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.

Comments (18)

by Tim Watkin on January 05, 2011
Tim Watkin

He always seemed like a fiscal conservative and social liberal with a thick streak of whacky... which is always a good fit in California, and probably essential now. But Ca. is such an investor in ideas, I'm wary of cuts to education. Arnie's already made huge cuts... And there's talk of the US turning it around this year, getting to 4% growth... Maybe he should taiho a little.

by Mark Wilson on January 05, 2011
Mark Wilson

"only Michigan, home to the doomed US auto industry has a higher rate"

Wanna bet?

GM's profit for 2010 was around US $4 billion. Ford similar. Both companies have eaten a huge amount of Toyota's global market share.

US companies control far more of the necessary raw materials for car manufacturing than any other country (way more than China) and Japan is losing control of their raw materials to China.

Having paid the price for incredible stupidity Ford and GM are very profitable companies with huge futures.

i don't suggest you take up financial advice as a career choice.

by Ben Curran on January 05, 2011
Ben Curran

Points awarded for not reading what is written go to ...

Highest unemployment rate, not value of economy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the worst states are:

  • Nevada on 14.3 (due as best I can tell to a large drop in tourism)
  • Michigan on 12.4 having just had a small drop.
  • California on 12.4

So not technically correct, but the point Eleanor makes still stands, California's in a mess. I've wondered for quite some time now, how much of it can be attibuted to their binding referendum system which always seems to raise costs while prohibiting the government from raising taxes to cover those costs.

As for cuts to education, we should always be wary of those. There's a few things that could be done like pushing for all papers to be published in open access journals to try and reduce the influence of the academic journal industry, but that would save bugger all in comparison to the cuts they are possibly going to be asked to make.

by stuart munro on January 05, 2011
stuart munro

Having paid the price for incredible stupidity Ford and GM are very profitable companies with huge futures...

There are a lot of stories behind the failures of Ford and GM. Inappropriate inventory accounting, poor or no quality assurance, an adversarial relationship with a skilled workforce, too many product lines, poor product choices, and an executive bias towards marketing rather than engineering.

These companies are still making a disproportionate fraction of sales to government agencies through sweetheart financing deals, and still making much of their profit from loophole products like SUVs - which are vulnerable to oil price spikes, and may have a quite limited future.

I wouldn't go long on Ford or GM shares just yet.

by Mark Wilson on January 06, 2011
Mark Wilson

"As for cuts to education"

Gods work surely, especially at the University academic level.

by Brendon Mills on January 07, 2011
Brendon Mills

Cut, cut, cut and cut.

Seems to be the big fashion over there in the states.

Governor Brown is only one of many governors looking to run down the already run down public amemities of the USA.

It really begs the question really, as to what sort of society they see emerge over the course of this decade. Do they really want crumbling footpaths, overgrown parks, shuttered libraries where laid off teachers doss down in, empty neighbour hoods, and derilict universities where people go and learn how to shoot up, rather than about science and engineering, and blackened streetlights that mask antisocial behaviour.

Do they really want the streets teeming with more people, do they want people dying because the state has cut their Medicare funding,  do they really want the prison system ever expanding, and young people (esp. those of colour) finding the inside of a prison cell or a courthouse more familiar than the inside of a classroom.

All I see of the USA of 2020 is a decadent ultra rich, a middle class still hanging in there, and the poor getting shafted even more and more, and where whole cities the size of the north Island are hollowed out, and left to fall down.


by Mark Wilson on January 08, 2011
Mark Wilson

Wanna bet?

That's an analysis based on the usual left wing hatred of success. You have been reading to much of Andrew and Claire's stuff.

The US is still the richest toughest country on earth and while the European countries are rioting and whinging about the consequences of decades of left wing government waste the US is the only country in the world where the street marches are all about the Government not beeing tough enough. You have have to love a people who are so much mentally tougher than the rest of the world.

The left have been predicting the demise of the US since it came out of the ruck and were wrong all the way through and will be in the future. Of course being left means never accepting you are wrong no matter how many people die.

The US economy is already on the rebound and they will end this century as far in front as they did the last.

by Brendon Mills on January 08, 2011
Brendon Mills

"The US economy is already on the rebound and they will end this century as far in front as they did the last."

Too bad a lot of people will pay a heavy price for it, but then again Mark, you think crumbling footpaths, closed schools and people living on the streets is perfectly acceptable.

by Mark Wilson on January 08, 2011
Mark Wilson

But that's the justice of it all Brendon - it is the left's spend it to death policies that will create far more misery in  Europe than in the US.

by Brendon Mills on January 08, 2011
Brendon Mills

What planet are you on Mark. Have you been to the USA and seen the homelessness?

You are [redacted].

The left is about building things up, all people like you are about is tearing them down.

[Ed: while Mark may not care what people call him, in the interest of maintaining the level of discourse we'll ask commentators to avoid personal comments and sticl to the ideas.]

by Mark Wilson on January 09, 2011
Mark Wilson

My point remains - the right are responsible for the damage in the US and the left in Europe - there can be no argument on this. That makes the people responsible criminal morons.

But the difference is that the left's damage will be much more damaging and long lasting. The right's world view allows immediate consequences and therefore quick and effective responses. The left's view revolves around avoiding responsibility (cue the Labour Party in both NZ and the UK). The right's response in the US has been to own up and look to put it right.

As to  "Too bad a lot of people will pay a heavy price for it, but then again Mark, you think crumbling footpaths, closed schools and people living on the streets is perfectly acceptable."

Where did i say that?

My point is that the left's lovely words and pleasant thoughts almost guarantee that nothing effective will be done. Reality is a bitch but facing it is the only way to make changes.

Point proven - The left excoriate Roger Douglas yet he made the changes that saved our economy AND WERE NEVER REVERSED BY 9 YEARS OF LABOUR GOVERNMENT. Not one of his reforms were reversed and everything Clark had (she voted for the reforms) came from Douglas. 

Now that is hypocrisy. 


by stuart munro on January 09, 2011
stuart munro

Roger Douglas was the worst thing that ever happened to New Zealand. Palmer had to take treason off the NZ statute book before the reforms because he knew they would be actionable.

Nothing you say Mark, can obscure the fact that the NZ economy has tanked since Douglas's ill-conceived experiment. Labour (god help them) were mostly too naive or too irresponsible to understand how badly New Zealanders were being shafted. And they still are, which is why they're electoral toast.

If you want to know why the NZ standard of living is 40% below Australia's, and falling, you need look no further than Douglas. But hey, he cut taxes for 'wealth creators' so who cares eh.

But you're right about Clark. She had nine years and no guts, and no economic sense. Which only makes the reforms more urgent. Survivors of the Douglas era, like Goff and Prebble, showed a catastrophic lack of judgment in power. Time they went away too.

by Andrew Geddis on January 09, 2011
Andrew Geddis


I know you were making a rhetorical point, and I'm well aware of the irony involved in pointing out to anyone arguing with Mark that they have made a factual error, but Geoffrey Palmer didn't take treason off the NZ statute book. Nor, indeed, has Parliament. See here.

As for Mark, does your analysis mean Muldoon was a lefty? And Labour in the 1980s were righties? But now are lefties? And is Jerry Brown thus a righty (given that the original post deals with the spending cuts that he is instituting in California)? What about the UK Government, which has both cut spending (good righties!) and raised taxes (bad lefties!)?

Simple labels suit simple minds.

by Mark Wilson on January 09, 2011
Mark Wilson

Andrew I hate to say this (well not really) but your comment is irrelevant to the point.

Muldoon was nuts (but a right wing nut granted) and the 1980s Labour were certainly right of centre and one of us and it was they who saved the country for Clark to stuff up.

Jerry Brown is a social lefty and right wing fiscally - it turns out in his case you can be partially pregnant!

The UK government is right-wing with correct policies including raising taxes. When you are in a hole as deep as the one dug by the left you need to take tough measures to sort things out. The right have no problem with taxes, their problem is with the left's wasting of them.

You are the one with the label problem. 

As to the actual point of all this Brown will be a good Governor as he is a able to understand what 99.9% recurring of all lefties can't - if you spend it to death and or hammer the wealth creators the poor die.

Isn't reality a bitch!


by Andrew Geddis on January 09, 2011
Andrew Geddis

What, Mark ... you've got a new slogan for 2011 - "reality"? This from a man who in comments previous has incorrectly claimed lake Manapouri was raised 6 m by power generation, thinks Lord Stern is a scientist, thinks $6 million times 6 equals $48 million and I could go on but why bother?

So - I may have a label problem. But I'll take it over your inability to correctly represent the world as it is problem any day. 

by stuart munro on January 10, 2011
stuart munro

Sorry Andrew, it seems I swallowed an urban myth. Perhaps it relates to the removal of the death penalty for treason - and the destruction wrecked by Douglas calls for nothing less than the traditional drawing and quartering. I should like to see what he is made of...

by Tim Watkin on January 13, 2011
Tim Watkin

It's interesting to see that Jerry Brown has announced his first budget plans and they basically go for a 50:50 split, spending cuts:tax increases. The spending cuts include taking mobile phones off state employees, cutting tertiary and welfare spending, and completey axing schemes to "spruce up blighted neighbourhoods'.

But the tax increases are going to be even harder to sell. The Republicans in state government seem unwilling/unable to back them out of fear of the Tea Party-esque base, so Brown's having a special election to get the publi'c permission. Interesting...

We're going to see a lot of this sort of debate around the world this year, I reckon. Tax increases will be a common theme in lots of places.

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