When Jerry Brown’s first governorship ended in 1983, he had precious little lasting accomplishment on his political résumé.
His few initiatives had faced a hostile (albeit Democratic) Legislature and he had been preoccupied with two unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency and one for the U.S. Senate.
After the latter, Brown declared, “I believe the people of California would like a respite from me and in some ways I would like a respite from them.”
Nevertheless, Brown also said, “I shall return (and) after a period of time my services will be available.”
Return he did in 2011, saying that he wanted to tackle California’s most vexing issues – some of which he had left behind 28 years before.
Brown denied, of course, that he was seeking a better political legacy and to shed the “Governor Moonbeam” epithet that had been hung on him.
However, it’s clearly in his motivational matrix, as implied by his frequent references these days to his father, Pat Brown, who had served two highly regarded terms as governor.
Five years into his second gubernatorial incarnation and with three years to go, Brown still struggles to make a major mark.
He has launched several efforts, but often settled for half-a-loaf measures whose efficacy remains uncertain, such as overhauling school finance to raise achievement of 3.5 million poor and English-learner students, but not attacking other systemic impediments to learning.
Brown has hoped to leave two concrete achievements, a north-south bullet train and twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to more or less complete the massive water project his father began. Both, however, face myriad financial, legal and political hurdles.
The bullet train is especially troubled, particularly with recent revelations about escalating costs and tepid interest by potential investors. The tunnels – a new version of a project Brown 1.0 championed, only to see it rejected by voters – face not only environmental opposition but seemingly waning interest by water districts that would finance them.
At the moment, therefore, neither is better than a 50-50 bet for completion, so both likely will be asterisks, rather than stars, on Brown’s historic record.
Brown hasn’t abandoned those pet projects, but perhaps sensing that they are unlikely winners, has shifted rhetorical gears, becoming a self-righteously strident, even shrill, advocate of reducing carbon emissions.
A clue to that shift is his bitter reaction to being forced to scale back legislation that would have expanded California’s carbon reduction goals, removing a 50 percent cut in petroleum use in automobiles.
An effective lobbying/propaganda campaign by the oil industry and the reluctance of moderate Democrats in the Assembly to vote for something that might affect their constituents’ driving forced the change.
Brown, who had been used to getting his way in the Legislature, was visibly angered by the setback.
He has tried to trumpet the remainder as a major policy advance, staging a signing ceremony on a mountain overlooking Los Angeles and planning to attend a global climate conference in Paris. But it is, in relative terms, small potatoes.
Brown has three more years to cement a lasting legacy that will commend him to historians. It will be very interesting to see if he can pull it off.