The Real Jerry Brown Issue

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Meg Whitman is getting it wrong.  Her attacks on Jerry Brown are sporadic, unfocused and in many cases just downright untrue.  She is trying to define him as a traditional tax and spend liberal, but that dog won’t hunt. 

The state budget increased by 120 percent while Brown was governor (1975-1982), says a Whitman website; well, budgets increased 120 percent while Ronald Reagan was governor (1967-1975).  As governor, Brown wanted to raise $7 billion in new taxes, she says.  Not true, wrote Ed Salzman, then editor of the California Journal, in a 1982 summary of the Brown years.

"Ronald Reagan left Brown in a fiscal Fat City (in 1975), with a healthy surplus and a tax structure that far outpaced the state’s needs.  Brown guarded that surplus in his first term, fighting off those who would increase spending."

In fact, Brown hoarded his big surplus and refused to spend it on property tax relief.  This set off the 1978 tax revolt culminating in Proposition 13.  But he also refused to spend it on roads, water projects, better schools – or anything associated with California’s population growth.

Whitman is in danger of missing the bigger picture of Jerry Brown’s years as governor, for it is Brown that began California’s long decline into the economic basket case we are today.  Not only did he shift wealth and political power to the public employee unions (today Brown is little more than a wholly owned subsidiary of these unions that are now bankrolling and, in effect, running his current campaign), but he helped dismantle California’s job generating economy.  And in so doing he betrayed the California Dream.

From 1849, when hard rock miners from Cornwall and destitute Irish from Donegal trekked the Great Plains to California searching for gold, this state has been a beacon for those looking for a better future.  A popular television show in the 1950s, The Life of Riley, caught the meaning of the California Dream.  Riley, played by the versatile actor William Bendix, made airplanes the old fashioned way; he was a riveter.  He lived in a southern California middle class suburb, had a good blue collar job, and could feel confident his kids would know a better life than he had.  And in the 1950s and 1960s that was the California everyone knew: good roads, good schools, water projects to make the desert bloom, always a better life.

Jerry Brown helped destroy that, although few could see it at the time.   Small is beautiful, lower your expectations replaced the dream of a better life.  Well, now we know, small is not beautiful, small is small.  Expectations are certainly lowered for the millions who cannot find a job in a state that once led the world in economic growth.

Let’s go back to January 26, 1977.  The previous fall, Dow Chemical, a company that had tried for years to build a new petrochemical plant near Antioch, pulled the plug on the project because of opposition from the Brown Administration.  Jack Henning, the venerable leader of the California AFL-CIO, responded, "There are certain mad hatters in the Brown administration who will, if they have their own way, drive all significant industry out of California."

Little did Henning know how right he was.  The good paying blue collar jobs his members once enjoyed have now all but disappeared.  Brown led the way in stopping nuclear power in California; which today could provide power to millions of Californians with no greenhouse gas emissions.  How do you like California highways, pothole heaven compared to other states?  Brown transportation chief, Adriana Gianturco, didn’t like highways; small is beautiful came to mean no new road construction.  Expand our world class university system?  Forget it. The list goes on and on. 

Who has suffered from the world that Jerry begot?  Brown backers are happy there are no petrochemical plants in California, but there are also none of the good jobs those plants would have produced, and we import the products they would have produced.  Californians face a future of no jobs for young people entering the workforce, and especially no jobs or poor paid jobs for the emerging non-white workforce.

The backbone of the state’s economy today, such as it is, are Latino and Asian small businesses.  But the Democrats don’t care about them because they are in the private sector, not the public sector; and California Democrats believe private business is just another cash cow to be milked for more revenues.  Republicans don’t care about them because they are not, well, lily white, which is pretty much today’s Republican Party.

Whitman seems to want to make economic development the centerpiece of her campaign, but her message has been muddled.  Yet a stark contrast with Jerry Brown is there to be had.  She doesn’t need to tell fibs about his record, she should tell the truth.  The stingy, ideological, "small is beautiful" governor of three decades ago sowed the seeds that have reaped a harvest of lousy roads, underfunded schools, fewer jobs, and sunset for the California Dream.

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