Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown's 41 years in politics have seen more bumps and bruises than an Olympic mogul run. Brown has been up, down, washed-up, banged-up, closer than most to winning the White House and, most recently, back in public office as the aging but still brash attorney general of California.
This year, Brown is taking a third run at becoming the Golden State's governor, matching his three bids for the presidency in 1976, 1980 and 1992. Twenty-seven years after leaving his gubernatorial seat behind (to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate), Brown is back on the left-coast scene in a big way, and if Democrats can hold off a tough challenge from former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, the 72-year-old Democrat will start a third term in Sacramento next year facing a long list of problems.
Brown's fame -- and some might call it infamy -- extends from many corners, among them his flirtation with the Catholic priesthood, pledge to expand California's space program (earning him the nickname Gov. Moonbeam), attempt to run for president in 1992 with no donations over $100 and enactment of economic reforms in the 1970s that brought with it a reputation as a fiscal hawk who managed to cut more government spending than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
But in Brown's long record of public service, one area stands out where he has arguably put in the most time and had the most effect: the environment. Brown for four decades has collided with oil companies, blocked offshore drilling, sought solutions to the state's water-supply puzzle, advocated for clean energy, pressed appliance and efficiency standards, barred nuclear development, and, most recently, taken his belief in greenhouse gas emissions limits to state courts.
For better or worse, Brown's record on the environment is so deep and wide that he is probably the most experienced candidate on this set of issues running anywhere in the country this cycle. Here is a look at Brown's record, starting and ending with a confrontation with his oldest nemesis, Big Oil.
Rolling back the depletion tax, advancing efficiency, saving the coast
Even before his first run at governor, Jerry Brown, a graduate of Yale Law School, had developed a reputation as an aggressive antagonist while an antiwar organizer in the 1960s and California secretary of State from 1971 to 1975. As secretary of State, Brown argued against Standard Oil, Mobil and Gulf Oil in person before the state Supreme Court, helping to win campaign-finance cases that led to passage of the Political Reform Act of 1974, which forced campaign donations into the open.
Then Reagan decided to retire from California politics in 1974, after two terms as governor. Brown, at 36, was eager to recover the seat once held by his father, the Democrat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, who had lost to Reagan eight years prior in 1966.
After beating the GOP nominee Houston Flournoy, Brown resumed his campaign against San Francisco-based Standard Oil (which later became Chevron Corp.) and managed, in 1975, to prod legislators into rolling back a tax break for oil companies called the "depletion allowance." Brown, according to Sacramento lore, personally intervened in the lobbying and convinced a Republican state senator, Robert Stevens, to cast the deciding vote after the senator had promised industry representative Joe Shell he would side against Brown.
"He had shaken my hand and told me his was with me," Shell said of Stevens after the vote, according to a number of accounts. Stevens later won an appointment as a superior court judge from Brown.
This experience appears to have emboldened Brown, who forcefully began pursuing the nation's first-ever energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, as well as strict anti-smog laws and new rules on lead in gasoline. Max Neiman, a professor at the Institute of Government Studies at University of California, Berkeley, said Brown saw before most politicians "what the future held" on energy, with the United States already going down a road of dependency on foreign sources of oil.
"He has never really gotten the kind of credit he deserves," Neiman said, arguing that Brown set himself apart from someone like President Carter because he believed early on in developing alternative energy sources and creating a viable market for renewables. Unlike Carter, Neiman said Brown pursued real-world solutions such as more efficient buildings (including the current offices of the California Energy Commission) rather than asking Americans to cut use and wear sweaters at home.
"I think Jimmy Carter saw it more from the typical 'small is beautiful' thing," Neiman said. "I don't think Carter quite understood the green-tech part of it. Jerry Brown was very forceful on that end."
Brown went on to sign a first-ever tax incentive for rooftop solar, in 1977; establish the South Coast Air Quality Management District to address air pollution in the Los Angeles region; and oversee the imposition of a nuclear power moratorium in California that continues to this day. He also blocked offshore development on the coast in a direct confrontation with the Interior Department under President Reagan, which was run by James Watt -- arguably the most polarizing figure to ever head that agency.
Richard Charter, a veteran coastal activist in California and senior policy adviser at Defenders of Wildlife, said Brown brought to the table a tough intellect and ability to "get out in front of an issue before it was on fire and anticipate solutions." He said Brown was instrumental in helping to build local opposition to Watt's plan to open tracts to drilling off the coast, which was also blocked in Congress when lawmakers passed moratoria against offshore development in the early 1980s.
Brown's trick, Charter said, was the creation of the Office of Planning and Research in Sacramento, which was charged with coordinating activities among coastal counties, city councils, mayors, the attorney general, fishing interests and conservation groups. This local pressure bubbled up to Congress, where nearly every member of the California delegation, regardless of party affiliation, voted to block new leases in 1981 and 1982.
"Jerry Brown kind of invented environmental conflict resolution at the state level," Charter said. "The California coast would look much different today. You would probably have offshore drilling off Big Sur and Mendocino had it not been for the anticipatory strategy employed by the Brown administration."
Prop 13, wild rivers protection, the med-fly invasion
Huey Johnson knows Jerry Brown intimately, having served as his secretary of Resources from 1976 to 1982. In an interview, Johnson said Brown as governor was willing to confront anyone he needed to confront if he believed in an idea, including the core of his political support in labor unions.
Johnson said Brown "very courageously" took on interest groups across the spectrum in the 1970s, including the unions, by imposing an "era of limits" that alienated many of his allies on the left. Neiman said much of Brown's tax and spending policy after the passage of Proposition 13 -- which limited the state's ability to raise property taxes -- served to hinder his reputation with the liberal base and may have killed his chances for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980.
"Brown's participation in bailing out local government and school districts after the passage of Proposition 13 was, in my view, incredibly harmful and a disaster, because it made it easier for people to believe that Proposition 13 wasn't harmful," Neiman said.
The fallout after Prop 13, which passed in 1978 and remains controversial to this day, may have led Brown to refocus his energies on the environment after his failed run against Carter in 1980. To Johnson, the most important accomplishment from the Brown team after Prop 13 died down was the addition of more than 1,200 miles of Northern California rivers to the federal Wild and Scenic River System.
Johnson said Brown took on water districts, farmers and timber companies in pushing to Carter's desk a request to add five California rivers to the federal system, which effectively cuts off access to those rivers. "The last thing Carter did in office was sign the documents" before Reagan's inauguration to give federal protections to five rivers in Northern California, Johnson said.
"They were going to take all the water out of those rivers," Johnson said. "Brown had a long-range vision that the average politician wouldn't understand."
Jerry Meral, deputy director of Water Resources under Brown, said the wild rivers chapter was "a huge controversy" that saw Brown come out on top when Carter added those rivers to the national system. "That was a gigantic accomplishment," he said.
But that victory, like much of Brown's topsy-turvey career, was to be short-lived. Soon after, the Mediterranean fruit fly (or med-fly) invaded California and threatened to cripple the state's agriculture industry. According to the Palo Alto History Project, Brown "hesitated" when an attempt to kill the med-flies with sterile males failed, and he refused to authorize spraying the Silicon Valley with the chemical DDT, which many thought would prevent their spread to the fertile orchards of San Joaquin Valley. His hesitation cost him dearly, resulting in historically low poll numbers for Brown and even talk of impeachment in Sacramento.
The controversy also "wrecked" Brown's chances for Senate in 1982, according to the history project, because Reagan -- then the president of the United States -- had to intervene, ordering Brown to begin aerial spraying lest the federal Agriculture Department get involved. Brown relented, but the controversy raged for months, and though the med-fly never made it to the farm belt, it effectively stalled Brown's political career until he returned in the early 1990s to run for president after a kind of personal exile that saw Brown learning meditation in Japan and hanging out with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He also spent two years as chairman of the California Democratic Party.
Water policy, fighting Prop 23
Brown is probably best known nationally for his populist surge toward the Democratic nomination in 1992, which he eventually lost to the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton. Following that chapter, Brown returned to California as a radio pundit, and then was elected mayor of Oakland in 1998.
In 2006, after two gritty terms in charge of Oakland, Brown ran for attorney general and won. This brought with it a new opportunity to return to environmental policy.
From 2007 until the end of the George W. Bush administration, Brown warred with Republicans over road building in forests and California's attempt to establish its own fuel-economy standards for cars and light vehicles. Brown also used the courts to pursue greenhouse gas emission limits under the California Environmental Quality Act, challenging the city of Stockton and San Bernardino County to include GHG cuts in their long-term urban plans.
Though others may deserve more credit, Brown's efforts in these areas ultimately paid off and won him new loyalists among environmental groups in California. The Obama administration adopted fuel-economy rules modeled on the California standards, and the state Legislature eventually enacted into law the same policy principles Brown argued for in his CEQA lawsuits against municipalities. Moreover, the Obama White House is now pursuing the same approach under CEQA's sister planning law at the federal level, the National Environmental Policy Act (Greenwire, Sept. 9).
Dan Kammen, chief technology specialist at the World Bank and an expert on California energy policy, said Brown's run as attorney general has been impressive, adding to his environmental advocacy as governor.
"Far too many environmental efforts are long on promises and short on delivery," Kammen said. "Not so of Jerry. He can spot a good idea and will be relentless in digging to the bottom of it."
But the long history of environmental activism has also brought Brown a list of enemies in industry. For one, Brown seems likely to clash once again with water districts if he is elected and refuses to support an $11 billion water bond set to appear on a 2012 statewide ballot. He supported building a peripheral canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in the early 1980s, but sources interviewed for this story said Brown has likely moved on from that position and will push the "beneficiary pays" principle on any major new water infrastructure projects.
Meral expects Brown to respect the current process for "fixing" the troubled delta and its maze of court challenges over endangered fish and water rights. This means only approving new infrastructure -- including dams, levees and canals -- if the so-called Bay Delta Conservation Plan calls for it.
"If it's proposed through the BDCP and approved by Fish and Game and then approved by the Delta Stewardship Council, I think he would be supportive," Meral said.
More pressing in this election year is the fight over Proposition 23, which would roll back California's climate change law (A.B. 32) until unemployment in the state has dropped to 5.5 percent for a year. Brown has come out against Prop 23, sparking intense opposition from manufacturers and many independents who question the legitimacy of climate change and whether California is smart to regulate carbon absent a positive trajectory at the federal level.
Gino DiCaro, vice president of communications at the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, said his organization and many others aligned with business interests will not support Brown because of this single issue. DiCaro thinks that could cost Brown and deliver a tight election to his opponent Whitman, who has dropped $140 million of her personal fortune into the campaign and is running on economic issues, creating jobs and little else.
"He's made it clear that he would continue to push A.B. 32 in this poor economy where we have 2.4 million Californians out of work," DiCaro said.
The Whitman campaign would not comment for this article. At press time this morning a potential scandal was developing in the campaign that threatened to upend the race after the Los Angeles Times reported that Brown or an aide was captured on a voicemail referring to Whitman as a "whore."
It is too early to tell whether that revelation erodes Brown's standing in the election.
But Brown's commitment to the environment -- particularly on the climate question -- continues to win plaudits from environmental groups.
Brown has held firm, even as Whitman has pledged to use executive powers to delay A.B. 32 for one year until the economy settles. The fight has pitted Brown once again against Big Oil -- this time the Valero Energy Corp., the Koch bothers and Tesoro Corp., all major backers of the "Yes on 23" campaign.
This is music to the ears of environmentalists like Jim Metropulos at the Sierra Club, whose support is unquestioned.
"How could you not endorse Jerry Brown being an environmental group, looking at his record?" Metropulos said.
Sullivan reported from San Francisco.