It was a matter of life and death in 2015 when California Gov. Jerry Brown pondered an assisted suicide bill granting terminally ill people the right to choose when they die.
After much speculation, Brown signed the measure, a victory for “death with dignity” advocates and a blow to the Catholic Church, which vigorously opposed it. Brown, who once considered becoming a priest, added to his signature a five-paragraph statement outlining how he made his decision: He sought contradicting perspectives from the church, families of the terminally ill, his friends and doctors. And he pondered his own existence.
“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill,” Brown wrote. “And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
Brown, who leaves office Jan. 7, has signed thousands of bills, but this one stands out to Dana Williamson, Brown’s cabinet secretary at the time.
“His ability to articulate his deliberations and why he landed the way he did — to me that’s quintessential Jerry Brown,” she said.
Brown has honed that decision-making style over five decades in public life, including a record 16 years as California’s governor, first from 1975 to 1983 and again since 2011.
He used the bully pulpit that comes with governing the nation’s largest state to mount three unsuccessful bids for president and urge swifter action on climate change — something he’ll continue when he leaves office — and he’s credited with pulling California out of a financial sinkhole that had observers deeming the state ungovernable when he returned to Sacramento in 2011.
The son of Gov. Pat Brown, Jerry Brown became governor at 36 and built a reputation as an idealist who eschewed traditional trappings of wealth and power. During his first term, he earned the condescending nickname “Gov. Moonbeam” after proposing a state communications satellite.
Now 80, he’s still an idealist but one who during the last eight years championed fiscal moderation, a position that sometimes put him at odds with fellow Democrats who wanted more social program spending. Yet Brown’s popularity surged as he took the state from a deep budget deficit when he entered office to a surplus and $14.5 billion socked away in a rainy day fund.
He never gave up on the satellite idea. Last fall, at the end of a global conference on climate change that he organized, he announced California would launch its “own damn satellite” to track pollutants.
“Jerry is an original and always has been,” said his sister Kathleen Brown, the former state treasurer who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1994.
Jerry Brown was 20 when his father was elected to the first of two terms in 1958. Politics wasn’t his plan — he chose to attend a Jesuit seminary. There he learned the Latin motto: “Age quod agis,” or “Do what you are doing.” He chafes when asked to reflect on his accomplishments or legacy.
“Taking pride is not something that I have been trained to pursue,” Brown said recently at a Sacramento Press Club appearance.
But the priesthood ultimately wasn’t for Brown; he instead got a law degree at Yale and a job at a Los Angeles firm before embarking on his political career by winning a spot on a community college district board of trustees.
Brown leaves the governorship with an unmatchable history in California politics. He was elected secretary of state in 1971 on a platform of transparency and reform, and then governor in 1974. Two years later, Brown was running for president. He lost, but his star continued to rise, powered in part by his relationship with popular singer Linda Ronstadt. The two appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine under the headline “The Pop Politics of Jerry Brown.”
Brown again ran unsuccessfully for president in 1980, with a slogan that reflected the same sensitivities he has today: “Protect the Earth, serve the people, explore the universe.”
After losing a bid for U.S. Senate in 1982, he traveled abroad, re-entering politics as California Democratic Party chairman and, in 1992, seeking the presidency for a third time and losing to Bill Clinton. He returned to elected office six years later as Oakland mayor then became state attorney general. In 2011, he won the governorship, and his political comeback was complete.
He prefers the second two terms to the first.
“I was more experienced, the people who work with me were more skilled, I had a wonderful wife who was my partner and companion in all this,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown, is a former Gap executive who friends and advisers say helps Brown execute his ambitious ideas.
The second time around, Brown more easily persuaded the Legislature and voters to make politically painful decisions such as cutting services or raising taxes on themselves. Lawmakers often overrode his vetoes in the 1970s, but they did not do it once in the last eight years. Unlike his early terms, Brown didn’t have his sights set on the presidency.
“Jerry Brown One was quirky and an interesting governor. Jerry Brown Two is not quirky. Jerry Brown Two is deliberative, and he likes to have it his way,” said Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, who served in the Legislature from 1978 to 1987 and returned in 2008.
In the 1970s, Brown brought younger, more diverse voices into state government. He appointed his campaign manager, Tom Quinn, to head the state Air Resources Board and quickly advanced policies to curb air pollution. Quinn cracked down sharply on the auto industry for violating California’s vehicle emissions standards, still the nation’s strictest and now a target of the Trump administration.
He won passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the first in the nation to give farmworkers collective bargaining rights. It was hailed as a victory, but its long-term effectiveness remains disputed.
Brown also fell victim to his presidential ambitions, giving lawmakers and voters the impression he was focused elsewhere. In 1978, a property tax revolt led to the passage of a ballot measure that radically changed California’s financial picture.
Although Brown opposed it, his embrace of the measure once it passed earned him the endorsement of tax crusader Howard Jarvis and reinforced that Brown’s idealism was wrapped in political pragmatism.
When Brown returned to Sacramento, he turned California’s $27 billion deficit into a surplus for his successor; twice successfully pushed tax increases at the ballot box; aggressively advanced California’s climate change fighting measures; and reversed course on tough-on-crime measures he adopted in the 1970s. He also championed two major and expensive infrastructure projects — a high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco and giant twin tunnels to reroute the state’s water supply — that are mired in lawsuits and may never be completed.
And while he’s made significant strides on climate change by extending a cap-and-trade program for emissions and expanding access to electric cars, critics fault him for failing to stop new oil drilling.
“There’s a slightly tragic quality to the fact that he couldn’t in the end bring himself to change his outlook, because the thing that’s marked his career for decades is being able to change his outlook and be kind of ahead of the curve,” said Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who wrote “The End of Nature,” a call to arms against global warming.
Criticism, bad press, political fights — Brown said he will miss it all when he leaves the governor’s office and retires to a ranch he built on family land in rural Colusa County.
“I can’t think of a day I haven’t enjoyed since I’ve been governor,” he said. “I can’t think of one day.”