California governor Jerry Brown has been in the public eye for more than four decades, shifting with the tides of public opinion, beguiling his friends and outsmarting his foes at almost every turn. For many Americans, he’ll always be “Moonbeam.” But there is far more to Brown’s story than an old Mike Royko nickname. Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown, by longtime Associated Press writer Chuck McFadden, serves as an entertaining primer—even if the author ignores important aspects of the governor’s career.
Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. grew up in a five-bedroom house in the comfortable Forest Hills section of San Francisco, where he attended the best schools. The man who would one day refuse to live in the governor’s mansion went on to buy a house with a swimming pool in upscale Laurel Canyon and, years later, a $1.8 million “live-work loft” in Oakland. Brown’s Jesuit training, writes McFadden, “instilled in him a certain amount of intellectual arrogance, a liking for austerity, and a sense of righteousness that has manifested itself throughout his political career.” His father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, became governor when Jerry was still a student, and the son made the most of it. Even before passing the bar, Brown “breezed into a clerkship” for a state supreme court judge.
Brown “internalized his father’s ferocious ambition” and tapped his extensive political network for campaign funding. Houston Flournoy, his Republican opponent in his first race for governor in 1974, told him, “If your name was Jerry Green you wouldn’t be here today.” McFadden credits the Patty Hearst kidnapping saga, which began that year, for “lessening coverage of the campaign and helping Brown with his built-in advantage of name recognition.” He beat Flournoy by 2.9 percentage points and got to work on collective bargaining for farmworkers and state employees.
California homeowners fared poorly during Brown’s first term. Property taxes increased 120 percent between 1974 and 1978, and people worried that they might lose their homes. Worse, “no one in Sacramento seemed to be listening,” including Brown. Enter Proposition 13, which amended the state’s constitution to limit the growth of property taxes—appropriately enough, as the state was running a budget surplus. McFadden fails to point out that Prop. 13, though perennially blamed for California’s financial woes, did not raise state spending or government employees’ pay, mandated no new state hires, and created no new state agencies. Legislators and special interests saw to that. Brown attacked Prop. 13 as a “fraud” and a “rip-off,” but it passed with 65 percent of the vote. “Instantly Jerry Brown performed one of the most dazzling flip-flops in the history of American politics,” McFadden writes, and proclaimed himself a “born-again tax cutter.”
Of course, Prop. 13 wasn’t the first or last time Brown found himself at odds with the people. In a move that some saw as evidence of his rebellious streak, he appointed his University of California at Berkeley chum, Rose Bird, to the state supreme court. Voters rebelled, booting the stridently anti–capital punishment Bird off the court in 1986, along with fellow Brown appointees Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin, “the first justices to be removed by voters in a retention election.” In the late 1970s, Brown appointed actress Jane Fonda to the California Arts Council. Fonda had earned the lasting ire of Vietnam veterans and millions of Americans for making a friendly visit to North Vietnam during the war. McFadden ignores this episode, as well as the controversy surrounding Dennis Banks, a founder of the American Indian Movement. Banks was convicted of riot and assault for a 1973 courthouse gun battle in South Dakota. He fled to California, and Brown refused to extradite him.
McFadden does note that Mario Obledo, Brown’s first health and welfare secretary, was a “poor administrator” known for “unfairly favoring Hispanic job applicants.” That kind of discrimination, along with admissions quotas at the University of California, led voters to pass Proposition 209, which forbids racial, ethnic, and gender preferences in state employment, education, and contracting. Brown was not in public office in 1996, when the initiative passed, but he opposed Prop. 209 from the beginning. Later, as attorney general, he filed several court briefs against it. McFadden ignores Brown’s record on the issue.
While still a novice as governor, Brown made his first run at the presidency. He would try three times in all, once even making a conservative flat tax part of his platform. In 1982, he also lost a bid for the Senate to Pete Wilson, who later became California’s governor. Brown then brushed up on his Zen and spent time with Mother Teresa before making a successful comeback as mayor of Oakland, where he pursued sensible education and crime policies. With him throughout was longtime confidant Jacques Barzaghi, the French filmmaker, sailor, and Algerian war veteran who “put the frost on the California flake,” as a New York Times writer explained. It was Barzaghi who famously said, during Brown’s final presidential campaign in 1992: “We are not disorganized. Our campaign transcends understanding.”
The book’s lengthy account of the 2010 California governor’s race, in which Brown defeated former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, is freighted with quotes from familiar pundits but short on analysis. McFadden’s narrative takes the reader up to the 2012 elections, allowing him to address Proposition 30, the measure that gave California the nation’s highest tax burden—yet he barely touches on Brown’s tireless evangelism for the sales and income-tax hike. McFadden does note the contrast with Brown’s second inaugural address as governor in 1979, when he intoned: “False prophets have risen to advocate more and more government spending as the cure.” Back then, Brown argued that government must live within limits. He proposed that Sacramento cut jobs for the first time since World War II, calling a reduction of 5,000 state workers “reasonable and attainable.” What happened to the “born-again tax cutter” and his flat tax? What measures might Brown have pushed in lieu of Prop. 30? McFadden doesn’t speculate.
Unfortunately, McFadden’s book went to press before it could chronicle Brown’s response to seismic-safety issues on the new $6.4 billion span of the Bay Bridge, plagued by years of cost overruns and delays. Asked about problems with shaky rods, bolts, and welds, Brown responded: “I mean, look, shit happens.” It certainly does. A fitting epitaph? Not necessarily. Brown’s term is not finished, and the odds are strong that he’ll run for reelection next year. So Chuck McFadden or some other scribe will have more to chronicle in this remarkable Californian’s career.