordered around while cleaning homes.
“Nothing has ever come easy to any of us,” Lara said. “This is just one more example that, even within the Democratic establishment, we have to fight for our place.”
De León said he recognizes the roots run “very deep” between Brown and Feinstein, whose tony Pacific Heights neighborhood in San Francisco contrasts with the hard-scrabble Logan Heights of de León’s youth in San Diego.
He offers that “it’s also generational.”
“California has changed significantly in the last 25 years,” he said. “And we need that change to be reflective, whether that’s me or anybody else.”
As he did on climate change, he said, “You have to take risks.”