Alan Light/Wikipedia Jerry Brown, 1978
In October 1978, the city editor of the Oakland Tribune got mad at the political writer and assigned a kid reporter to the governor’s race.
And so, in what seems another lifetime, I followed Gov. Jerry Brown around California for the final three or four days of his re-election campaign.
Brown was 40 years old, an edgy, skinny guy in a slightly rumpled suit, with a forelock of brown hair hanging in one eye.
And he was a busy campaigner: Traveling by van and private plane, he made stops at a League of Women Voters debate in L.A., a country club fundraiser in Carmichael, an Elks Club breakfast in Modesto, a sidewalk meet-and-greet on Clement Street in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond and a rally at Burbank Airport before yet another debate with his colorless Republican opponent, Attorney General Evelle Younger.
I don’t remember that Brown employed a stump speech, but the themes didn't vary much. At the Modesto event, he summed up his campaign pitch with a sing-songy chant.
“Jobs are up and taxes are down,” he called out. “Vote your pocketbook – vote Brown.”
It was a different California than the one he hopes to govern again, and a different political dynamic than the one he faces in his current run against Republican Meg Whitman.
In those days, California was a high-tax, high-services state with a big budget surplus, good public schools and an economy that was on the uptick.
Such phenomena as massive budget deficits, a pension time bomb – and, for that matter, billionaire Republicans who write themselves checks to pay for their political careers – were far in the unanticipated future.
At the same time, inflation in the state’s residential real estate market had soared to breathtaking levels in 1978. That had ignited the anti-tax rebellion that produced Proposition 13. The initiative to slash property taxes passed by a landslide that June.
Like most of the state’s political establishment, Brown had fought Prop. 13 tooth and nail, warning of disaster if it were enacted.
But after the votes were counted, he pivoted. Rather than fighting the measure in court, Brown spent down the state’s surplus to cushion Prop. 13’s fiscal impact. Howard Jarvis, the crotchety anti-government activist who co-wrote Prop. 13, wound up endorsing Brown for re-election.
“I know I didn’t have everything to do with that initiative. Howard consulted me late,” Brown told Modesto Democrats at the Elks Club, my clips show.
“But even though I had nothing to do with it, even though I opposed it, and I freely admit that, I tried to make it work.”
For some Democrats, the flip-flop on Prop. 13 suggested that Brown had no real convictions and was simply a political opportunist.
For others, it showed a pragmatic streak that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a former seminarian who had spurned living in the governor’s mansion to sleep on a mattress on the floor of a Sacramento hotel.
In the event, support from Prop. 13’s backers gave Brown a 20–point lead in the polls. Younger made little headway with a platform that called for constructing 30 new nuclear power plants along California’s coast. He also tried to get traction by portraying Brown as a freak who was “being a bachelor and living a rather unusual lifestyle.”
Brown shrugged it off. Instead, in those final campaign days, he displayed more political opportunism, as his critics would have it, or flexibility, as his supporters might say.
During his first term Brown had flirted with the ideas of the contrarian economist E.F. Schumacher, author of “Small is Beautiful.” Perhaps economic growth wasn’t a good thing. Perhaps America had entered an “era of limits.” Maybe we all ought to lower our expectations.
There was none of that as he swept to landslide victory.
Instead, Brown contended he was leading California into an era of unprecedented growth and prosperity. A “labor shortage” would soon create a glut of good, high-paying jobs; as he said in the LWV debate, Californians should “raise their own personal expectations” in anticipation of filling them.
Or, as he said at his country club fundraiser, “I see this election as a reaffirmation to build for the future.”