Edmund Gerald Brown Jr.—Jerry to you and me—has lived a very public life. He’s been the governor of California for four terms, run for president three times, and spent eight years as the mayor of Oakland. He’s dated pop stars, meditated with Zen devotees, protested the Vietnam War, denounced the Kent State protesters, read a library’s worth of ancient Greek philosophy, Buddhist economics, and Michel Foucault, kicked it with radical ex-nuns and Apollo astronauts, mellowed out to Gregorian chants, been excoriated by the Dead Kennedys as the Zen fascist chief of the suede denim secret police, and been derided in the press as Governor Moonbeam. He’s lived long enough to have gone from being the state’s favorite son to its cranky uncle to, finally, its mostly beloved—and still cranky—grandfather.
Yet for all that, Jerry Brown remains, in the words of one of his many biographers, “not that well fleshed out as a character.” So in honor of his looming retirement, we talked to friends, staffers, allies, and opponents of Brown’s, from every stage of his career, to try to understand this hard-to-summarize man—and what his decades-long career has meant for our state. That’s no small task, for, to paraphrase his longtime associate Jacques Barzaghi, “Jerry Brown is not disorganized. Jerry Brown transcends understanding.”
I. Basic Brown
Brown was born in 1938, the only son among Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown and Bernice Brown’s four children. After graduating from St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco in 1955, he entered the Sacred Heart Novitiate, a Jesuit seminary in Santa Clara, intending to become a priest. While he was there, his father was elected governor of California. A New Deal liberal, Pat Brown presided over the creation of much of modern California—overseeing the construction of its freeways, its canals, and the University of California system, among other things. Chafing under the spiritual yoke, Jerry left the seminary in 1960. “To do what he is obliged to do by rule is not difficult, he says; but to do it because of the rule is not for him,” the seminary rector wrote of Brown, as quoted in Miriam Pawel's The Brown's of California. Instead, Brown decided to enter politics, successfully running for California secretary of state in 1970.
Chuck Winner, aide and political consultant to Pat Brown: I knew Jerry before he was in the seminary. He didn’t enjoy politics. When he would go to events with his father, it was clear he wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t crave the attention.
Orville Schell, former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of journalism, China expert, and author of Brown: Jerry’s strangely clear Zen mind isn’t snarled up in the normal things in life—looking good, owning a nice car and a nice house. He was looking for something utterly different.
Tony Kline, presiding justice of the California First District Court of Appeal: When he last got sworn in as governor, four years ago, he gathered some old friends to watch him. After he finished, he pointed to where he had sat in his Jesuit seminarian cassock to watch his father be sworn in as governor. He remembered looking disdainfully at this worldly collection of political figures. He did not intend to walk his father’s path, but in the end he was drawn back to it.
Miriam Pawel, author of The Browns of California: How does this private person embrace the world of politics, which is such a public thing? It’s part of what makes Jerry sui generis.
Kline: When he failed the California bar exam, he moved in to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento to study to take it again [in 1965]. One night when he was up in his bedroom, he heard an argument between his father and Jesse Unruh, the Speaker of the assembly. Pat was getting ready to run for a third term, and Jesse was saying it was his turn. Once he left, Jerry walked downstairs to look at the material his father had brought home: the clemency requests, the bills he had to sign, the memorandums from staff. He had an epiphany. He didn’t really want to be a lawyer. He wanted to be governor. He had deliberately left his father’s world, but I think in the end he was drawn back into it when he saw what it entailed and how engaging it might be for him.
Schell: The politics was in him; it was in his genome. Like every kid his age, he rebelled. He rebelled against the glad-handing image of his father. It made him attracted to but also repelled by politics.
Peter Isackson, campaign staffer during Brown’s 1970 secretary of state race: Before he became his own public figure, he had to distinguish himself from his father. He vocally supported the Eugene McCarthy campaign in 1967 and ’68. There was this emerging culture of liberal intellectuals who were against the war, while ordinary liberals were still behind Johnson. It was like the split between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton today. I’d often drive Jerry to the airport or his apartment, and we’d talk about history, sociology, or political theory. He was into Thucydides. And he introduced me to the work of Michel Foucault. Jerry had a copy of the English translation of Madness and Civilization. He was interested in that kind of stuff, but he knew that it was not what he was going to talk about in public.
Tom Quinn, campaign manager for Brown’s 1970 secretary of state race and 1974 gubernatorial race: He was always ahead of his time. During the [secretary of state] campaign, we needed some issues to run on. Jerry came up with the idea that because campaign finance statements were filed with that office, the secretary of state had a legitimate right to tell campaigns how those statements should be. In those days, all they would say was something like “Fairmount Hotel Fundraiser, $22,000.” It wouldn’t list the individual donors. Jerry said that the filings were useless. Then Watergate comes, and campaign finance becomes a real scandal. But Jerry had been talking about it since 1970.
Brown’s politics have always been hard to characterize. As a young man, he kept one foot in the New Left and one foot out of it. Although he admired Slate, the Free Speech Movement–era radical student party at UC Berkeley, he never joined it. In 1963, he traveled to Mississippi to meet civil rights leaders Bob Moses and Medgar Evers, but also met with segregationist governor Ross Barnett. During the 1970 secretary of state race, these tensions came to a head after the infamous Kent State shootings, when Brown attacked the protesters in a speech that still sparks controversy over its motivations.
Isackson: In 1970, the National Guard murdered four students at Kent State, and Jerry gave a speech at Los Angeles Community College denouncing the protesters, saying they weren’t acting intelligently. Jerry didn’t make the decision himself. It was Tom Quinn, who was a competent, professional political marketer. Tom was very clear about this. He said, “We’re not interested in secretary of state. Within four years, you’re going to be a candidate for senator or governor.”
Pawel: Jerry still brings up what the political theorist Sheldon Wolin, who had been one of his professors at UC Berkeley, wrote at the time. He did not condone the [protesters’] violence. Jerry made the point in 1970 that the protests were an indulgence of the white upper middle class.
Isackson: I thought it was a betrayal and left the campaign.
II. “Protect the Earth, Serve the People, Explore the Universe”
Despite his thin political résumé, in 1975 Brown was elected governor of California, at 36. Brown shunned many of the trappings of the office, refusing the governor’s mansion in favor of a $250-a-month apartment and a limo for a powder-blue Plymouth Satellite. He soon attracted national notice for his fiscal restraint, his environmental record, and his relationship with pop star Linda Ronstadt. Brown ran for president in 1976 but lost the Democratic nomination to Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. Four years later, he ran for president again, under the Jerry-est of slogans: “Protect the Earth, Serve the People, Explore the Universe.”
Schell: His first terms were a ribbon between the ineluctable draw of the profane world of politics and eschewing it as craven and base. He wanted somehow to do it differently.
Bill Press, head of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, 1975–1979: The mantra of the administration was “Small is beautiful.” Jerry once famously said, “Lower your expectations.” I have a cartoon on my wall from back then by Dennis Malk of the Sacramento Bee. There’s a sign on the highway that says, “Now Entering California, Lower Your Expectations.” The bottom half is “Now Leaving California, Resume Expectations.”
Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 astronaut and science and technology adviser to Brown, 1977–1979:Jerry’s office had a very big table, 15 or 20 feet long and 4 feet wide. It was piled high with books, the kinds written by the economist Fritz Schumacher or the ecologist Rachel Carson. You’d pick one up, and there would be marginal notes, dog-eared pages, and underlined sentences. Jerry had read them all.They were not there for show!
Kline: There was a bill to prohibit the sale of the meat of a Caribbean turtle that was allegedly threatened with extinction. He got fascinated with it and frustrated everyone by spending a day or two calling turtle experts on the phone. He ended up signing it.
Gray Davis, governor, 1999–2003, and Brown’s chief of staff, 1975–1981: Jerry has a way of talking out loud. It doesn’t mean he’s actually going to do what he says. In 1975, we were going to have this summit about Lake Tahoe with Nevada. About three days before the event, the Nevada governor’s chief of staff called me and said they weren’t going to agree to the compromise we had worked out. Jerry said, “Wait a minute. We have a bigger National Guard. We can invade Nevada. Take their revenues from gaming. We’ll catch them by surprise.” He never actually intended to invade, but if you were sitting in the room, you might think he did.
Schweickart: Fifty years ago was still the beginning of the environmental movement. I had become very much an environmentalist after my flight in Apollo 9 in 1969. Jerry was on the cutting edge of all that.
Davis: He’s always been very skeptical of large, centralized systems, whether with regard to solar power or with other things.
Schell: He’s always been incensed that people are so obtuse about using and wasting so much. That’s the Catholic part of him, the abstemious part. I would sleep at his apartment in Sacramento, and there was just a mattress on the floor in the guest room.
Kline: I don’t think the mattress was directly on the floor. It wasn’t on legs, but there might have been a box spring.
Pawel: I asked him directly. Box spring.
Davis: He told me during the transition that he didn’t want to ride in the Reagan limo. That year, for the legislators and cabinet members, the Department of General Service had Plymouths that came in gold, white, or blue. I thought blue seemed a little more traditional, so I chose a blue Plymouth for him. When we saw it, he said, “Oh Gray, that’s not it, is it?” It was this light-blue car that no normal citizen in their right mind would ride in. But things work in mysterious ways, because everywhere he went in that car, people knew that he was not wasting money.
Press: Jerry was telling people not to expect a whole new state water project, freeway system, or University of California. At the same time, we did some big things. Our energy policies were far-reaching. We adopted the first air quality laws and what is still the state’s land use policy, which fought against sprawl development taking over farmland.
Dolores Huerta, cofounder of United Farm Workers: Jerry didn’t just sign the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which allows collective bargaining for farmworkers—he was instrumental in getting the growers to agree that there was a need for it. We had this huge grape boycott going on, and Jerry honored it. He wouldn’t eat grapes.
Schweickart: To coordinate first responders used to be a very difficult job, and new satellite technology was going to afford California first responders a tremendous leg up in communicating. So that’s how we got the so-called California satellite. But it ended up giving Jerry problems, because [Chicago Tribune columnist] Mike Royko started deriding him as “Governor Moonbeam.”
Kline: Royko later felt he was unfair to Jerry. People were simply unwilling to accept someone at Brown’s level entertaining the possibilities he entertained.
Jim Newton, author of the forthcoming Jerry Brown and the Creation of Modern California: A lot of the Governor Moonbeam label was about solar technology and satellites. Sorry, but that all fucking worked.
Brown was single at the time of his governorship, and his personal life drew national attention.
Winner: A lot of his opponents accused him of being gay. Politically, at that time, that was a negative. But he dated a lot of well-known women! Mackenzie Phillips. Linda Ronstadt. Natalie Wood for a while. He met her at a party at the house of [Democratic Party fundraiser] Paul Ziffren. I know he dated her, because I lent Jerry the money to take her out, and he never paid me back.
Kline: Once, when he was dating Linda, the L.A. police chief told the L.A. Times that Bernice, Jerry’s mother, ought to be happy because he was dating a woman. The suggestion was that he was gay.
Schell: He had no wife but instead was attended to by this guy Jacques Barzaghi, who was his all-purpose valet, fixer, and guru.
Winner: His real name was Lorenzo, but people called him Jacques. I was not enthusiastic about Jacques. When my wife and I split, I was still paying for the house. He moved in with his girlfriend and his kids, ate there and slept there, and never paid rent. And my ex-wife let him do it, because she was working for Jerry, and that’s the way it was. I threw him out.
Despite winning Maryland, Nevada, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Louisiana in his 1976 presidential bid, Brown entered too late to stop Carter, who by then had enough delegates sewn up to block any challenger. Although he ran for president again in 1980 and 1992, Brown never came closer to winning the White House.
Quinn: Pat was adamant that I was destroying Jerry’s career by getting him to run for president, but Nancy Pelosi’s older brother Tommy D’Alesandro, who was the mayor of Baltimore, called her to tell her that there was still time to file for the Maryland primary. He said he would put together a crowd. I remember talking to him, saying, “Tommy, no one knows him there.” He said, “This is not California, we can do things like that here. Don’t worry.” Jerry won the Maryland primary.
Press: Jerry was the smartest, the best-looking, the most articulate, and the most popular politician at the time in the country. Jimmy was a little mind from a little state. Jerry used to sneer that Jimmy had the mind of an engineer.
Newton: He got into it so late and casually, but he won every primary he contested. I think he could have beaten Carter if he had gotten in earlier, except that he was only 38 years old. Had it gotten a little more serious, the question of his youthfulness and haphazardness would have been bigger.
Pawel: It would have been a very different White House. That was the point at which Jerry was about blowing up all the traditional power constructs.
Despite losing the presidential bid, Brown was elected to a second term as governor in 1978. But Brown’s relationship with California soured as the 1980s dawned. His appointee to head the state supreme court, Rose Bird, was seen as soft on crime. In 1978, voters passed Proposition 13, which he opposed, and which hobbled the state’s finances. He attempted to appeal to a more conservative electorate, declaring himself a “born-again tax cutter” after Proposition 13 passed, but he was out of step with the Reagan era, and by the time he left office in 1983, his career looked to be over.
Kline: Jerry once said that the job of a politician was like paddling a canoe. You have to paddle a little on the left and a little on the right if you want to go in a straight line. I’ll put it this way. I was once reading The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler. Jerry gave me a little disquisition on chapter 19, where Spengler draws the distinction between a politician and a statesman. A statesman has to be out in front of his people, but not too far. You can’t get too far ahead.
Winner: When Prop. 13 was on the ballot, he was pessimistic, because he knew it was bad public policy. Right after it passed, of course, he came out and said he was going to deal with it. What else could he do? Just my opinion, but I don’t think he became a true believer. It was pragmatic.
Davis: You have to understand what a cataclysmic event Prop. 13 was. He may not have gotten what he wanted, but Jerry understood it was the will of the people.
In 1982, Brown chose not to run for a third term in office. Instead, he entered the U.S. Senate race, which he lost to Republican Pete Wilson. Another Republican, George Deukmejian, succeeded Brown as governor. Brown disappeared to Japan, where he lived in a Buddhist monastery, and India, where he volunteered with Mother Teresa.
Kline: He once told me about one of the people that Plutarch wrote about, named Aristides the Just. He was a member of the Athenian assembly and above reproach in all respects. One day Aristides found that he’d been ostracized, and he went to the agora to find out why. The answer was, “We just got tired of you.” Jerry took a political message from that.
Newton: I think everybody just got sick of each other by 1983, when Jerry left office. It was time to part ways for a while. Then there was a reconciliation. That’s very California.
Schell: I went to Japan with him, and we spent time in a Zen monastery. He has a restless mind, spiritually and psychologically, and that lends him his searching quality, even though sometimes he would search chaotically.
III. Oakland and the Beginner’s Mind
Upon his return, Brown plunged back into national politics, running in (and losing) the 1992 Democratic presidential primary. After that, he returned to California, living in Oakland and hosting a radio show on KPFA. In 1999, he made the surprise decision to run—as an independent—for mayor. As he explained at the time, he saw America’s cities as “taken for granted by Democrats and abandoned by Republicans.”
John Protopappas, developer and Brown mayoral campaign treasurer (1998, 2002): Before he ran for mayor, we found a building between Second and Third on Harrison and drove down there on a Friday night in October of 1992. It was 6:30 p.m. This guy opens the door, and the whole building smells of pot. Jerry says, “Hey, I’m Jerry Brown, and I’m interested in the building.” The guy looks at him kind of funny, but Jerry just keeps talking. After a few minutes, the guy says, “Are you Jerry Brown? Well, come on in!” We made an offer and closed escrow on December 1, 1993. The former governor of California was living in a cold old warehouse, in a room with no heat, with a mattress on the floor. He said, “I don’t need much.”
John Russo, Oakland City Council member (1994–2000) and city attorney (2000–2011): My first day on the Oakland City Council in 1995, we were deciding whether to bring a lawsuit against Kaiser to block their proposal to build a hospital in Emeryville. I was going to be the deciding vote. Jerry Brown was there in jeans and a denim shirt saying, “Be strong, John Russo, be strong.” I thought, Wow, you ran for president, and now here you are, telling me to be strong about where a hospital goes.
Debra Saunders, former San Francisco Chronicle columnist: When he first ran for mayor, I made fun of him mercilessly for this idea he had that he would turn Oakland into an “ecopolis,” like a Tuscan hill town. Of course, he never did that.
Protopappas: We knew the election was over in January, when Jerry came out with his code of ethics. Another candidate said to the Chronicle, “Ethics? Who needs ethics?” We read that and knew it was over.
Kline: Improve the schools, bring housing to downtown Oakland, lower crime, and set up cultural things. He ran on those four ideas, and he stuck to them.
Protopappas: Prior to Jerry, development in Oakland was a bad concept. People were afraid of change. The downtown was all parking lots and single-room-occupancy hotels, with no retail. It was hollowed out. He said, “Let’s not be afraid of each other. Let’s develop this space.”
Russo: He was ahead of the curve on transit-oriented development and YIMBYism. Opponents of new buildings would often say that a development would eradicate the history of the site, and Jerry would say to them, “Whose history? That building got built on land that once belonged to Native Americans or Californios.” He made me realize that boomers are so narcissistic that they think that anything that had to do with them has to be saved.
After serving two terms as Oakland’s mayor, Brown ran a successful campaign to become state attorney general in 2006.
Protopappas: I don’t know for certain why he ran for attorney general, but I have a guess. We were going into a recession, and what Jerry is really good at is being the mayor or governor when the economy is rising and being in a position where the economy is almost irrelevant to the office when the economy is falling. Who was governor during the great recession of 2007–2009? It wasn’t Jerry Brown.
IV. “I Know What I’m Doing”
The second time around as governor, Brown has had many of the same priorities—rein in spending, protect the environment, build a high-speed rail system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, and construct the Peripheral Canal. But his style has been less eccentric and more measured.
Steve Glazer, campaign manager for Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial race and state senator, 2015–present: You can’t define him as a Democratic governor. Most of the positions he holds are out of sync with the Democratic Party as we find it today in California. There are many elements of his governance that do fit, specifically on climate change and immigration, but he doesn’t support single payer. He doesn’t have a problem with fracking. He is fiscally conservative.
Darrell Steinberg, state senate president pro tem, 2008–2014: The 2011 budget was the first we worked on together. Jerry came in and in his refreshingly unpretentious way said, if the deficit is $27 billion, we should do $13.5 billion in cuts and $13.5 billion in taxes. That’s what’s fair. Assembly Speaker John Perez and I recognized that we couldn’t make all those cuts, that we were going to have to kick the can down the road. We made further cuts, but there was an additional $200 million in cuts to health and human services that the governor wanted that we wouldn’t make. We sent him the budget—and he vetoed it. We all dusted ourselves off and went back to work in 2012. We really partnered around Prop. 30, which raised $9 billion in taxes for education. From that point on, we were no longer in a fiscal crisis.
Phil Ting, state assemblymember, 2012–present: At one of his addresses, he handed out playing cards with a picture of his dog Sutter on one side as the Joker and on the other a graph of all the budgets in the last 10 or 12 years. It was a reminder to watch our spending. It had a quote that said, “Always keep a bone buried in your backyard.”
Schell: In the first terms, he was at a more micro level, with things like compost toilets and passive-solar buildings. Now the whole planet has become deranged. He believes we are screwing up the Creator’s creation. Nuclear proliferation and climate change are his two big issues now. He’s absolutely right, just as he was right about “Small is beautiful.” He has a laser-like fix on what is wrong at any moment and is usually ahead of his time.
Davis: Jerry’s commitment to solar starts at the very beginning and still dominates his thinking today. He righted our fiscal ship. He shifted the way we buy electricity to a much more decentralized fashion. I think Covered California has proven to be one of the best healthcare entities. You’ve got to give him very high marks.
Newton: He and California have grown up together. The 1970s California was chaotic, incoherent, and addled. So was he. The 2010s California is a more sophisticated, deliberate place. And so is he.
V. Age Quod Agis
After five decades in public service, 80-year-old Brown plans to retire to the Mountain House, the ranch northwest of Sacramento where his great-grandfather settled during the gold rush.
Glazer: Brown hasn’t put a lot of effort into mentoring the leaders who will come behind him. When he retires to his ranch, it will leave a void.
Protopappas: I would disagree with that. I think he’s taught a lot of people. He’s taught us how to think about government. He doesn’t believe government is the cure-all. He does believe it helps those that need help, but he also realizes that for people like myself, government needs to get out of the way.
Pawel: In his 2015 State of the State speech, he talked about his great-grandparents, the Schuckmans. August Schuckman arrived here from Germany in 1852. His whole family has a sense of being in the Party of California. The romantic idea of California exceptionalism is so much a part of them.
Marc Levine, state assemblymember, 2012–present: A few years ago, I gave him a framed photo of my wife’s grandfather with Ben Swig, an important San Franciscan at the time. The governor remembered exactly who they all were. Two years later, I saw the photo sitting on a bookshelf in Jerry’s office. Those people were born in the 1800s. It shows how much family relationships mean to him.
Kline: He’s been heavily influenced by [the French essayist] Montaigne, who was always changing his mind. If Montaigne had any dogma, it was being against dogma. They are both skeptics. They believe it is not possible for a human being to fully understand the mysteries that this world presents. If there is any single way to describe Jerry Brown, that may be the best.
Pawel: Age quod agis. That’s the motto he learned from the Jesuits. Do what you are doing. When he retires to the ranch, that’s what he’ll be doing. Until he does something else.