Who is Jerry Brown? Is California’s longest-serving governor an idealist or a scrappy, bare-knuckles politician? A visionary trailblazer or a calculating opportunist?

A symposium at Saint Mary’s College on “Governor Jerry Brown: Leadership & Legacy” examined the impact of one of the Golden State's most iconic political leaders and found plenty of evidence for all those descriptions.

The multifaceted Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. is “a bundle of contradictions,” said panelist Chuck McFadden, who studied the governor in depth for his recent book, Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown. “He’s an idealist, a gritty politician and one of the most opportunistic politicians to ever appear,” McFadden said.

Carla Marinucci, senior political reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, agreed that the governor is a study in polar opposites. “What can you say about a guy who worked with Mother Teresa and studied The Art of War by Sun Tsu? He’s been honored as an environmentalist and vilified by opponents of fracking. He was our state’s youngest governor and its oldest governor.”

As Brown heads into a re-election campaign in 2014, he may need to clarify his image with the voters. Marinucci noted that a recent USC/Los Angeles Times Poll found that 55% of Californians polled approved of his governorship but only 34% would vote for him again.

McFadden and Marinucci were joined on the November 12 symposium by three other seasoned observers of political history: Robert Stutzman, former deputy chief of staff for communications to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and president of Stutzman Public Affairs; SMC professor emeritus of history Ronald Isetti; and Rev. Michael Russo, SMC professor of communications, who served as moderator.

Jerry Brown—Then and Now

All the panelists agreed that the most striking contrasts are between the young idealist who served as governor of California from 1975 to 1983 and the tested politician elected as governor again in 2010. Back then, everybody thought they had him pegged. Now, nobody does.

In his first two terms, the youthful visionary was on full display. “On the environment, he was way ahead of the curve,” Marinucci pointed out. He signed legislation to ensure bargaining rights for farm workers, and he “embraced celebrity,” Stutzman said, seeming to relish his rock-star status while dating pop singer Linda Rondstadt. It was all too much for the rest of the country, and he was dubbed “Governor Moonbeam,” to the detriment of his political career.

 “He’s more subdued now,” said McFadden. “The rough edges have been sanded off.”

Isetti pointed out that the governor’s youthful idealism was rooted in spiritual interests, noting that Brown studied for the priesthood for three years and that one of his closest advisors in the 1970s was a former Christian Brother, Leroy Chatfield, who had worked alongside Cesar Chavez in the United Farm Workers movement. Later, Brown traveled to Japan to study Buddhism. The result of these spiritual quests, Isetti said, is “apparent in his simple, almost monkish, lifestyle and his concern for social justice.”

 In between his two stints as governor, Brown served as California’s secretary of state, chairman of the state Democratic Party, mayor of Oakland and attorney general of California, and also made three unsuccessful bids for the presidency. One thing is certain: he’s clearly ambitious—or perhaps driven—and not short on ego. In his 1980 presidential bid, he promised to “protect the Earth, serve the people, and explore the universe.”

What Will Be His Legacy?

No analysis of Jerry Brown’s character can ignore the fact that his father, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Sr., was an enormously influential governor of California from 1959 to 1967.

“He was marinated in politics,” as McFadden said. “Imagine the conversation around the dinner table when he was a boy. It had to be about moving masses of people” to embrace the senior Brown’s political initiatives.

Interestingly, one of Brown’s most controversial stands today involves moving people—literally. Several of the panelists argued that his embrace of the California High-Speed Rail project, whose budget has ballooned from $33 billion to more than $90 billion, is Brown’s attempt to make his mark on California, much as his father did by vastly expanding the state’s highways, aqueducts, schools and colleges. Stutzman ridiculed Brown’s fervent support for the project, saying the governor is pushing for it because “it’s groovy.” 

But McFadden said Brown clearly “wants to be more than a good manager in tough times,” adding, “What kind of legacy is that for a man with Brown’s ego?”

Isetti, for his part, argued that Brown is more of a self-made man than many believe. “He may have been born into politics, but he reinvented himself,” he observed. Stutzman agreed, saying, “It’s his experience that has shaped the way he governs.”

Still a Puzzle to Many Voters

 Indeed, many observers have been surprised by the hard-nosed positions Brown he has taken in his attempt to bring California back from a nearly $16 billion deficit. In a feat of political brinksmanship, he signed a budget in 2012 that made sharp cuts to social services, betting that voters would support Proposition 30’s $8 billion tax increase, and then nearly single-handedly carried the proposition to victory at the polls.

 And he’s still a lightning rod for criticism, taking stances on the environment, labor rights and gun control, for instance, that have caused some to call him a flip-flopper. “It’s paddle to the right, paddle to the left,” Stutzman said.

 But Isetti said Jerry Brown’s seemingly quixotic decisions are not so mysterious. “He’s not a doctrinaire liberal. He’s a pragmatist,” Isetti said. “It’s idealism tempered by practical politics. He’s willing to take risks for his beliefs, but a he’s a consummate politician. It’s a profound combination and serves California well.”

 The symposium was part of the Communication Department Leadership Speakers Series program and was sponsored by the Disney Forum and the Saint Mary's Student Communication Club. Saint Mary’s Director of Community and Government Relations Tim Farley was instrumental in its planning.

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