The California Influencer Series

‘One of the greatest’ or missed opportunities? California Influencers assess Jerry Brown

Governor Jerry Brown talks about state of affairs before signing the state budget

California Governor Jerry Brown signs the $201 billion final state budget in Los Angeles on June 27, 2018.
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California Governor Jerry Brown signs the $201 billion final state budget in Los Angeles on June 27, 2018.

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The California Influencers Series

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It was just 2,286 weeks ago that Jerry Brown was first elected governor of California.

Californians will soon elect a new leader and say goodbye to Brown, who will have served an unprecedented 16 years since 1975.

The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers praised the Democrat’s fiscal restraint and dedication to the environment. But they said he missed opportunities to ease the housing crisis, reduce poverty and rein in California’s public pension liability.

Former Senator Barbara Boxer recalled her work with Brown during his first term as governor when she was a member of the Marin County Board of Supervisors.

“At that time he was a leader on clean energy and I was very interested in bringing solar power into our energy mix,” said Boxer. “What I really liked about Jerry Brown then, and what I like about Jerry Brown now is his ability to understand what is coming down the road…10 years from now 20 years from now or more.”

Brown also received praise from state Republicans, who complimented his work on budget and education policy, even while criticizing him on other fronts.

“Governor Brown’s greatest successes have been working with the Legislature to create a Rainy Day Fund; pushing more decision-making authority on education spending down to local school districts; and defending charter schools as another good education option for students, parents, and teachers,” said former Republican Assembly Leader Kristin Olsen, now a Stanislaus County Supervisor. “(His) worst failure has been not holding his state agencies accountable in a number of areas, but particularly as it relates to allocating funds from the 2014 Water Bond to get important water infrastructure projects built.”

Some longtime allies of Brown also offered mixed assessments. California Nurses Association Executive Director Bonnie Castillo strongly praised his decision to extend collective bargaining rights to University of California employees in the 1970s. But in other areas, she was less effusive.

“On health care, Gov. Brown has signed some critical legislation, such as a landmark law to require hospitals to implement workplace violence prevention plans, but his failure to lead efforts to implement guaranteed health care for all Californians leaves millions of our neighbors and family members still uninsured or badly under insured,” she said.

Angie Wei, Chief of Staff of the California Labor Federation, took a similar tack, praising Brown for his climate change agenda but was more critical on economic issues. “Jerry Brown… missed the opportunity of putting the same emphasis on building a middle-class economy in CA. We have an hourglass economy where the top and the bottom of earnings continue to grow while the middle is hollowed out.”

“The housing crisis that grips California may go down as the biggest opportunity Gov. Brown came up short in seizing,” agreed Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman, who applauded Brown’s work in several areas. “Ironically, the problem also threatens (his) climate change goals by forcing workers into longer and more polluting commutes in search of affordable housing far away from urban job centers.”

Wunderman also noted that unfunded pension liabilities “remain a looming threat as does the state’s risky and unsustainable reliance on high-income earners for the bulk of its revenue.”

Many Influencers were more enthusiastic, particularly in areas that receive less public and media attention.

“By continuously reinvesting in higher education during his tenure, Governor Brown has made a wise decision that is vital to California’s future,” said California State University Chancellor Tim White. “This critical investment will… ensure that the nearly half a million students on our 23 campuses have the opportunity to earn a high-quality degree that will prepare them to improve their communities and lead the industries that are driving California.”

“He has chosen individuals (for judicial appointments) who are both themselves racially and ethnically representative of our state’s population, but who also have practiced on behalf of clients from all walks of life, most importantly those who otherwise would have had limited access to justice…” said Laboni Hoq, Litigation Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“Strongly in Jerry Brown’s favor is his foresight and record in folding in diverse talent,” agreed Aziza Hasan, Executive Director of the New Ground Muslim-Jewish Partnership. “The active inclusion of people from different backgrounds… will propel California and the nation into a future where we actively build on the common good instead of tearing each other down.”

Former governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, who were both Brown’s successors and predecessors as California’s chief executive, weighed in with unsurprisingly different assessments of his legacy.

Wilson, who defeated Brown in their 1982 U.S. Senate campaign, offered measured praise to his former rival for his efforts to control state spending, but criticized him for recently allowing that commitment to lapse toward the end of his final term.

“In his last two years his actions have undermined the fiscal discipline by significant additions to the state’s baseline spending, creating the potential for fiscal calamity…” said Wilson. “The state revenue structure is now far more volatile than when he entered office and remains overly dependent on…a single region of the state, the San Francisco Bay area.”

Davis, who served as Brown’s chief of staff for several years in the 1970’s and 80’s, was much more laudatory of his former boss.

“Nobody in America has done more to fight climate change than Governor Brown. Equally impressive, he restored fiscal soundness to California’s budget,” said Davis. “I’m certain history will judge Jerry Brown to be one of the greatest governors California ever had.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for The Sacramento Bee and McClatchy.

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