Black Bart Award Nominee: Jerry Brown

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Jerry Brown, California’s 79-year-old governor, is as clear an example as you’d like to prove that yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks. And that’s why he’s my choice as Californian of the Year.

Sure, Brown has been involved with the environmental movement for decades, signing the coastal protection act in 1976, leading the charge for alternative energy and battling oil companies over pollution rules.

More recently, he’s been the de facto leader of the nation’s fight against global warming, challenging President Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations and turn a blind eye to evidence of the growing danger of greenhouse gases and taking on a global environmental role.

But unlike many environmentalists, including Brown 1.0 of the 1970s and beyond, the governor has recognized that when you’re talking about a huge and diverse state like California – or the country overall – one size, however noble, seldom fits all.

Since he returned to the governor’s office in 2010, Brown has been willing to make tradeoffs to move his programs along, even when they anger many of his longtime supporters.

Take hydraulic fracking, for example, a process of reinvigorating aging oil wells that is anathema to environmental groups, who charge that it can compromise existing water supplies.

Yet Brown has refused to ban fracking in the state, arguing that as long as drivers use gasoline, it’s better to pull that oil out of the ground in California, where there are strict rules on fracking, than forcing oil companies to go to states with little or no regulation.

And at the same time Brown has pushed hard for more electric cars and alternative fuel vehicles in California, moving the state away from its dependence on fossil fuels.

Then there’s the whole cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gases, which is key to Brown’s efforts to cut carbon pollution in the atmosphere.

While many environmentalists wanted tough – and for businesses, extremely expensive — limits on pollution, with penalties to match, Brown worked with businesses to come up with a plan they could live with and even support.

More than 50 environmental groups opposed AB 398 this year, which renewed the state’s cap-and-trade program. They argued it was a sellout to business and oil interests and didn’t do enough to improve air quality. But Brown argued that it would cut the state’s carbon footprint and avoid costly and lengthy court fights that could delay any air improvements.

The new Jerry Brown also wasn’t afraid to play politics to get the votes he needed to push the cap-and-trade renewal through, something he would never have deigned to do in his first go-around as governor.

He played “Let’s Make a Deal” to get the Republican votes he needed, extending a manufacturing tax credit and killing a rural fire fighting fee, both GOP priorities. He also managed to keep Democratic support in the face of the opposition from environmentalists, putting together enough of a bipartisan coalition to pass the bill.

So let’s see what Brown has shown this year. An ability to accept the best deal you can get, even it’s not the deal you would like to have. A readiness to take on your allies when you believe they’re wrong. And the willingness to compromise and cut deals if that’s what it takes to get important things done for California.

Those are the marks of a successful politician and California and the country need more of them.

Brown is far from the only Californian who made an impact this year.

In politics, Republican Assemblyman Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley showed that it’s possible to win, even when you lose.

Mayes lost his post as the Assembly’s GOP leader just weeks after he and seven other Republicans voted for Brown’s cap-and-trade plan.

He argued that negotiating with the majority Democrats to get the best possible deal for Republicans is the only way to keep his party relevant in the state.

“I am committed to the cause of moving the California Republican Party in a direction that reflects Californians and reflects our conservative principles in action,” he said after the vote.

Mayes knew the vote would cost him but he still did what he thought was right for his state and for his party.

Tom Steyer could have taken the $1.6 billion or so he made from his Farallon Capital hedge fund and lived the life of a rich guy, never worrying about anything more than whether the jet is fueled and what the skiing is like in Jackson Hole or the weather in St. Tropez.

Instead, his face now looks down from a billboard over Times Square, calling for President Trump’s impeachment, and he’s dropped some $165 million on left-leaning causes and candidates since 2014.

Steyer has been coy about any plans to run for office and he’s been slammed by Trump as “Wacky & totally unhinged,” but that hasn’t stopped him from spending millions on his environmental and political causes, with no end in sight.

South African-born Elon Musk is a Californian of the old school, a man unafraid to dream big and willing to accept the consequences.

An early investor in PayPal, Musk founded the SpaceX rocket ship company and was the lead financial backer of Tesla and SolarCity, which have since merged.

The Bel Air resident is constantly looking to the future and has called for the United States to put manned bases on the moon and Mars. He also warns that artificial intelligence – think Skynet in the Terminator movies – is the biggest risk the nation faces.

Musk isn’t afraid to talk about big ideas like the Hyperloop, his untested and as yet unbuilt transportation system that would allow people to zoom across the country in a network of sealed tubes.

And yeah, he’s a billionaire who was close to broke when he was putting his cash into building up Tesla before it went public.

Big ideas, a view toward the future and willing to take chances and live on the financial edge? Musk must be a Californian.

John Wildermuth is a journalist and a longtime writer on California politics.

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