From the 1970s to today, Jerry Brown defined modern California. What his legacy means depends on whom you ask

Key Points
  • Jerry Brown has been a fixture of California politics for nearly a half century and his final stint as governor was marked by steadying the state's finances and filling the leadership void on climate change.
  • Despite taking on President Donald Trump on climate policy, some environmental activists have been been critical of Brown's record as too cozy with oil and gas.
  • The 80-year-old Democrat is the longest serving governor in California history and also the oldest to hold the office.
California's Governor Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference held at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. 
Anda Chu | Digital First Media | The Mercury News | Getty Images 

For nearly a half century, Democrat Jerry Brown has been a fixture of California politics, helping to shape key environmental, energy and fiscal policies. Brown's unprecedented fourth term as governor ends next month, and he leaves a legacy of championing efforts to fight climate change and restoring the state's economic health.

Brown, who succeeded Ronald Reagan as governor in 1975, has been called a centrist, populist, pragmatist, doomsayer and trailblazer. He has served as the 34th and 39th governor of California, led the state's Democratic Party, and served as mayor of Oakland. He also ran for president in 1976, 1980 and 1992, never getting beyond the primary stage.

But the liberal darling grabbed headlines when he dated rock star Linda Ronstadt in the 1970s and 80s. His pop culture bona fides were burnished when he was lampooned in Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip. He remained a bachelor until 2005, when at age 67 he married corporate executive Anne Gust. He's continued to be a champion of the left, becoming one of President Donald Trump's most vocal critics.

California — which has the world's fifth-largest economy — had a population of about 21.5 million people in 1975 when Brown was in his first year as governor. It is approaching 40 million people as he prepares to leave. California's budget has increased roughly tenfold since Brown's first term, growing from around $20 billion in 1975 to more than $200 billion in 2018. He will be remembered for bringing California back from the brink of financial ruin.

Yet Brown's generations-spanning tenure as arguably the most important figure in the California's modern political scene means he has also accumulated his fair share of critics on both sides of the aisle – even when it comes to what is widely seen as his signature issue, the environment.

"He's tried to walk that fine line and he's gotten a lot of grief from the environmental community from some people that just want to keep all the oil in the ground," said Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce.

One of the state's most iconic political leaders, Brown is set to relinquish the governorship of California on Jan. 7 to Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom.

Brown has called the 51-year-old Democrat "the right man at the right time." Brown joked in 2016 about running for a fifth term as governor, although term limits passed in 1990 make him ineligible. Unless that law changes, he will probably be the last to ever serve four terms.

California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., shown walking to a speaking engagement in Sacramento on Feb. 21, 1975.
AP Photo

Brown was California's youngest governor since the Civil War when elected in 1974 at age 36. He is the oldest, at 80, as his term in office nears an end. Brown wasn't available at deadline for an interview for this article.

Brown won his first term as governor as the Watergate scandal was shaking the country. Brown, son of former Gov. Pat Brown, once studied for the Jesuit priesthood. His political career is largely defined by his emphasis on frugality and humility.

Ditching the limo

During his first term as governor in the 1970s, he rejected the pomp of a limousine and rode instead in a plain blue Plymouth sedan. He refused to live in the governor's mansion — which Reagan had used. He instead kept an apartment with a mattress on the floor.

"The power of the central bureaucracy is pervasive, it is technocratic and elitist," Brown was quoted as saying in the 1970s, according to the Washington Post. The paper back then also called him out for "puzzling politics" given his reputation for fiscal conservatism and liberal ties.

Brown built ties with Silicon Valley during his first governorship when he formed and chaired an innovation commission in the early 1980s and appointed members such as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and a co-founder of HP, David Packard. He also urged high-tech executives to get involved in politics as Silicon Valley was seeing rapid growth and more foreign competition.

Brown decided in 1982 to skip a third term and instead run for the U.S. Senate seat but lost to Republican Pete Wilson, who later was governor. After the election setback, Brown largely disappeared from public eye and went to Japan to study Zen Buddhism and Calcutta to volunteer at Mother Teresa's home for the dying and poor.

Brown re-entered the political arena in 1989 as chairman of the state's Democratic Party. Then, in 1991, he jumped into the next year's presidential race. He lost to Bill Clinton in a campaign marked by highly charged attacks.

Jerry Brown running for President in 1992
Jacques M. Chenet | Getty Images

By 1994, Brown was a talk-radio host in Oakland, then in 1997 ran successfully for mayor of the city. He served two terms as mayor and then in 2006 ran for state attorney general.

Brown served as attorney general from 2007 to 2011, during a time when the housing crash unfolded. Becoming attorney general marked Brown's fifth elective office held in California.

Second stint as governor

After a 28-year gap, Brown returned for a third term as the state's chief executive. He won the race despite being outspent by former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a Republican.

Overall, Brown has decided on nearly 20,000 bills during his 16 years as governor of the most populous U.S. state.


"It's so hard to imagine anyone else as governor than Brown," said Tom Hogen-Esch, professor of political science at California State University-Northridge. "He's been governor a huge percentage of many Californians' adult life."

There was no easy way for Brown to fix the state's budget when he returned as governor in 2011, succeeding another cultural icon Arnold Schwarzenegger. Some of the cuts he approved went against Democratic orthodoxy, including in programs for education, school libraries and prisons as well as services for the elderly and disabled. Additional cuts would come to safety-net programs in the subsequent budget.

As a skeptic of tax-credit programs and a politician known for his spirit of frugality, Brown was expected to eliminate or scale back the state's film and television tax credit program to help balance the state's budget. But lawmakers defended tax production credits as a way to help retain industry jobs and Brown kept it alive and later expanded the program.

According to California Film Commission, the expanded film tax credit program when including approved productions is "on track to generate nearly $6 billion of direct in-state spending."

"People used to call him 'Governor Moonbeam,' but at some level that's a compliment in a sense that he was willing to entertain thoughts that were outside of the conventional wisdom," said LA-area Democratic state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, a former speaker of the California state Assembly.

Jerry Brown (L) is sworn in as the 39th governor of California by California Chief Justice Tani CAntil-Sakauye (R) as Brown's wife, Anne Gust-Brown (C), looks on January 3, 2011 in Sacramento, California. 
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

"Moonbeam" is a nickname that Brown received in 1976 from Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko. Brown had supported space-related initiatives and even suggested during his first stint as governor that the state should launch its own satellite. Then in 2018, Brown announced California would be "launching our own damn satellite" as part of the fight against climate change.

Environmental leadership

Brown was seen as an environmental champion in the 1970s when he criticized oil executives as being "distressingly slow" to California's smog problems.

He also pushed for tougher automobile emissions standards in a state where Californians drive nearly 350 billion miles per year. Yet his second stint was marked by criticism from some environmentalists that he was too cozy with oil and gas companies.

Then, Brown spent his last few years in office focusing on climate change, positioning himself as a champion on the issue. He announced ambitious targets such as carbon-free electricity and rubbed elbows with media and tech titans at the annual Sun Valley retreat three years ago to push his climate policies.

Despite standing up to Trump on climate policy, Brown continues to face criticism from environmental activists. Some cite Brown's track record in the past eight years of approving more than 20,000 oil and gas drilling permits.

"What I see is somebody who almost has a split personality when it comes to the environment and other issues too," said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California.

Even as he sought to reduce the state's reliance on fossil fuels, environmentalists have criticized him for not doing enough.

Protesters carry a photo of California Gov. Jerry Brown and demand shut down of Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles on Jan. 16, 2016. The gas leak went on for 118 days and forced thousands of residents to leave homes.
Richard Vogel | AP

Some environmentalists also fault the governor for allowing oil and gas activity near where people live as well as a slow response to the massive methane leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in LA's Porter Ranch area. The four-month leak forced thousands to leave homes and led to protests calling for the facility to be shut down.

"I don't think he proved to be as effective on Aliso Canyon as was needed at the time," said Sierra Club's Phillips. "He's generally had a lighter touch with the oil and gas industry."

Last year, the governor renewed the state's cap-and-trade program that puts limits on emissions and allows pollution allowances to be traded. The state's Chamber of Commerce waged a legal battle against the cap-and-trade system but later supported extending a "more flexible" plan.

Taking on Trump

"Jerry is America's leading proponent for climate change with Trump, taking a 180 position on the Paris climate accords," said former California Gov. Gray Davis, who served as chief of staff during Brown's first stint as governor. He said Brown "filled the vacuum" when it comes to climate policy leadership and secured memorandums of agreement with leaders around the world for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

The cap-and-trade program, designed to reduce greenhouse gases, includes an auction where a portion of the proceeds go to help fund the state's $100 billion high-speed rail project.

At the same time, Brown has tangled with the Trump administration on a wide range of issues, from immigration and health care to energy and the environment.

When the Trump administration issued a proposal in September of 2018 to rollback methane regulation, Brown issued a critical response: "This is insane — it borders on criminality." And when Trump proposed in March of 2017 a plan to "weaken" emission standards on cars, Brown called it "an unconscionable gift to polluters."

Trump, meanwhile, has frequently criticized Brown on a wide range of issues, including the state's "high crime rate" and initial hesitation by Brown to send California National Guard troops to protect the "very porous" southern border.


Trump also has taken swipes at Brown for pardoning several "criminal illegal aliens."


Devastating wildfires

As California wildfires raged in November, the president blamed "poor" forest management and threatened to pull federal funds from the Golden State.


Three major wildfires destroyed or damaged nearly 20,000 homes and structures this year and followed devastating blazes in 2017.

US President Donald Trump (C) looks on with Governor of California Jerry Brown (R) and Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, as they view damage from wildfires in Paradise, California on November 17, 2018.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Brown has called the state's wildfire situation "the new normal that we have to face" and said human-caused climate change is taking a role.

Fiscal rebound

While Brown has focused on climate change during his final term, he will also be remembered for bringing the state back from the brink of financial disaster. California had the lowest rated credit among the 50 states starting in early 2009 and it continued into 2010.

"When I took office way back in 2011, California was facing a real financial mess — a deficit of $27 billion," Brown said earlier this year when he signed his last annual state budget, a $201 billion plan with a projected $9 billion surplus.

To restore the state's fiscal footing, Brown made cuts to programs and services. He slashed his own office staff by 25 percent, and pushed for voters to approve a mix of sales and state income tax extensions.

"He made some very tough decisions to bring California from the precipice of fiscal demise," said former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. "The last four years were maybe a little easier because the economy did finally turn around and he was able to build the state back up."

Statewide unemployment topped 12 percent when Brown was elected to his third term in 2010. As the outgoing governor leaves office, the jobless rate in November 2018 stood at 4.1 percent, unchanged from the prior month.

Among the industries showing the biggest change in hiring in the past year are professional and business services, construction as well as information sector, which is top heavy with entertainment jobs along with telecommunications and tech-oriented jobs in Internet search and social media firms.

The state's job growth rate has consistently outpaced the nation's rate since early 2012, on a year-over-year basis.

Brown leaves as California is forecast to have about $14 billion in the state's rainy day fund for the next economic downturn, as well as billions more in surplus. Yet that reserve fund may not be enough in the next recession.

According to a state report released in March, "a moderate recession, like the dot-com bust, could lead to a $40 billion budget problem. A more mild recession might result in a $20 billion budget problem."

In recent years, Brown has emphasized the need for the state to sock away money for the rainy day fund even as some legislators applied pressure to spend the budget surpluses.

A recession could happen under the watch of the incoming governor, who also will have to deal with the state's highly volatile revenue system. The top 1 percent of income tax earners in California generate almost half of the personal income taxes in the state.

Meantime, Newsom will take the reins of state government next month when California is enjoying a booming economy, but there are signs of job growth cooling and fallout from the Trump's trade war has hit several major industries in the state, from agriculture and electric cars to steel and aluminum. Newsom ran a campaign focused on ambitious plans for everything from single-payer health care and affordable housing to childhood poverty.

It still remains to be seen whether Newsom pushes for a major increase in spending when he's governor to pay for some of his ambitious agenda. He also faces a Democratic-controlled state Legislature that appears more willing to spend.

About 100 bills with more than $40 billion in new spending were proposed in the first 24 hours of the new state's legislative session, according to the Sacramento Bee. The Democrats have a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature so they have the power to pass new taxes or overrule a governor's veto.

"We're nearing the longest recovery in modern history, and as Issac Newton observed: What goes up must come down," Brown said in May during a press event on his revised budget. "This is a time to save for our future, not to make pricey promises we can't keep. I said it before and I'll say it again: Let's not blow it now."