Dan Morain

A look back reveals Gov. Jerry Brown’s path forward

Former Gov. Pat Brown and son Jerry Brown in 1981.
Former Gov. Pat Brown and son Jerry Brown in 1981. Sacramento Bee file

For a few minutes, stroll across the decades with Jerry Brown.

Start with the first inaugural speech he attended, the one given by his father in 1959, drop by a speech he gave 20 years later in the Assembly chambers, listen to the inaugural speech he gave the other day and conclude with the release of his 13th budget on Friday.

Brown remains quirky, but not like when he was governor the first time and one of his Cabinet secretaries hooked a wicker chair to the ceiling and would swing while talking policy. There are, however, certain constants. There’s also a sense of what can be accomplished, and what can’t.

Begin by picturing the 20-year-old seminarian squirming in the Assembly chambers 56 years ago as Pat Brown gave his first inaugural speech.

“I sat there in front of the rostrum … feeling awkward in my priestly black suit and Roman collar,” Jerry Brown said on Monday, pointing to a spot in front of the dais in the ornate Assembly chambers. He had taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience: “The boisterous crowd, the applause, the worldliness of it all was jarring,” he said.

And then his point: “The issues that my father raised at his inauguration bear eerie resemblance to those we still grapple with today.” There was and is discrimination. Teachers were and are underpaid. Air pollution remains a scourge. And there is poverty, always poverty. “So you see, these problems, they never completely go away.”

On Jan. 5, 1959, the governor’s father began his speech by interpreting the election two months earlier. Voters had emphatically declined “reaction by the radical right.”

“Offered government by retreat, the people preferred progress,” Pat Brown said. “Clearly, then, our duty is to bring to California the forward force of responsible liberalism.”

Seminarian Brown might have seen the foreshadowing of some of the issues with which he must grapple today. Pat Brown urged an increase in “social insurance and public welfare.”

“Our greatness as a state will largely depend on our sense of responsibility to the elderly, the sick, the needy, the injured and the unemployed,” the elder said, urging that medical benefits be extended to disabled people.

Ten years later, in 1969, Pat Brown served on a commission that issued one of those reports that gathers dust on library shelves, although it has been digitized. A product of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the report was titled, “Poverty Amid Plenty, the American Paradox.” Brown alluded to it on Friday as he explained his budget.

“The simple day-to-day effort to survive may require all of a poor person’s will,” the report said. “The disabled man or the elderly couple can do little to escape poverty. The woman with several children cannot manage a household while simultaneously looking for work or being trained.”

Its main recommendation was to create a “universal income supplement program financed and administered by the federal government, making cash payments to all members of the population with income needs.”

Then, there were 25 million poor Americans. Now, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 45.3 million Americans live below the poverty line.

“This is an issue that is part of America,” Jerry Brown said Friday. “These structures that we all live within are in part local and in part global. … We do the best we can.”

In 1979, six months after voters rebelled against property taxes by approving Proposition 13, Jerry Brown gave his second inaugural speech. In that speech, he warned of “false prophets” who “advocate more and more government spending as the cure.”

“They have told us,” he said 36 years ago, “that billion-dollar government increases are really deep cuts from the yet higher levels of spending they demand and that attempts to limit the inflationary growth of government derive not from wisdom but from selfishness. That disciplining government reflects not a care for the future but rather self-absorption.”

On Monday, the tone was less shrill, but the point was similar:

“The path of wisdom counsels us to ground ourselves and nurture carefully all that we have started ... . With big and important new programs now launched and the budget carefully balanced, the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it, to live within our means and to keep California ever golden and creative, as our forebears have shown and our descendants would expect.”

On Friday, Brown released his latest budget, a $164.7 billion spending plan, and pointed to his favorite bar chart, the depiction of California’s boom and bust, drawn mostly red and with a little black.

“If we don’t rein things in, there will be drastic cuts,” Brown said, pledging that one of the biggest expenditures, $2.8 billion, would be to fill an emergency fund that will pay for government when the next recession hits.

Brown explained his hesitancy to spend more by offering a Brownism: “Most of the money is going for a good. Therefore, if you say you want less good, that feels bad. But if all you do is hand out goods, it is bad.”

Once your head stops spinning, there is a point. Everyone wants more. There are limits. The governor pointed out that the state spends a third of its budget on poor people. Billions go to public schools that serve low-income children, job training, and community colleges, and health care for poor people. Between state and federal spending, California will spend $90 billion on health care.

Californians retain deep skepticism about government and its ability to fix intractable problems. Brown is nothing if not a Californian. The problems existed 56 years ago when he listened to his first inaugural speech.

“You realize all these issues may be issues 56 years from now,” Brown said.

There are constants. But there is a change. Remember the seminarian who was put off by the worldiness of the Legislature? Deviating ever so slightly from the speech he delivered on Monday, the governor said: “I’ve learned to like it.”

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.