Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown has a $15 million surplus of his own. Here’s what he plans to do with it

Gov. Jerry Brown is leaving, but he has plenty of political money to take with him. He’s sitting on $15 million in his campaign account.

He said Tuesday he plans to raise even more, keeping his hand in politics after he leaves office.

“People are always going to the ballot for one thing or another,” he said. “This is a way just to stay somewhat involved – keep my fingers a little bit on the rudder guiding the ship of state.”

Preparing to leave office when Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom is sworn in on Jan. 7, Brown on Tuesday sat for an interview with The Sacramento Bee at the governor’s mansion and put in a rare appearance at The Sacramento Press Club to reflect on his soon-to-be 16 years as California governor.

Brown, who worked during his second stint as governor to make changes to the state’s criminal justice system that reduced penalties and allowed sooner parole for some crimes, said he anticipates ballot measures that could unravel his efforts. He said his campaign fund could help him defeat them.

Brown supported so-called fixed sentencing during his first terms, requiring inmates to spend a definite amount of time behind bars and limiting their opportunities for parole.

Brown has become convinced that the prisons are at risk of becoming “geriatric wards” due to long sentences, and that giving prisoners hope for release is the most powerful anti-gang measure the prison system can have.

“There will be initiatives to try to undo all that, to go back to the more Draconian regime that has driven the corrections budget from 3 percent of the general fund to over 10 percent under Schwarzenegger,” he said. “That’s a gigantic reallocation of state funds. So that has to be watched and combated.”

Brown, 80, told the Press Club he believes two of his most controversial projects, high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels, will be built. “A real leader can push it across the finish line,” he said of the rail project, which is behind schedule and over budget.

He said the recent court decision striking down the Affordable Care Act doesn’t worry him. The ruling out of Texas doesn’t take effect immediately and could be reversed. If it stands, he said the public backlash will usher the Democrats back into power in the Senate and the White House in 2020, paving the way for them to reinstate the law.

“It’s just a bump in the road, but health care is not going to be taken away, I believe,” he said.

He expressed no regrets, but said he ran for president “one too many times.”

“When you run for president, you’ve got to be on the East Coast, you’ve got to have a lot of rich friends, you’ve got to cultivate the establishment more than was my mood in the 70s,” he said. “If I spent as much time talking to lobbyists and powerful people instead of going to the Zen center, I would have been better positioned, but I wouldn’t be as enlightened.”

In the interview, Brown discussed the financial cushion he’s leaving Newsom in the form of a projected $14.8 billion surplus and a $16 billion ‘rainy day’ fund, which Brown stockpiled in anticipation of a recession.

Will it be enough?

“We probably have already started the recession, given the behavior of the stock market and the leveling off of home sales,” he said. “I think the state is well poised fiscally, but just psychologically it’s very hard to have a big piggy bank in Sacramento. The felt needs in the political world far outrun any available resources.”

When it comes to his personal political surplus, Brown said he might also use it to support or oppose state candidates.

“And there’s local races. District attorney races, for example. There are many different areas of potential involvement.,” he said. “And since I enjoy the practice of my craft, I want to continue doing that in several ways over the next several years.“

He’s retiring to the family ranch in Colusa County, where he said the neighbors are friendly despite the fact that the area leans Republican and he was once booed at the local rodeo.

He will serve as executive chair of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, keeper of the Doomsday Clock, pursuing his interests in preventing nuclear annihilation and climate change.

Brown said he would miss the governor’s mansion, although he’s getting a little tired of navigating all of the stairs. There’s nothing he won’t miss about the job, he said.

“I like fundraising. I like sparring with the press. I like raising money. I like attacking my opponents. I like being attacked,” he said, drawing laughter from the Press Club crowd. “I like the whole thing.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Amy Chance has covered California politics and state government for three decades. She leads a team that keeps watch on the state Legislature, the governor and political races. She oversees The Bee’s Capitol Alert and State Worker coverage and its “California Nation” podcast.