by Spencer Michels
When you are the governor of California – first in the 1970s, then again starting in 2011– and when your father was governor before you (Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, 1959-1967) – speculation about family ties is bound to crop up. In the case of Governor Jerry Brown, who is about to turn 75, some have suggested some of the grand plans he is pushing this time around as governor are an attempt to live up to or even complete his father’s legacy.
The original Governor Brown, Jerry’s father Pat, is widely credited for spearheading the amazing California Water Project: dams and canals that transfer water that falls in Northern California to the thirsty south, which might be a desert otherwise. Were it not for Pat Brown’s California Water Project (plus the federal Central Valley Project that includes Shasta Dam) Los Angeles and San Diego might look a lot more sleepy, with their growth limited by lack of water.
The elder Brown also receives a lot of credit for building up the quality and the reputation of the University of California, arguably the premier public university system in the world. During Pat’s reign, new college and university campuses were added, the state master plan for higher education was formulated, and the whole thing was held up as a model for the nation.
Pat Brown wanted to do even more, but he lost his bid for a third term as governor in 1966, to a movie star named Ronald Reagan. The Watts riots and unpopular anti-Vietnam war demonstrations on the campuses of the schools he had built did him in. Despite that defeat, the Brown legacy is strong.
His son, Jerry, is in his third term as California governor, and he’s been fighting government gridlock and big deficits ever since he (re)took office. He has reduced the budget, slashing programs for the poor and elderly, and for public schools and universities, too. Last November he championed a tax increase passed by voters 54 to 46 percent, which is projected to not only help balance the budget, but will restore some of the previously cut funds.
But even when budget deficits were soaring and Brown was taking an axe to programs near and dear to the Democratic Party and its constituents, Brown wouldn’t back down from pushing two very expensive projects. One is a 30-mile long tunnel under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, intended to help send water more easily and reliably from the north to the south. The other is a high-speed rail system that would eventually connect cities throughout the state. Some might argue that even with California’s fiscal picture looking up, it’s still not the time to be proposing billions of dollars in public works that many critics continue to scoff at.
But it is the right time, says Brown.
“If you take a big project. whether it be water or high-speed rail, that project is going to be around for 50, 75 years,” he told me in a recent interview for KQED and PBS NewsHour. “So in reality it’s a fraction of the wealth that is generated, and in fact, they both contribute to and preserve the wealth that we’re going to want to rely on in the years to come.”
As to the theory from some journalists that Brown is holding fast to these big projects in order to burnish his legacy, Brown doesn’t buy it.
“Well the legacy thing has been invented in the last 15 to 20 years,” he says. “ I never heard of legacy when I was governor the first time….What a legacy is, I think the role of California governors in history books is minimal.”
“Now people always want to psychologize. Why do you do this? Why do you want to be governor? Why didn’t you become a fireman? It’s a silly story. Okay, I’m here. I’m here cause I like it. I know this job pretty well, and I want to do the best I can in the years that I have.”
He’s got two more years as governor; then he could run again, at age 77. If he won, he’d be on the job until 81. That could be a legacy in itself.]
You can watch Spencer Michels’ full interview with Gov. Brown on This Week in Northern California, KQED 9, Friday, Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m.