California goes back to the future

California has never been in bigger fiscal trouble. So who do voters choose as their new governor? Jerry Brown, aka 'Governor Moonbeam', the budget-conscious pol who was their governor 28 years ago

The first time Jerry Brown led California, from 1975 to 1983, he was the state's youngest-ever governor, a playboy bachelor who dated singer Linda Ronstadt and ditched the gubernatorial limo for a 1974 Plymouth Satellite.

Now, at 72, he is the oldest man to ever manage the world's eighth largest economy, and California is not the golden state it once was. It is on the verge of bankruptcy, unemployment is an horrific 12.4 per cent—only Michigan, home to the doomed US auto industry has a higher rate—and the demographic composition of the state has altered radically, with the Latino population doubling in the past 20 years. Many of those new California residents are Spanish speakers from Mexico who struggle to find legal employment and whose children present challenges in already struggling state schools.

The budget deficit is $25.4 billion. The cost of living is out of control. For example, the average house price is US$309,000, or 80 per cent higher than the rest of the country. In 1975, when Brown first became California Governor, the average California house price was $41,600, 18 per cent above the national average. Brown, who was sworn into office yesterday, has already warned state legislators that they face massive budget cuts. The state's university system is also in for a hit.

When I was a little girl living in California's Bay Area watching the evening news with my parents, Jerry Brown was a bit of a joke, an eccentric whose personal values marked him out as a bit too cool for the office he held—one that had previously been held by his father, Pat Brown. He rejected the Governor's mansion in Sacramento, instead living in a rented apartment and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. He went barefoot a lot. He had many girlfriends and was a fixture at the state capitol's bars.

A lawyer who had once trained at a Jesuit seminary, he was known as 'Governor Moonbeam' and the Dead Kennedys wrote a song about him: "I am Governor Jerry Brown. My aura smiles and never frowns." He made socially progressive moves that didn't always meet with favour, appointing the country's first gay and lesbian judges. And he cut the budget for higher education in a state with high levels of tertiary engagement.

Probably his biggest transgression, though, was seeking the Democratic nomination for president twice while he was California's governor, in 1976 and 1980, and losing each time to Jimmy Carter. Californians felt he wasn't sufficiently focused on their problems, and was using the job as a platform to greater things. When he lost his bid to become the US Senator for California to future California Governor Pete Wilson in 1982 Jerry Brown disappeared for a while, headed to Japan to study Buddhism and to India to work with Mother Teresa.

In 1992 he again sought the Presidential nomination, but lost to Bill Clinton. He popped up again in 1999, when he became Mayor of Oakland, the poorer cousin to cross-bay rival San Francisco. And this arguably is when his renaissance began, because Brown is credited with revitalising Oakland, cleaning up the central business district, renovating old buildings, setting up charter schools, and addressing the factors that lead to crime: poverty, lack of education, lack of connection to the wider community.

Then he became California's Attorney General, working effectively in Arnold Schwarznegger's bipartisan administration. In 2005 he married his partner of 15 years, Anne Gust, a former executive at the Gap, and those who know him say this helped smooth some of his rough edges and quirk. His popularity rose, and when he won the gubernatorial race last November, it was with a comfortable margin, gathering 53.8 per cent of the vote.

Can he turn California around? Maybe. Certainly he has the experience and the political connections to hit the ground running. His famous fiscal responsibility should be a blessing for a cash-strapped state, although his promise to yank money away from the universities again seems problematic.

So far the signs are promising, if symbolic. Instead of the traditional pricey inaugural ball to celebrate his new job, Brown presided over a buffet of Californian favourites: sushi, pulled pork, oranges, local cheese and organic coffee. In contrast, outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarznegger threw himself a glitzy "wrap party" studded with Hollywood buddies. Brown spent a "modest" $24.8 million on his election campaign, compared to the $160 million spent by his Republican rival Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, who campaigned with a curious band of creeps: failed presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and John McCain and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Commentators are predicting Brown will this week deliver a conservative "Terminator budget" designed to wipe millions off the state deficit. They say Brown is a Republican cloaked as a Democrat, and perhaps that's why he fared so well in Schwarznegger's administration. Maybe a non-traditional, non-partisan approach is what's required now. Maybe the past 30 years have taught Jerry Brown a few useful tricks. Maybe returning to the 80s is a way to return to prosperity. Or maybe Governor Moonbeam is not the answer to California's ills.