His experience as an “inside outsider” has made him an effective leader.
While unveiling California’s 2018-2019 budget in Sacramento Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown couldn’t resist a bit of economic forecasting. As Adam Ashton of the Sacramento Bee recounted:
During his second go-round as governor, Brown has been trying hard to prepare for this eventuality. Since passage of the property-tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978, the state has become dependent on income tax revenues that careen up and down with the fortunes of Silicon Valley. Under Brown’s direction, the state built up a rainy-day fund for the next recession that by the middle of 2019 should contain $13.5 billion, or about 10 percent of current general fund revenue. He has also resisted big new ongoing spending commitments, and warned Wednesday that at some point soon the state’s giant pension commitments will have to be rolled back.
This kind of fiscal conservatism/pessimism isn’t new for Brown. During his first stint as governor, which lasted from 1975 to 1983, the big budget surpluses the state ran in good times were among the factors that drove Californians to vote themselves a tax cut with Prop 13. Also, despite the “Governor Moonbeam” nickname that was applied to him in the 1970s, Brown has always been a pragmatist whose political views, while not exactly centrist, are on the whole awfully hard to pigeonhole as left, right or moonbeamy.
But I also get the sense — and I’m watching from afar, so it’s entirely possible that I’m missing some big flaws and mistakes — that the second coming of Jerry Brown has been marked by a wisdom and skill that was understandably lacking the first time around (he was 36 when he first became governor; he’s 79 now). It has become customary in recent decades to denigrate career politicians, but in Brown’s case it is in part his long political career that has made him such an effective leader for his state.
It hasn’t been a conventional political career — Brown’s not like one of those guys who spends four-plus decades in the U. S. Senate. He didn’t hold public office from 1983 to 1999, although he did put in a stint as chairman of the California Democratic Party from 1989 to 1991 and ran for president in 1992. But after that he disappeared from the spotlight again, and when he made his comeback he started with a long apprenticeship, as mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007 and attorney general of California after that, before getting himself elected governor again in 2010. He’s what Harvard Business School’s Joseph Bower once dubbed — in the business context — an “inside outsider,” an executive who knows the ropes of an organization but has spent enough time outside it to appreciate the need for change.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, as Democrats and Republicans lobbed claims back and forth on the lack of experience of relative political newbies Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, I took an inventory of the things people had been citing as important qualifications for the presidency or vice presidency (political experience, executive experience, familiarity with the outside world, a home state with lots of oil wells, etc.) and concluded in my Time.com blog that Brown — at that point California’s attorney general — was “the American Most Qualified to Be President.”
It was all meant as (kind of) a joke, and I really don’t know if Brown would have made a good president, given that all his experience was built up in the somewhat unique environment of his home state. But he was undeniably the Californian Most Qualified to Be Governor when he ran in 2010.
Since then, Brown hasn’t been a miracle worker. He was lucky enough to take office near the beginning of a long, long economic expansion and will probably be lucky enough to leave before it ends. The state has made progress on a few big long-term priorities, passing its first gas-tax increase since the 1980s to fund repairs for crumbling roads and bridges and moving ahead on the controversial but potentially transformative high-speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles that has been in the works since the 1990s.
But there’s lots of unfinished business, from the plans for a giant tunnel under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, to secure Southern California’s water supply, to those unfunded pension liabilities to struggling public schools and universities to the state’s continuing inability to build anywhere near enough new housing in its coastal cities to keep up with demand. And I’m leaving out so many other current and future problems! As Brown intimated Wednesday, California is going to face massive challenges when the next recession comes.
Still, it sure seems as if the state is much better prepared for them than it would have been with anyone other than Brown as governor. He has reined in some of his state’s worst impulses, and pushed it to think of the future as well as of the present. He is an adult who knows how to do his job, and I’m guessing that, whomever California voters choose to succeed him this fall, he will be terribly missed before long.
I know I’ll miss him. Brown was the governor of my youth. As my gaze first began to stray beyond the comics page and Sporting Green
of the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-1970s, he was all over the news pages. When I went to California Boys State in Sacramento in 1981, he was the guy who gave us the obligatory address about public service. And when I first was able to vote in 1982, I… voted for his opponent for the U. S. Senate, Republican Pete Wilson.
I can’t remember my reasoning exactly (bizarrely, it may have had something to do with Brown’s handling of a Mediterranean fruit fly infestation). But I like to think it was at least partly because I knew Jerry Brown needed some time away from politics to realize his full potential.

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