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Considering the long view for California’s future, Gov. Jerry Brown embraces continuity

May 9, 2014 at 6:16 PM EDT
Times have changed, and so has California Gov. Jerry Brown. Embarking on an unprecedented fourth term, 40 years after he first won office, Brown touts the values of balance, budgeting and planning in order to manage all of that change. John Myers of KQED interviews the veteran politician about his strategy for leading his state.

HARI SREENIVASAN: California Governor Jerry Brown is embarking on what is likely the final campaign of a political career that spans nearly half-a-century. He is seeking a fourth term 40 years after he first won the job.

And at every turn in this electoral twilight, Brown is embracing something he famously rejected in the 1970s, tradition and the long view of California, the nation’s most populous state.

KQED senior political editor John Myers reports from Sacramento.

JOHN MYERS, KQED: It is part of California’s rich political history, the house that served for more than six decades as a governor’s mansion. To the public, it’s a museum. To Jerry Brown, it was a home, briefly.

Brown was 20 years old and in seminary school when his father, the late Pat Brown, took office and moved the family into the Sacramento mansion. But the younger Brown refused an official home when he first became governor in 1975, a campaign he ran thumbing his nose at tradition.

GOV. JERRY BROWN, D, Calif.: I needed a more modest apartment, which I got.

JOHN MYERS: But it also fit it with the times for you.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: It fit in with the times.

JOHN MYERS: But times have changed, and so has Jerry Brown.

Now 76, he seems to take comfort in tradition and history, and the old mansion has become a favorite hangout, from private dinners with legislators to inviting in distant relatives to help celebrate his birthday.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: I find a certain strength, orientation and clarity by thinking about where we came from.

JOHN MYERS: Brown has made the long view of California a focus of his governing philosophy. The state was facing a $25 billion budget deficit when he took office in 2011. When he offers a new plan in a few days, it’s expected to include a multibillion-dollar surplus. Brown is pushing to put extra tax revenue in the new, more robust rainy-day fund.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: There’s a tendency when the money is here then to think it’s going to be here in the succeeding years. And that’s proved to be untrue. So, in order to maintain a fiscal balance, you do need a reserve, and that’s the purpose of the rainy day fund that I’m proposing to the legislature.

JOHN MYERS: Many of Jerry Brown’s fellow Democrats in the California legislature want to restore programs that were cut. Republicans say he hasn’t done enough to erase long-term government debts. The Jerry Brown of the past would have fired back in an instant.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: I haven’t seen too many good suggestions come my way.

MAN: Because, in cutting government, in reducing government…

GOV. JERRY BROWN: You don’t help poor people when you cut government. You don’t hurt them…

GOV. JERRY BROWN: People in government are people who have gotten through the system and are collecting a paycheck, oftentimes purporting to help the people. But they’re just helping themselves.

JOHN MYERS: Much of Jerry Brown’s first go-around as governor in the 1970s was that of a politician in a hurry. His presidential ambitions left little time for governing. Now Brown’s political pace is slower.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: It changes because we are changed, and the world is changing. Those pillars that I certainly endeavored to pull down to some degree have already fallen down. And now I need that we have got to build them up and to create structures and foundations on which we can build this ever-changing, ever-complex, diverse world.

JOHN MYERS: Building and planning make this version of Jerry Brown sound a lot like his father. The late Pat Brown led epic endeavors to modernize California, schools, roads and a water aqueduct from north to South. Jerry Brown has big plans, too, ones that could make or break his legacy.

He’s pushing his own massive water project, a $25 billion plan, as well as a high-speed rail project, a $68 billion effort that, if completed, would be the first of its kind in the country. Brown has also pushed the nation’s largest expansion of health care under the Affordable Care Act and he has continued California’s efforts on climate change.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: So, there’s a lot of change out there, and I’m managing it in a way that I think makes sense to me. But it’s — these are tall hills to climb. But I feel exuberant, excited. And I’m certainly ready to go forward.

JOHN MYERS: Critics, though, say California isn’t going forward, as much as it is stuck. Unemployment remains fourth highest in the nation, and last month Toyota announced it’s moving 3,000 jobs from Southern California to Texas.

Republicans say the state is unfriendly to business. Others say it remains unfriendly to the working poor. Protests in the San Francisco Bay area are frequent and critics see the chartered buses that drive tech workers to their Silicon Valley jobs as a symbol of the growing gap between rich and poor.

What do you make of all of that? Do those protesters have a point?

GOV. JERRY BROWN: They have a point because inequality, the return on assets is better than the return on labor and people’s ability to make salaries. But it also is part of the economy, and part of the prosperity and part of the tax system, so it’s a matter of taking reasonable steps, and I think we’re doing that.

We have raised the minimum wage. We’re giving driver’s licenses to undocumented people. That certainly is going to help. We have the local funding formula which directs significant, billions of dollars to schools to help them cope with low-income families, with non-English-speaking families, with foster care kids, but to try to close the gap. One little state can’t do that.

PROTESTERS: End fracking now!

JOHN MYERS: Jerry Brown has befuddled his supporters in environmental circles with what they see as an embrace of fracking.

Last year, he signed a law to study its effects, but to allow fracking to continue.

They believe that you are in denial about the dangers of fracking. They want a moratorium. You know that.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: Some form — yes, I understand that.

And some cities want a moratorium on oil drilling and production in California. And, yet, I haven’t heard a moratorium on driving. Californians own 32 million vehicles, and they travel in one year over 330 billion miles. And most of that is fed by petroleum. So if it doesn’t come out of the ground in California, it’s got to come on a boat or it’s got to come on a train, and that causes pollution, and has dangers. So we need a balance.

JOHN MYERS: Balance is one of Jerry Brown’s favorite phrases in his political twilight. Gone is the demand for political revolution, in its place, an appreciation for political evolution.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: When you’re 76, you’re not as excited about change as when you’re 26.

But, now, I know everybody wants change, but we also like continuity. Tradition does have a value. What is California? Just the idea of the gold rush. What brought people here is still bringing people here, the — Google and Internet and Apple, and California is still kind of a gold rush. So I think it’s good to view the present through the lens of the past, but open to this incredible future that the state still very much possesses, and I feel very blessed to be a part of.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On Tuesday, Governor Brown will present his new budget with events in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego.