Sunday, April 12, 2009




Back in 1975, just after he'd been elected governor for the first time, Jerry Brown began talking like no occupant of California's highest office ever had.

"There is no free lunch," he said. "This is an era of limits and we all had better get used to it." "Small is beautiful."

That kind of talk was a complete reversal of the expansive optimism of the previous 70 years, a time when California grew into America's largest and most enterprising state. This state developed the world's large public system of higher education, the largest aqueduct, the most extensive system of superhighways. The most and the best were California mantras. Before Brown.

He earned the sobriquet "Gov. Moonbeam" for going against these themes while advocating things like limited spending on public works, careful environmental stewardship, a focus on innovative technologies, a space academy and a satellite for emergency state communications. The term was coined in 1978 by the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who recanted 14 years later and conceded Brown was right about a lot of things.

In some ways, he looks positively prescient today. His insistence on a balanced budget and his ability to negotiate with Republican legislators despite some ideological differences stand in stark contrast to the budget battles of the last decade, especially the budget debacles of the last nine months. Those headaches are far from over, too, with this summer's potential budget battles set to make the prolonged wrangling of the past year look easy.

"I was right about all that, wasn't I," Brown said in an interview the other day.

Brown, considering a run for a third term as governor next year, fully 28 years after his last previous one ended, can think about this because term limits were passed long after he left office and wouldn't apply to him until he'd served another eight years, if elected.

He currently leads all Democrats in the early fund-raising derby, but will need much more than he's yet raised in order to compete with mega-millionaire Republicans like state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay chief Meg Whitman, both likely GOP candidates.

The question today is whether Brown's time has really come again. His minimalist themes didn't apply to everything. For instance, in 1981 he signed a bill authorizing construction of a Peripheral Canal to bring Northern California river water around the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, only to have it shot down in an unprecedented referendum the next year. After that, no politician would touch the canal idea until Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein began touting it two years ago.

Now Brown finds himself waiting on Feinstein, who won't yet say whether she'll run for governor or stay in Washington, D.C., for the rest of her career. If Feinstein runs, other Democrats might see her as unstoppable even though she lost a 1990 run for the same office. It's well known that Brown, whose campaign funds technically reside in an attorney general re-election account, wants another crack at running the state. But he sounds coy, saying "I haven't made any decisions yet about what I might do next year."

Yet, it's plain he feels he could do well negotiating with legislative Republicans in the budget hassles that have become a central feature of state politics.

"It's not acceptable to link budget votes to attempts at rolling back labor protections," he said when GOP lawmakers proposed just that. "And they shouldn't be taking a meatax to the environmental protections of CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act signed in 1971 by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan), even though it's not perfect. Each issue should be looked at individually.

"The minority (Republicans) try to get what they want by holding up the budget, but it's just not right to hold up all state business for collateral issues like they did last winter," he added. "Once you get the people to understand that, the Republicans will understand it, too."

It's just possible that Republicans might be more comfortable working with Brown than they've been with the nominally Republican Schwarzenegger, if only because of Brown's early and long-running devotion to balanced budgets and the idea that government can't be all things to all people.

They would probably like his minimalist approach better than Schwarzenegger's grandiose style, which sees his every public appearance and utterance handled as a major production. Where Schwarzenegger travels in private jets and huge sport utility vehicles, Brown pulled up to one recent appearance in an aged Pontiac that somewhat resembled the old blue Plymouths he famously used while governor. His retinue? One driver.

All of which means Brown's time may have come again, if only because political reality appears to have evolved to the point where many positions he staked out more than 30 years ago appear to have become self-evident in an economic downturn.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit