Forty months after returning to the governor’s office that he left in 1983, Jerry Brown is a media favorite and a hero to much of the California establishment. The present-day governor wins accolades as a highly skilled politician who has put the Golden State’s fiscal house in order while reviving its can-do spirit.
Brown deserves the gratitude of powerful economic elites. But for others, especially the powerless and vulnerable, it’s a very different story.
The governor insists on frugality in spending for social programs, while many millions of Californians continue to live in economic distress worsened by cutbacks in social services. Now instead of boosting aid, Brown wants to sock money away. Years of rising tax revenues have turned the state’s huge budget deficit into a surplus, and this week the legislature is in special session to answer Brown’s call for expansion of the state’s rainy-day fund.
While Brown has shown a notable lack of urgency about repairing the state’s badly frayed social safety net, he remains anxious to please Big Business. For instance, he has rebuffed proposals for new taxation of energy conglomerates. He continues to oppose a long-overdue oil severance tax, which could raise $1.5 billion per year for the state.
Among Brown’s other good turns for the oil and gas industry is his support for its explosive practice of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. In March, when he delivered a speech to fellow Democrats at the state party’s annual convention, many delegates chanted, “Ban fracking!” The California Democratic Party platform calls for a fracking moratorium, but the governor — who has earned the nickname “Big Oil” Brown — shows no sign of budging from his pro-fracking stance.
On some issues, Brown has cleared a low bar set by his Republican predecessors. For instance, he quickly improved policies on gay rights. At times he took risks to push better policies. An important achievement came when he promoted a temporary tax hike that voters approved in 2012.
But he has repeatedly disappointed — and increasingly angered — his party’s progressive base, while helping pro-corporate Democrats in the legislature to move state politics rightward. Brown has effectively been reshaping the state’s Democratic Party from the top down, turning some key aspects of its platform into little more than a wistful wish list.
A case in point is single-payer health care, also known as “Medicare for all” — long a plank in the state party platform. A decade ago, California was at the cutting edge of efforts to enact single-payer. Twice, under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a single-payer plan. Both times Schwarzenegger vetoed it.
Soon after replacing him as governor, Brown conveyed to Democrats in the legislature that he didn’t want to see a single-payer bill on his desk. Dutifully, the Democratic leadership made sure that no such legislation came to a floor vote.
His pro-worker rhetoric aside, Brown has also often shafted labor supporters. In 2012 he vetoed a bill to require decent working conditions for home health aides and other domestic workers, citing “consequences both unknown and unintended.”
Such action is an unwelcome change from his previous tenure. As a young governor in the 1970s, Brown was a strong ally of downtrodden farmworkers. But these days, he is much more aligned with the downtrodders. In June 2011 he vetoed a bill that would have lowered the barriers faced by farmworkers trying to unionize. Thousands of United Farm Workers members and supporters protested by marching to the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento.
Since then, Brown has continued to side with growers against workers. In September 2012 he vetoed the Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act, which aimed to ensure that agricultural workers would have access to minimum amounts of shade and water. The United Farm Workers pointed out that Brown’s decision “continues the policy of giving animals more protections than those currently offered to farm workers.”
The governor is pushing to build a pair of gigantic tunnels under the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta to move vast amounts of fresh water south for the benefit of big agricultural firms and real estate developers. Environmentalists warn of enormous damage to wild and scenic rivers. Estimates now put the project’s ultimate cost at $51 billion to $67 billion. When it comes to frugality, Brown has turned out to be rather selective.
Given his record, few eyebrows are raised now as Brown caters to rich elites. So it seemed par for his course when he recently appointed and reappointed regents to the University of California system with no academic experience but with extensive wealth and power.
Nor are observers surprised anymore when he makes yet another move to resist efforts by federal judges to ease inhumane conditions in California’s severely overcrowded prison system. Irked by documentation of seriously inadequate health care behind bars, Brown complained last year, “We’ve got hundreds of lawyers wandering around the prisons looking for problems.”
In retrospect, Brown’s current performance as governor was foreshadowed in 1999, shortly after he re-entered electoral politics and began an eight-year stint as mayor of Oakland. There he sided with landlords against renters, cut deals with big real estate developers and fought for charter public schools that included a military high school. As if to underscore that he had left his ’70s-era nickname “Moonbeam” behind and been replaced by far sterner stuff, soon after becoming mayor, he invited the Marines to use Oakland’s harbor for urban warfare maneuvers that involved several days of intensive military exercises. He seemed determined to shed his progressive persona as he set his sights on the governor’s chair.
Now, from his lofty perch as governor of the nation’s most populous state, Brown is launching a re-election campaign that seems almost certain to succeed. He continues to operate with a high-octane blend of pragmatism and cynicism. The gist is a bottom-line assumption that principles should be malleable — and power from the grass roots must defer to power imposed from the top.
Brown is California’s leading prodigal son. He has returned to power redeemed by his worth to corporate forces dominating the state. The less fortunate will have to endure the grim consequences.