Bill Whalen

Jerry Brown is one lucky California governor

Gov. Jerry Brown, right, shakes hands with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at an event Oct. 5 commemorating the 10th anniversary of the signing of Assembly Bill 32, California’s landmark climate change law.
Gov. Jerry Brown, right, shakes hands with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at an event Oct. 5 commemorating the 10th anniversary of the signing of Assembly Bill 32, California’s landmark climate change law.

The past few days witnessed California’s governor agonizing over a matter of life and death.

It was Pat Brown, not Jerry. And the dilemma was whether to grant a reprieve to Caryl Chessman, an inmate facing execution in 1960. The suspense played out at Sacramento’s B Street Theatre, where Joe Rodota’s new play brilliantly captures the father’s political bind and the son’s strong urging to spare the condemned.

There’s no such drama in real life over at the state Capitol. The Roman quote machine Seneca observed that luck is where opportunity meets preparation. Other times, it’s as simple as drawing an inside straight. Six years into his second stint as governor, such is the hand dealt to Jerry Brown.


▪ The economy: Brown’s three predecessors inherited or waded into economic downturns. California lost 1.3 million jobs in the three years leading up to Brown’s return to office in 2011. Since, the state has created about 2 million jobs.

For all governors, California’s economy is a game of musical chairs beyond their control (housing sales, capital gains taxes). Will the music keep playing with only two more budget-writing summers to go for Brown?

▪ The budget: We all have lucky numbers. Brown’s is 25 – Proposition 25, the 2010 ballot measure that changed legislative budget approval from two-thirds to a simple majority vote.

Gray Davis – like Brown, a Democratic governor working with a Democratic-run Legislature – signed his first two budgets on time and his last three one to two months late. All six Brown budgets have been on time, thanks in large part to Proposition 25 removing Republicans’ leverage.

Brown has more power because he negotiates with a revolving door of legislative leaders. George Deukmejian, the last governor before term limits went into effect, haggled with one Assembly speaker and one state Senate president pro tem. Brown is working with his second Senate president and third Assembly speaker – and unlike the legendary Willie Brown, they’re no ayatollahs.

How dominant is Brown? The $167 billion spending plan he signed in late June contained not a single blue-pencil reduction as the Legislature caved to his terms (this has happened only twice before, going back to 1970).

▪ Mother Nature: A weak La Niña pattern may be headed California’s way, possibly bringing a drier winter and more drought worries.

But it could be worse. Economically, the drought will cost California about $2.7 billion this year, according to a recent UC Davis study. The 1994 Northridge earthquake cost Californian $20 billion in property damage and $29 billion in economic losses.

This isn’t to suggest that six years of drought hasn’t been a source of misery. It underscores that Brown has been fortunate to have avoided a large-scale calamity that could cripple the economies of San Francisco or Los Angeles.

▪ National politics: Were he a little younger and a lot less married to someone who helps keep him grounded, could Brown have resisted a challenge to Hillary Clinton?

Odds are the fourth time would not have been the charm for Brown, who ran for president in 1976, 1980 and 1992. And we’ll never know what would have transpired in the curious Wally-Beav relationship between Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom had the latter been given extended time as acting governor while Brown traversed Iowa and New Hampshire.

In this case, it’s not Brown who’s lucky, it’s California. The next governor, be it Newsom or some other younger, ambitious Democrat, will have national designs. That comes with a risk of too much time flirting with the national media and not enough attention to the folks back home.

If Hillary’s elected, that play doesn’t open until after the next presidential election.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at