The Last Days of Jerry Brown
After more than 40 years in public life, 15 as governor of California, he is as combative and contradictory as ever — and still trying to save the world from itself.
He doesn’t greet you, doesn’t thrust out a hand or ask where you’re from or give you the tour. “All right,” he says, motioning to follow. “C’mon.” An hour past the appointed time, Jerry Brown marches into the waiting room of his 14th-floor office in San Francisco’s Civic Center, led by his security detail and his dog, Colusa, tugging at her extendable leash. He hangs his jacket on the back of his chair and takes a seat in a spare two-room suite with postcard views of City Hall and the Bay Bridge, a panorama marred only by a windowpane with its tint peeling off. “I’m sorry about the window,” he says. “It’s an emblem of my frugality.”
Brown turns 80 in April. First elected in 1974 at the age of 36, he was one of the youngest governors in California’s history; today, he holds the distinction of being its oldest. What’s left of his hair he wears buzzed close to the scalp, his thick eyebrows gone to white. He cultivates the look of a professor emeritus — striped Oxford shirts and crew-neck sweaters, dark boxy suits and black slip-on loafers. A Fitbit adorns his left wrist. His face, thicker now, has lost its boyishness, and there is a scar on his nose from a procedure he had to remove a cancerous growth. His gaze, though, remains unchanged, by turns puckish and withering.
Written off in his youth as a New Age dilettante, Brown now finds himself the wise man of American politics. It’s a role he savors. On the defining issue of our time, climate change, he has assumed the mantle of alt-president, traveling to Europe and Asia, insisting the United States will not abandon its commitments. He leads an unabashedly liberal state, whose high taxes, government activism, embrace of immigration, and thriving economy serve as a rebuke to the current occupant of the White House. Yet he refuses to align himself with the anti-Trump “resistance,” a label claimed by so many of his fellow Democrats. He never has fit neatly into any camp, but never before has he commanded so much influence. This is Jerry Brown in his last days, the final year of a political career and public life spanning four decades, the end to the Brown family dynasty.
But don’t dare bring up the subject of legacy. Or rather: Ask him but don’t count on an answer that sounds anything like what you’d expect. Brown thinks the idea is lazy — easy journalistic shorthand, a substitute for hard thinking, the kind of thinking that he prides himself on. “Nobody ever talked about a legacy 20 years ago,” he tells me. “It’s a new meme. You’ve got to write a story, you’ve got to have some parameters to push the facts through, and legacy’s one of them. I want to build my legacy — that’s why I’m talking to you. I gave a speech today because I’m building my legacy. I got up this morning because I’m building my legacy.”
Brown doesn’t believe he’ll have one. A legacy.
“I’ll tell you how it first started in my mind,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “My father said one day, ‘History will record.’ I said, ‘Dad, history doesn’t record governors’ work.’ ”
Brown was wrong about his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, governor from 1959 to 1967, architect of modern California, who expanded the state university system, built more than a thousand miles of freeways, and created the State Water Project and the California Aqueduct. And he’s wrong about himself.
History will record that Edmund “Jerry” Brown Jr. is now the longest-serving governor in California history, a distinction unlikely to be eclipsed. That after two uneven terms as governor from 1975 to 1983, three failed bids for the Democratic presidential nomination, and one losing bid for the United States Senate, Brown returned to public office 15 years later as mayor of Oakland, then state attorney general, and finally governor again. That the man once viewed as one of the most perplexing governors in the state’s history will now go down as one of its most accomplished.
When he made it back to the governorship in 2011, Brown spent his first four years erasing California’s $28 billion deficit and restoring its credit rating, the worst of any state in the country. In the second term, he has committed California to the nation’s toughest goals for greenhouse gas reductions. By the time he leaves office in January, he wants to secure the fates of two projects that would long outlive him: a high-speed rail line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as a series of tunnels through the central Delta to distribute water across the state.
One of Brown’s favorite sayings is Age quod agis, a Latin phrase he learned while training to be a Jesuit priest. It means: Do what you’re doing. Don’t traffic in nostalgia. Don’t fantasize about what’s next. For a man who has heeded these rules, it is striking how much he has devoted his last days to leaving his mark on California. He, of course, wouldn’t put it that way.
“I’ve probably thought more about this than almost anybody you’ve ever met,” Brown tells me. We’re back to talking about legacy. “It’s a term that journalists use because you can’t say you’re doing this to do good — that sounds too Pollyanna-ish. You can’t say you’re doing it because you’re going to enrich your friends, because that would sound illegal. You can’t say you derive pleasure from it, because that wouldn’t fit the norms of our political culture.” Legacy, to him, is simple. “It’s a way to make people feel they’re a little more important than they are and their life is not as empty as it actually is.”
One day in late 2016, Brown met with Chad Mayes, the state Assembly’s Republican minority leader. A 40-year-old, square-jawed former town councilman who represents Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree, Mayes calls himself a “governing conservative.” He believes in property rights and low taxes. He also sees clean air and conservation as winning issues for a party whose fortunes have plummeted in California. Brown wanted to talk to him about two big-ticket items on his mind — a major infrastructure bill and the renewal of the state’s cap-and-trade program — and now was the moment to strike.
Brown’s final term would end in 2019, and you could already hear the chatter around Sacramento from the lawmakers and lobbyists about who would replace him. But for the coming year, he had maximum leverage. Democrats had just won supermajorities in the Legislature, and they were itching to pass policies that cast California as the chief adversary to the Trump administration. Brown, however, wanted a two-thirds majority for the two bills to protect them against legal challenges, and he knew he’d lose a handful of Democratic votes along the way. He needed Republicans.
Mayes told Brown he couldn’t support a gasoline tax to fund the infrastructure bill. But cap-and-trade, that was a different story. By law, California before 2030 must lower its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels. The state could achieve this with strict regulations or it could use cap-and-trade, a market-based program that allows big companies to buy and sell permits for the right to pollute so long as they gradually decrease their emissions. Mayes said he needed to study the issue and see who else in his caucus might support extending the program. The two men agreed to keep talking.
Few have ever thought of Brown as a classic pol, the guy who charms and cajoles and cuts side deals to get bills passed. He might never say so, but for the longest time, he saw himself above back-slapping and palm-greasing. That was old-school, the kind of thing his dad would do. But now, to get these two big pieces of legislation passed — legislation he believed was key to California’s future — he was going to have to be a deal-maker.
Republicans knew he wasn’t an ordinary Democrat, and Democrats knew that he could be candid to the point of insulting. “There was a time he was talking to me about a previous speaker. I think it was Jess Unruh,” Anthony Rendon, the current Assembly speaker, recalls. “And he’s talking about ‘Jess this,’ ‘Jess this,’ and in the middle of it he says, ‘And you’re no Jess Unruh,’ and he keeps talking.” Rendon chuckles. “He’s quite literal.”
In his first stretch as governor, Brown’s unorthodox approach was viewed less charitably. He was erratic and undisciplined, enthralled with the maxim (coined by the British thinker Gregory Bateson) that the new comes from the random. He kept strange hours, staying up until 3 a.m., and stranger company. His aide-de-camp was Jacques Barzaghi, a French filmmaker who famously said of Brown’s 1992 presidential run: “We are not disorganized. Our campaign transcends understanding.”
Brown preached the virtues of “creative inaction” and would put off decisions until the last moment. Or he would fixate on issues of small importance and leave larger ones to fester. Tony Kline, who served as Brown’s legal affairs secretary in those days, tells the story of a bill landing on Brown’s desk that would ban the sale of meat from a certain species of Caribbean turtle. Kline, who remains good friends with the governor, says Brown spent half a day immersed, researching turtle meat, while other bills went untouched. “It would drive us a little crazy,” Kline says.
Brown succeeded in passing a landmark labor rights law for farmworkers, which remains the only one of its kind in the United States. Yet some argue that his anti-politics helped pave the way for Proposition 13, the most seismic event of the past half-century in California. While he was jetting around the country, posing with Muhammad Ali or hosting all-night debates in his office, discontent over rising property taxes ignited into a grassroots revolt. As governor, Brown could have done more to head it off, his critics argue, but he was above it all, disconnected from the local level, and by the time he got involved, it was too late. Proposition 13 — which slashed property taxes on homes and businesses, curbed rate increases, and required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for any new taxes — passed by a wide margin in 1978, siphoning off a major source of revenue. The state’s public schools, which Pat Brown had helped make the envy of the nation, lost $3 billion — a third of their total funding — almost overnight.
After a decade and a half away from elected office, Brown ran for Oakland mayor in 1998 and won. It was here that friends say his political education began in earnest. He spent the next eight years learning firsthand what it was government did. He read the police reports, spoke at funerals, and wrestled with Oakland’s underperforming public schools, later opening two charter schools of his own. “He’d say that as the governor, you’re flying at 35,000 feet,” Gil Durán, Brown’s former press secretary, says, “but as mayor, you’re right in the street.”
Brown was more focused and strategic when he began his second stint as governor in 2011. He was married now, and friends and family members credit First Lady Anne Gust Brown, his closest adviser and confidante, as a steadying influence. They also point to Nancy McFadden, the governor’s executive secretary and a commanding figure in the halls of the Capitol. A former deputy chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, she brought expertise to the day-to-day running of the administration. “When he was first in office, he was trying to solve all the problems,” says Kathleen Brown, his younger sister and a former state treasurer. “Now, he knows he has so many battles he can fight, and he’s prioritized what he personally puts his weight behind.”
Brown stabilized California’s finances through a combination of steep budget cuts, a tax increase, and a recovering economy. Seen in a certain light, Brown has always been a fiscal conservative. He amassed a $5 billion surplus during his first run as governor. In his second, he persuaded voters to approve his plan to put away billions of dollars as a cushion against the next economic downturn. Both times, he defied progressive members of his own party who wanted to spend more on health care or education. But from a different angle, he’s a Keynesian, a believer in the good that government can do, unafraid to raise taxes at a time when even Democrats are reluctant to do so. That was the case with the infrastructure deal. No governor in decades had suggested increasing the gasoline tax to pay for major statewide repairs. Brown wanted a bill passed before spring recess in April.
The day before the vote was scheduled, Brown and his team knew they were just shy of a two-thirds majority. He summoned Anthony Cannella, a Republican senator from Merced, to his office. Joining them were Assembly Speaker Rendon and Kevin de León, the Senate president pro tem, and their staffs. For years, Cannella had sought money for new road construction and a commuter rail that would connect Merced to the Bay Area; if he got that, he’d support the bill. An argument broke out over whether it was too late to meet Cannella’s demands. “The governor cut the whole thing off,” Cannella says. “He said, ‘Look, we’re talking about a historic transportation bill, and we’re going to let it be derailed by peanuts. Peanuts. I want this done.’ ” Cannella got $500 million for his commuter rail and expressway.
That evening, at the governor’s mansion, Brown hosted Sabrina Cervantes, a Democratic assemblywoman from Riverside, who was still undecided. Cervantes was in her first term, and she feared that voting for a gas tax increase would cost her re-election. Chad Mayes had relayed to the governor’s office that not a single member of the Republican caucus would support the bill, so Brown needed nearly every Democratic vote. The negotiations dragged into the night. Brown listened, asked questions. He wanted to know Cervantes’s polling numbers, her last election results, the demographics of her district. If she were going to vote for the increase, Cervantes said, she needed something to show for it, not in a year or two but right now. Brown called his secretary of transportation and asked him to join the meeting. By 3 in the morning, a deal had been worked out to send nearly half a billion dollars to Riverside County. Twenty hours later, the Assembly and Senate approved the $52.4 billion infrastructure bill by a two-thirds margin without a vote to spare.
Brown is unusual among politicians; he’s a pessimist. He likes to quote physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer: “The world is moving in the direction of hell with a high velocity, and perhaps a positive acceleration and a positive rate of change of acceleration.” Or he’ll just come right out with it: “A lot of politicians like to say how good everything is. I like to say how bad everything is — in the spirit of making it better.” In this way, he is the antithesis of the man who defeated his father and whom he originally succeeded as governor, Ronald Reagan. At his final state budget press conference, Brown told a room full of reporters: “The next governor is going to be on the cliff. What’s out there is darkness, uncertainty, decline, and recession.”
Yet he’s not a fatalist. Nowhere is this more evident than in Brown’s work on climate change. “This is an overarching, existential threat to everything we’re trying to do, to our entire way of life,” he told an audience last year. “Based on that, I believe we have to rise to the occasion.”
Of all the through lines in Brown’s career, the environment is the clearest one. As a teenager, he nurtured a love of the outdoors on camping trips to the Sierras with his father. The start of his political career, in the late 1960s, coincided with the Santa Barbara oil spill, the first Earth Day, and the birth of the modern environmental movement. Brown moved to Los Angeles after law school and experienced the deadly smog that enveloped the city. He watched Reagan establish the California Air Resources Board and President Nixon sign the Clean Air Act. Protecting the environment, he likes to note, wasn’t always thought of as just a Democratic idea.
He ran for governor in 1974 promising “blue skies for California.” Once in office, he embraced the mantra of “small is beautiful” (popularized by the economist E.F. Schumacher) and urged an era of limits. He promoted solar energy, passive-energy buildings, and low-flush toilets. He put his top political adviser in charge of the Air Resources Board and expanded its efforts to regulate tailpipe emissions.
For all this, he was mocked. Journalists chided him for spouting Zen mumbo-jumbo. Syndicated columnist Mike Royko dubbed him “Governor Moonbeam.” Years later, Royko would declare the nickname “null, void, and deceased,” but it — and the persona — proved hard to shake. “Brown was right before it was right to be right,” says historian Jim Newton, who is writing a biography of Brown.
By the time he returned as governor, the politics of climate change had caught up with him. His Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had enacted the state’s first emissions targets and laid the groundwork for a cap-and-trade program. But Brown felt that Schwarzenegger had spent more time promoting California’s environmental goals and less time trying to meet them. “Our initial view,” Ken Alex, a senior adviser to Brown on environmental issues, says, “was that we needed to get our California house in order.”
Cap-and-trade was key to these efforts. It would cut emissions and raise funds for other parts of Brown’s campaign to reduce greenhouse gases, including high-speed rail. During the first six months of 2017, Brown regularly met with Mayes and a small group of Republicans to discuss what it would take for them to support a cap-and-trade bill. Like infrastructure, he wanted a two-thirds vote in both chambers — in this case, to insulate against lawsuits that challenged the bill as a tax in disguise.
Mayes was one part of an extraordinarily complicated set of negotiations. They were “like a Rubik’s Cube,” Dan Reeves, de León’s chief of staff, says. “You solve one side and the other side gets screwed up.” Nancy McFadden, who led the day-to-day talks, says it got so frenzied that representatives from oil companies would be with her in one room while environmental activists would be with a different aide down the hall. Meetings were held on Saturdays and Sundays, birthdays and the Fourth of July.
After a particularly frustrating day, Brown pulled out a bottle of vodka that the Russian ambassador to the United States had given him. He poured some out for aides and a small amount for himself. “He gave us a pep talk about how we’re saving humanity and said, ‘C’mon, guys, we’re going to get this done,’ ” one attendee recalls. “I was thinking to myself, I don’t see it.”
To get a deal, Brown took steps that a more ideological politician would not have stomached. He knew cap-and-trade was dead if the oil industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable opposed it, but getting them on board — or at least neutralizing them — gave the bill a chance at passage. He let them craft their own legislation as an opening offer, a move that infuriated the governor’s progressive allies.
More than with the infrastructure bill, cap-and-trade was personal for Brown. “I want to see this thing get done,” he said in a rare appearance before a Senate committee. “Whatever I got to do, I want to do it.” At one point, he spun around and faced the audience and told them, “I’m not here about some cockamamie legacy that people talk about. I’m going to be dead. It’s for you.”
A deal was reached by mid-July. Liberal Democrats complained it was too friendly to oil companies, and several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, came out against it. But more crucially, the oil companies remained silent, and the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable provided late support. It wasn’t an ideal piece of legislation by anyone’s standards, but it extended cap-and-trade and averted the outcome McFadden had feared most. “We kept saying, ‘Do you really want to give Donald Trump the gift of The New York Times headline that says even California couldn’t maintain its climate change program?’ ” she says. “We thought that a lot of our partners around the world would see that as a very bad sign. We thought it would have devastating results.”
A final vote was set for a Thursday, then postponed to the following Monday. Brown once again found himself on the eve of a vote just short of a two-thirds majority. On Sunday evening, he invited Mayes and a group of other Assembly Republicans to the mansion. The atmosphere was loose, more social than political, according to several participants. Brown answered each question and heard out every concern and did what he does so well: He wore them down until they couldn’t think of another reason to vote no. “It was more honey than it was vinegar,” Mayes says.
Mayes, though, had gotten an important concession. From the outset, Republicans argued that every dollar generated by cap-and-trade be returned to taxpayers. Democrats, including Brown, were insistent that the money go toward environmental projects like solar power, high-speed rail, and electric cars. Mayes’s proposal was a non-starter, but Brown floated a compromise:
a constitutional amendment requiring a one-time vote in the Legislature in 2024 on how to spend cap-and-trade revenues. That was enough. The next day, Mayes and six other Assembly Republicans voted yes, and the bill passed by a supermajority.
The blowback was swift. Conservative activists demanded that Republicans remove Mayes as minority leader. A month later, he stepped down. His only regret, he says: “I wish I had gone to the signing ceremony.”
Brown faced his own set of critics, though they were primarily on the left. Environmental groups contend that the cap-and-trade bill is too favorable to polluters, giving away credits too cheaply, pushing off into the distant future when serious emissions reductions must be made.
On a broader scale, environmentalists argue that Brown hasn’t done enough to address the supply side of the fossil-fuel equation. While he has used almost every tool at his disposal to reduce demand, California is still the sixth-largest oil producer in the United States. Unlike Texas or Oklahoma, the state has no extraction tax, and Brown has never advocated for one. He’s also refused to ban fracking. Bill McKibben, the author and environmental activist, says, “Clearly, California is on the forefront of many positive things about renewable energy, but what the world really needs Brown to do now is be the first leader who’s willing to stand up to the admittedly very powerful fossil-fuel industry and say we need to start the managed decline of this industry, because science makes it clear that that’s what has to happen. His ability to be the breakout leader on this is very real if he seizes it.”
When I raised these criticisms with Brown, he straightened in his seat. What if California reduced oil production next year by 10 percent? he asked. What do you think would happen? Gas prices would go up. He let out a long high-pitched whistle and launched a finger into the air. “Do you think somebody’s going to run for governor on a policy that increases the price of gasoline a couple of dollars?” he asked.
Yes, at some point, he said, you have to keep oil in the ground. He wouldn’t rule out new rules on oil development, but he wouldn’t commit to it, either. “People like to pick on a particular project like fracking,” he said. “The key is, year over year, fewer greenhouse gases. We have to get to zero before 2050, and then we’re going to have to take out carbon from the atmosphere.”
In early November, Brown embarked on an 11-day, five-city, four-nation tour across Europe, the longest trip of his tenure as governor. It began at the Vatican and culminated at the United Nations’ annual climate conference in Bonn, where the organizers would honor him with the title of special adviser to the U.N. for states and regions.
On the third stop of the trip, Brown touched down in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany. He was there to give a speech to the state parliament. To welcome him, the minister-president threw an elaborate reception at an 18th-century baroque castle. Police on motorcycles and blacked-out Mercedes vans escorted him from one event to the next. The whole thing was extravagant for a governor whose preferred mode of transportation is an old Ford Crown Victoria. But Brown had not come here just on behalf of California. He was here, one German official put it, as “ambassador from another America.”
Governors are rarely known beyond the borders of their own states, let alone outside the United States. But in the past few years, Brown has become something of a roving environmental diplomat. In 2015, in advance of the Paris climate conference, he unveiled a first-of-its-kind climate pact, signed by a coalition of states and provinces from around the world. The signatories — Baden-Württemberg and California were the first — pledged to reduce their emissions to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. The Under2 Coalition, as it came to be known, now includes more than 200 members responsible for 40 percent of the world’s GDP. Brown attended the Paris conference to lobby for the international climate agreement that was eventually approved. Members of his administration have advised the Chinese, Mexican, and Canadian governments on designing their own cap-and-trade programs.
This role, Brown is quick to emphasize, predates Trump’s election. The president’s denial of climate change has made the work more pressing than ever, but Brown refuses to define himself in reaction to Trump. He tends to view Trump’s victory, which took him by surprise, in historical terms, comparing the current era to the upheaval that followed World War I. Anne Gust Brown says he’s more interested in the forces that produced Trump than in his behavior. “You look at the fact that 38 to 40 percent of Americans like Trump and want Trump,” she says. “Now, what do we do? How do you approach that? That’s what Jerry likes to focus on.”
I once asked Brown about his interactions with the president, about what those conversations were like. “What does that mean? What is it like?” He picked up a mug of coffee. “What is it like having a cup of coffee? It’s like having a cup of coffee. Talking to Trump is like talking to Trump. What’s it like talking to you? It’s a rather odd experience.”
In his speech before the Baden-Württemberg parliament, Brown made only a glancing reference to the Trump administration, saying the United States “is temporarily on holiday” on the issue of climate change. For so keen a debater, Brown is an uninspiring public speaker. He steps on his applause lines, his gravelly inflection falls somewhere between a bark and a hector, and he sprinkles his remarks with statistics and oblique references. But what he does bring is a formidable intellect and moral urgency, qualities that were on display in Stuttgart. “Human civilization is on the chopping block,” he told the audience. “If Germany does a good job but China does not, we accomplish nothing. If the United States does something but India doesn’t do what is needed, we don’t solve the problem. Greenhouse gases are part of our life, and our life has to change.”
Brown was playing a part many Californians had never seen — the statesman — and there was something poignant about it. Here was a man who had sought the presidency three times and failed, and now he was on a global stage speaking for more than half of the country who were horrified about where Trump was taking the nation and the world. Did people watch him and wonder, What if? Did he wonder it himself? “He has that suppressed gene for a bigger pond which eluded him,” Orville Schell, an early biographer of Brown, says. “Now he’s finding a way to get into it.”
Brown’s trip often felt like the final world tour of an aging rock star. He flew by private jet. Fans met him in every city. Even an E.U. representative from the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, who had publicly excoriated Brown, later asked him for a photo. “The Brexit guy wants a selfie,” Brown muttered. His wife and his staff tended to his needs, toting his iPhone and ID badge, lint-rolling him before a TV appearance. Still, the trip took a toll, and by the third or fourth day, he’d come down with a cold and was irritable and tired.
At one point, I asked Brown if he enjoyed the nonstop grind of photo ops and public appearances. “No, I hate everything!” he replied. “Do you think at age 79, if I didn’t enjoy it, I’d be doing all this stuff? Why, because I’m a masochist? If you want an accurate reflection of my existential position, it’s always changing. There are certain things you have to do that aren’t as pleasant as other things you have to do, but if it’s something you want to get accomplished, you will do it. And there will be different levels of joy, from zero to 100 percent.”
Brown sustained himself with cough drops and hot tea long enough to reach the trip’s finale, the U.N. conference in Bonn. His time there was a merciless sprint of panel discussions, speeches, and meetings. He conferred with the environment ministers of Canada, Mexico, and the Netherlands, huddled with China’s chief climate negotiator, and squeezed in interviews with foreign media. As for the official U.S. delegates, they could be found in a windowless room on the outer reaches of the conference. For the first time in memory, the United States did not host a pavilion.
Not long before his last State of the State address, Brown retreated to a small office on the third floor of the governor’s mansion. It was January now, and the sun shone through a small window, brightening the room. Piles of speeches were stacked on his desk. He’d been reading some of his old State of the States, Reagan’s farewell address, and especially the words of his father.
When people talk about Jerry Brown’s first years as governor, they often do so in Freudian terms. Brown seemed almost eager to portray himself in opposition to his father, a man who measured himself by bills passed and projects built, who never saw a hand he couldn’t shake, a room he couldn’t work. But as Brown has gotten older, he seems to have reconciled with his father. He proudly points out a photo of Pat Brown and John F. Kennedy on a wall in his office. He keeps a framed poster from one of his father’s campaigns for San Francisco district attorney in the waiting room. Friends and family members say Brown has also come to a greater appreciation of the types of big projects his father undertook. “He sees how they’re a manifestation of one’s contribution,” Kathleen Brown says. “They last. Ideas can be more fleeting.”
As Brown sat down to write his State of the State, two such projects were at the front of his mind: the high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco and the water tunnels in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. They were the most ambitious construction projects of Brown’s career — and their fortunes were far from certain. Earlier this year, state officials said the initial segment of the rail project would cost $2.8 billion more than projected, and work is snarled in a web of lawsuits and disputes with local governments and landholders. Republicans uniformly oppose the rail line, and none of the Democrats running for governor in 2018 has wholeheartedly endorsed it. On the Delta tunnels, which would carry water to farmers and cities in central and Southern California, concern about their price recently led the administration to consider scaling back the project from two tunnels to one.
Brown says that he sees his pursuit of high-speed rail and the Delta tunnels as carrying on his father’s work — something he likely would not have acknowledged 40 years ago. He concedes, though, that it is far more challenging for the government to pull off such projects in the current political climate, even in liberal California, than it was in his father’s era. Still, he was determined to press his case for his two signature initiatives before he left office.
On the morning of January 25, sitting at his thick wooden conference table under the photo of Kennedy and his father, he gave his State of the State speech one last read. When it was time, he tucked the black binder under his arm and walked from his office to the Assembly chambers. Anne Gust Brown and his staff sat in the gallery. As Brown entered, the chamber erupted with applause and whistles. Democrats and Republicans rose to their feet, many pulling out their cellphones to record a small piece of history. Brown briskly made his way to the speaker’s rostrum, a slightly bemused look on his face as a chant of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” broke out.
“As my father used to say,” he began, “I accept the nomination!” He’d ad-libbed that line. The rest was vintage Brown: frank, challenging, a statement of faith in the purpose of government and the power of politics. He celebrated how far California had come since he’d returned as governor. He championed the Delta tunnels and high-speed rail. And he ended with the story of his great-grandfather, an immigrant who had sailed from Germany to America on a ship named Perseverance. “He persisted against all the odds and made it to Sacramento three years later,” Brown said. “And, yes, we too will persist against storms and turmoil, obstacles great and small.”
The lawmakers rose to applaud, the audience in the gallery cheering and shouting. Jerry Brown, the pessimist and the rationalist, sat back in his chair and gazed out, allowing himself a moment to take it all in.