More from the series
The California Influencers Series
California Influencers this week answered the question: What has been Jerry Brown’s greatest success as Governor? What is his worst failure? Here are their answers:
Pete Wilson – California Governor (1991-1999)
For the first six years in office he made some attempt to keep the legislature from spending every penny that has come into the state’s coffers.
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, and setting up the same set of circumstances that the state faced in 2001 and 2008. California is in desperate need of revenue and spending reform. The state revenue structure is now far more volatile than when he entered office and remains overly dependent on the economic performance and revenue flow from a single region of the state, the San Francisco Bay area.
In four separate actions, he has very seriously compromised the public safety of Californians. Whatever his explanation and good intentions, these actions will result in a continuing increase of violent crime as well as property crimes.
Gray Davis – California Governor (1999-2003)
Jerry Brown has two extraordinary legacies.
Nobody in America has done more to fight climate change than Governor Brown.
Equally impressive, he restored fiscal soundness to California’s budget. Eight years after inheriting a $26 billion dollar deficit, he will leave his successor a $13 billion dollar surplus.
A critic’s job is to find problems. But I’m certain history will judge Jerry Brown to be one of the greatest governors California ever had.
Angie Wei – Chief of Staff, California Labor Federation
The focus and work on climate change will be Jerry Brown’s legacy of this term. He’s led the nation in the long view of the impact of climate change on our quality of life. Jerry Brown, though, 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. This is our challenge going forward.
Jon Fleischman – Publisher of FlashReport
Success: Securing tens of billions of dollars for high speed rail despite the programs unpopularity.
Failure: Securing tens of billions of dollars for high speed rail despite the programs unpopularity.
It’s all about your perspective.
David Townsend – Founder, TCT Public Affairs
Governor Brown turned a massive deficit into a significant surplus and insisted on a substantial rainy day fund. This is by far his greatest accomplishment. He literally saved the state from financial ruin. His worst failure is that he is too old to run for President. The country could really use his wisdom and experience.
Christine Robertson – Vice President of Community Engagement and Advocacy, Visit SLO CAL
Governor Brown deserves the credit he receives for his fiscal restraint following years of budget volatility. In this era of one-party dominance, Governor Brown is rightly recognized for being the ‘grown up in the room’ who reigned in spending, built a budget reserve and wasn’t afraid to veto many of the most excessive legislative proposals.
But with the bulk of his career peaking before the invention of the World Wide Web, it also became evident early on that Governor Brown is an analog leader in a digital world. Emerging technologies present the greatest opportunities and threats to our quality of life, economy, security and democracy itself. As the birthplace of the technology revolution and home to Silicon Valley, California should be leading the charge to modernize how government interacts with the citizenry. Instead, we continue to find ourselves bested by states like Tennessee, Utah and Alaska who have each won national awards for online innovations in democracy.
Despite the technological disruptions and transformations occurring in most every other aspect of our lives, little has changed in the way that California government operates since Brown was first Governor back in the 1970s. In the end, Brown proved more adept at leading from the past than leading into the future.
Kathryn Phillips – Director – Sierra Club California
Governor Brown had two great successes. One was to help fix the sinking state budget. He’s leaving office with the state in strong fiscal shape thanks in part to some of his tough decisions and leadership. The other great success was demonstrating that states and regions can get things done to cut climate pollution. He has filled a national leadership void on climate change at a very important time in history, elevated attention to the issue and demonstrated action.
Jerry Brown’s greatest failure:
Governor Brown has had two significant failures. First, he has been either unable or unwilling to overtly act to substantially reduce the state’s production of oil and gas—the carbon fuels whose use creates the climate change we’re experiencing. Presumably he has been concerned about the economic impact that discouraging oil drilling would have on oil extraction regions in the state, such as the Southern San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles County. But the effect of inaction has been that there is no plan for how to cut California’s most direct contribution to climate change while transitioning those oil producing regions to cleaner, greener economic drivers.
Second, he has wasted time and money on trying to revive the peripheral canal. That was an idea that was advanced unsuccessfully during his father’s tenure as governor, continued during this governor’s earlier terms in office, defeated by voters statewide in 1982, and then revived and repackaged as tunnels during Jerry Brown’s last two terms in office. At a time of climate change, it’s an idea that is out of step with the realities of California’s water system and demands. The time and effort wasted on the tunnels would have been better spent on helping communities and regions improve water conservation, efficiency, recycling, storm water capture, groundwater cleanup and a range of other actions that make them better able to meet water demand and withstand longer, more intense droughts.
Catherine Reheis-Boyd – President, Western States Petroleum Association
In his final tenure as governor, Jerry Brown cut through a polarized political climate and brought elected officials together toward important agreement, notably for our industry, extending the state’s cap and trade program- the bipartisan agreement that globally positioned California as an environmental leader while protecting the economy and minimizing increased costs to consumers. It would be a shame for legacy accomplishments like that to be undone by cost containment issues that can be solved in his final few months. That would be a disappointment.
Governor Brown has also ensured a path forward for producing a valuable resource in California under strict regulations that protect the environment while providing energy independence, good paying jobs and revenue to the state. I hope this balanced and pragmatic approach carries into the new Administration.
Corey Matthews – Vice President, LeadersUp
At the helm of California, Governor Jerry Brown has achieved a fantastic record of accomplishments. He has made tough decisions to protect our fiscal solvency, reassert our values, and usher us into a new economic landscape. To top it all off, he will end his legacy as Governor with a multi-billion-dollar budget surplus. His greatest success has been to advance progressive policies in criminal justice and education but not without some short sightedness in protecting the viability of our higher education system. However, to date, his move to end redevelopment agencies has had far-reaching implications on the ability of cities to meet the needs of all residents without regard to their family income. The housing shortages, dwindling wages, and inaccessibility of higher education due to insurmountable costs necessitated a safety net. I’m afraid that with the end of the redevelopment agencies, that safety net was virtually obliterated in the communities that needed them the most. Though the intent was sound, the implementation was short-sighted and after 7 years we are really feeling the challenges of gentrification and rising housing costs that might have been avoided with the covering of a redevelopment agency.
Bonnie Castillo – Executive Director, California Nurses Association
Considering that Jerry Brown has been an institution in California political life for nearly five decades, his legacy should be evaluated with a broad lens, long enough to be viewed as a contrast with other governors of his era.
His tenure as Governor began as a welcome respite from the confrontational posturing and conservatism of his predecessor Ronald Reagan. One of Gov. Brown’s most significant, less acknowledged accomplishments then was extending collective bargaining rights to University of California employees which today looks even more farsighted amidst the far-right national attack on the rights of public workers.
Gov. Brown’s second iteration as governor also began with a promising break, from the bombast, hubris, and tone-deaf years of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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.
Jim Wunderman – President and CEO, Bay Area Council
History may remember Gov. Jerry Brown most for his leadership on climate change, but the difficult work he did to bring fiscal stability to California can’t be forgotten. The Golden State was anything but golden financially when he entered office in 2011, with California facing a $27 billion budget deficit. Through strong fiscal discipline and more than a little help from voters, the famously tightfisted Brown closed the deficit and righted the ship. His disdain of unfettered spending provided a headwind to investment that helped propel California’s economic growth over the past eight years. When he leaves office, California will have a $14 billion rainy day fund for budget emergencies and another $2.2 billion spread through other funds to provide budget flexibility. Still, California’s unfunded pension and other post retirement liabilities remain a looming threat as does the state’s risky and unsustainable reliance on high-income earners for the bulk of its revenue.
The housing crisis that grips California may go down as the biggest opportunity Gov. Brown came up short in seizing. An historic and chronic housing shortage that has driven up homes prices and rents to stratospheric levels has also given California the highest poverty rate in the nation. And some of the highest levels of housing-distressed residents in the country. Ironically, the problem also threatens Gov. Brown’s climate change goals by forcing workers into longer and more polluting commutes in search of affordable housing far away from urban job centers.
Madeleine Brand – Host, KCRW Radio Los Angeles
His greatest success has been on climate change. With the legislation he signed and triumphed and in using his bully pulpit, he has made California a world leader in reducing carbon emissions. His greatest failure would be presiding over a state that now has the highest poverty rate in the nation. The divide between rich and poor and the insane cost of housing has made California a tarnished dream for too many.
Laboni Hoq – Litigation Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice
Governor Brown has done an amazing job appointing diverse judges. He has chosen individuals 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, e.g. legal aid lawyers and public defenders. In a state as racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse as ours, it is imperative to have judges whose life experiences reflect the litigants before them to ensure justice is served.
Aziza Hasan – Executive Director, New Ground Muslim-Jewish Partnership
Jerry Brown has made significant gains as Governor. Perhaps his greatest success or failure is yet to unfold. One keen growing pain we are facing as a nation is a political shift of power with a white ruling majority while the demographics of the nation shift toward a majority-minority country. With polarization on the rise for a number of reasons, this will be one of the determining factors of Jerry Brown’s legacy. With California still being governed by a white majority while the demographics have shifted to a minority electorate, we are destined to feel tension. Strongly in Jerry Brown’s favor is his foresight and record in folding in diverse talent. For example, according to the California Courts Newsroom, more than half of Brown’s judicial appointments between 2011 and 2017, were women, and 40% identified as non-white. The active inclusion of people from different backgrounds as resources and partners is what will propel California and the nation into a future where we actively build on the common good instead of tearing each other down.
Tom Campbell – Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Chapman University
Governor Brown’s greatest achievement in his second two terms was establishing and then funding the state’s rainy day reserve. It took political capital and tenacity to resist the calls to spend all of the increased revenue from the recovering economy. The reserve is still not adequate to cover the unfunded pension and state retirees’ health care obligations; but Gov. Brown’s achievement can serve as the base for future governors’ and legislatures’ steps toward fiscal responsibility.
His greatest failure is related. California’s expenditures rose faster than the population and the inflation rate over his latest two terms. In household terms, Gov. Brown opened a savings account for our state and regularly contributed to it; but he did not succeed in curbing the California family’s ever growing appetite to spend on other things.
Timothy White – Chancellor, California State University
“An educated citizenry should be at the top of the state’s highest priorities. By continuously reinvesting in higher education during his tenure, Governor Brown has made a wise decision that is vital to California’s future. With state revenue continuing to exceed projections—and California facing a large need for more educated citizens over the next decade—there is both a need and an opportunity to continue to reinvest in higher education—and the CSU specifically. This critical investment will enable the CSU to enroll more students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and 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.”
Carl Guardino – President and CEO, Silicon Valley Leadership Group
The Governor’s greatest success:
“In my faith tradition, we learn that Joseph guided ancient Egypt to store up resources during ‘Seven years of plenty’ for the inevitable ‘Seven years of famine.’ Similarly, Governor Brown entered office with a $28 billion deficit and leaves eight years later with a $16 billion surplus. Why? Because he wisely knows that the next economic downturn could once again lead to ‘Seven years of famine’. This, by far, is his greatest legacy.”
His greatest missed opportunity:
“It was at our Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Annual Public Policy Luncheon that Governor Brown coined his famous phrase that ‘CEQA Reform is the Lord’s work.’ Sadly, the opportunity to reform CEQA and curtail its abuse was left at the Alter, a sacrifice to political road blocks that stymied sound policy. The abuse of CEQA, a great environmental law that is greatly abused, continues to curtail the construction of affordable homes that hurt everyone in our state.”
Eric Bauman – Chair, California Democratic Party
Unquestionably Jerry Brown’s greatest achievement as governor was steering us out of the fiscal crisis that was caused by the economic downturn and the bad choices made by the last governor. We not only eliminated the deficit and more than fully funded the rainy day fund, we paid off the short-term high interest debt incurred when Arnold borrowed to cover the cost of operations. We also repaid money that we had short-changed our schools and began investing in California again, from increased funding for K-12 and higher education, to funding infrastructure repair, maintenance and creation. His fiscal stewardship is now a model for our nation.
His biggest failure was not restoring Latin as a requirement for all high school students.
Karen Skelton – Founder and President, Skelton Strategies
Greatest success is staying focused on getting important things done and making decisions that ensure disciplined forward movement.
Kristin Olsen – Stanislaus County Supervisor, Former California Assembly Republican Leader
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. Governor Brown’s 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.
Maria Mejia – Los Angeles Director, Gen Next
Balancing the budget in 2011 with the confidence and clarity of a strong executive. Separate from the conversation about whether it was good/bad policy to tax Californians in order to do so, Governor Brown explicitly reminded us that it can and should be done. As Election Day approaches, we should not take the economy’s recent growth for granted, and remember that a balanced budget is fundamental deliverable of every single person we elect to office, and to every conversation about quality of life in California.
Linda Ackerman – President, Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series
Governor Brown does deserve credit for balancing the California budget and creating a “rainy day fund”. He did control legislative spending but used tax increases to create the reserve. He also understood the challenge for the need for long-term reliability and sustainability of our state’s water supply and system. He supported Proposition 68, supported by the voters, to help with that effort. He is a proponent of the California Water Fix and it’s co-equal goals that will provide water delivery and protect the environment. He also updated the 2014 California Water Action Plan that plots the future for California’s water management. California’s infrastructure problems beyond water present billion dollar challenges. The upkeep, repair and maintenance of our system of highways, roads and bridges is estimated at approximately $60 billion. Much of this backlog of funding was created by our state “borrowing” taxes paid at the gas pump and used for other underfunded programs. The taxpayers are also confronted with the real possibility of paying for a massively underfunded public employee and teacher pension fund and associated retiree health obligations. To top it off, we added new obligations with the Affordable Care Act and the High Speed Rail. Overall Gov. Brown handled some issues, but left some big ones for the next Governor.
Steve Westly – Former California State Controller & Founder of the Westly Group
Helping grow the California economy and bringing joblessness down to a record low of 4.2% while making California a global leader in renewable energy. He also deserves huge credit for fiscal discipline and leaving a $13.5B rainy day fund. My biggest concern is that we have $200B of unfunded liabilities in state’s pension funds
Chad Peace – Founder/President, IVC Media and Founding Board Member, National Association of Non-Partisan Reformers
In my opinion, Governor Brown’s biggest success has been keeping the Democratic legislature from even higher budget spending growth. His biggest failure is the inability to advance any substantive pension reform.
Kim Belshé – Executive Director, First 5 LA
Governor Brown’s greatest success has been his clarity of priorities for the State and the discipline he’s demonstrated in following through. Regardless of your political point of view, one has to acknowledge the Governor’s focus on discrete priorities: bringing the state budget into balance and creating a “rainy day fund”; advancing education finance reform; investing in transportation improvements; combatting climate change; and prioritizing major public works projects, such as high speed rail. The Governor also supported continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which had begun under Governor Schwarzenegger and which has contributed to our state’s rate of uninsured dropping ten points since 2013. All of these successes are fundamental to California’s future. Still, there is work to be done, particularly for those most in need. An economically and socially prosperous California cannot be secured without policy makers focusing on children in their earliest years. With 90% of a child’s brain developed by age 5, the early years matter – for our kids, for our State. Policy makers need to prioritize early childhood development to build upon Governor Brown’s economic progress and support our next generation to create a better future for us all.
Ashley Swearengin – President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation
Governor Brown deserves tremendous credit for, among other things, navigating the state through the Great Recession, exercising fiscal discipline as revenues have returned, and building the state’s rainy day reserve. He’s ruled the state’s spending with an iron fist.
Catherine Lew – Principal and Co-Founder, Lew Edwards Group
While many things can be cited –Brown’s history-making 16-years, farmworker labor rights law, work on net neutrality, and the representation of women on corporate boards we must remember that California was in a major budget deficit 8 years ago and is in sound financial health today, with a multi-billion dollar surplus. Brown’s leadership clearly shows that Democrats can manage the world’s 5th largest economy responsibly while investing in our environment, labor rights, and quality services for residents from all walks of life. And in his first term, he was the coolest rock and roll governor ever. But during his 1970’s terms, Brown failed to effectively respond to the momentum of the taxpayer revolt that gave Californians Prop. 13 – which immediately gutted funding to our public schools and leaves a legacy of revenue challenges to this day. He leaves his recent term with a legacy of progressive legislation, but disappointment in missed opportunities to do more, most recently to complete the entire package of proposed gender equity legislation. Brown could have gone even further to protect women in the workplace by extending the deadline to file complaints and banning employers from requiring secret settlements. Post- Kavanaugh, these remain bitter disappointments.
Barbara Boxer – United States Senator (1993-2017)
I had the experience of working with Governor Jerry Brown when I was a county supervisor in the 1970s. At that time he was a leader on clean energy and I was very interested in bringing solar power into our energy mix. We had limited success at that time because this issue was so cutting edge that only the edge liked it. Looking back, it would’ve been extraordinary had we started earlier down the clean energy path.
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.
My strength has always been working to solve the problems in front of me. Show me the problem and let’s solve it in a way that is a win-win for everyone.
So I always liked Jerry‘s ability to take it down the road – 10 years from now 20 years from now or more. After all, those of us in power must always be thinking about the next generations to come.
I also admire Jerry’s ability to learn from reversals.
After the great recession he recognize the need to have a rainy day fund so that California is never again left in such a bad situation should there be a steep economic downturn.
So I worked with Jerry as a county supervisor and much later as United States senator and I believe he has combined his vision of the early years with a pragmatic fiscally responsible side that will make him one of the great governors.
Daniel Zingale – Senior Vice President, California Endowment
Jerry Brown’s long list of accomplishments as governor dates back to the 1970s, but his most noteworthy achievement is simply demonstrating that our form of democracy can still be governed successfully in today’s chaotic times.
He appointed judges who command our respect, rather than polarize our politics. He brought progress for more equitable school funding. He oversaw a more sensible approach to criminal justice, emphasizing prevention and safety over punishment and wasteful prison spending.
While Washington D.C. runs up a massive national debt, he insisted our state practice fiscal discipline. He recognized the positive contributions of California immigrants and removed the barrier for undocumented children to receive Medi-Cal. Not coincidentally on his watch, California surged in jobs creation to become the fifth largest economy in the world. All of this happened while a wide swath of California voters to his left and right acknowledge his approach to governing has served us well.
In an era when millions are understandably questioning the viability of the American political system, Jerry Brown and California offer a beacon of hope that democracy can still work.
Jerry Brown’s biggest failure is failing to be 16 years younger in order to postpone his retirement from public service! Beyond that, the biggest failure is one we all share. Responsible leaders of both parties and across multiple sectors are failing to hear the din of populist discontent. Even a state functioning as well as California cannot afford to be tone deaf to the millions of ordinary people who are losing faith in the institutions that hold up our society. With one third to half of Californians left behind economically, business as usual and politics as usual will not endure.
Patience for a concrete and reasonable response to lingering racial and gender bias is running short, particularly among the younger generation of Californians. Nonetheless, there is a dangerous complacency among older institutional elites about most young California voters who are abandoning both political parties and millions more who are electing not to vote at all.
This is an atmosphere ripe for the cynical exploitation of scapegoating and corrupt opportunism. California’s next governor needs to prove that government can respond to people’s needs and expectations without interference from campaign cash and expensive lobbyists.
All of us can help by spending less time patting each other on the back for California’s progress, and more time listening hard to those who feel left out and left behind.
Conan Nolan – Chief Political Reporter and Anchor of ‘News Conference”, KNBC-LA
He is the most experienced political figure in the nation. In his native state, thanks to term limits, he will hold that title in perpetuity. Now as Edmund G. Brown Jr. heads to his water starved ranch in Colusa County the assessments will soon start in earnest on what he did with that experience. Not surprisingly his biggest failure came when he had less of it.
A month before Jerry Brown was first elected governor, President Gerald Ford gave a nationally televised speech regarding the economic crisis of the day. It was then that President Ford introduced the “WIN” button... for “Whip Inflation Now.” It was a public relations failure. But the new Governor should have realized the impact of price escalation on his state.
Inflation was driving up home values. Under the state’s assessed value system of property tax, middle class homeowners were getting slammed. State coffers were bursting.
By the time Governor Brown and the legislature acted it was too late. Proposition 13 was the answer voters overwhelmingly chose and we have been living with the ramifications ever since. While the “Jarvis-Gann” initiative solved the problem that existed at the time it also gave root to scores of new realities. Take our current housing crisis: With their budgets no longer dependent on property taxes but instead getting a cut of the sales tax, cities slowly became more interested in big box retail than in building housing developments.
His accomplishments are many. Jerry Brown successfully navigated the state through the worst economic slump since the Depression. He held back spending his last two terms and will leave his successor with the largest reserve in state history. While Governor California became the 5th largest economy in the world and yes, there is the California Conservation Corps.
But what maybe his lasting legacy is the model he has set for those who will follow, including, based on the polls, the Lt. Governor for whom he once wrote a college letter of recommendation.
It’s his philosophical “canoe”. A few paddles to the left and a few to the right.
Jerry Brown is the climate change guy who refuses to outlaw fracking. The seminarian whom I once saw bring an auditorium of rocket scientists to their feet with the exhortation “Per aspera ad astra” (“from the thorns to the stars”). He’s the Democrat who once proclaimed “we have too many laws”. He’s the anti-gun Governor who has vetoed more than a few anti-gun bills.
When he was first took office the New York Times called Brown “ this loner who sometimes sounds like an erudite George C. Wallace, attacking big‐government spending, “government gibberish,” “the bureaucratic maze.” That was long ago. But what never changed was the effort at seeking “balance” both in policy and in rhetoric. . In the political age in which we find ourselves, that above all is what we may end up missing the most.
Michele Siqueiros – President, Campaign for College Opportunity
Governor Brown’s biggest success has been his trademark fiscal prudence which delivered an impressive recovery from a devastating recession that included a historic surplus ($9 billion). As impressive as the financial recovery has been on his watch and as necessary as our rainy day fund is, his worst failure is leaving many of California’s most vulnerable populations behind. Governor Brown should have banked a little less for a rainy day so he wouldn’t have missed a golden opportunity to make greater investments in eradicating homelessness, funding affordable housing, expanding early childhood education, quality childcare, and significantly expanding access to California colleges and universities.
Andrea Ambriz – Chief of Staff, Service Employees International Union Local 2015
Budget, budget, budget. Balancing our annual budget with advanced planning to build a $13 billion surplus (rainy day fund) is undoubtedly a strong position in which Governor Brown is leaving California. The road was tough and there were plenty of hard choices that were made—some that still need to be revisited. However, thanks to Governor Brown and his team, the state is in a fiscally sustainable place for our future work ahead, all while making historic strides for our environment, our infrastructure, and most notably for working Californians by raising the minimum age to $15. We’ve led the way on countless fronts during this Administration, setting an example for the country in what is possible. With a lot of work still to do, the incoming Administration has complex and challenges to address ahead, but in the meantime, thanks, Jerry.