What Jerry Brown fixed and couldn’t fix
With his time in office down to 17 days, Gov. Jerry Brown spoke of things he fixed, tried to fix and fears can never be fixed.
He sat in the main room of the home he and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, have built on land his great-grandfather, August Schuckman, bought for $1 an acre in the 1850s. He wore a jacket, a fire blazed in the fireplace, and his corgi, Colusa, barked.
With its oak-covered hills, the spread west of Williams is among the most picturesque spots in California. He talked about how Schuckman ran a hotel for stagecoaches more than a century ago and how he and Anne recently planted olive trees they hauled in from Napa. He picked the olives himself and had them pressed into oil this year.
He has a few books on his shelves, but many more in boxes that soon will arrive. Mrs. Brown was in Williams looking for office space to house his books and where, perhaps, he can write a book of his own.
He has refurbished a barn into a man cave, though he calls it the bar barn. It is well-stocked: whiskey, tequila, vodka and all the other booze his friends might want. There’s bug spray he bought in a clearance sale, a rattlesnake skin, old photos, a sign that reads Schuckman’s Grain Bar, golf balls, a left handed baseball mitt, darts, cigars, and a sheriff’s badge that reads, “Brothel inspector.” He claims to know nothing about it.
The day before, the Commission on Judicial Appointments confirmed Joshua Groban, his fourth and final Supreme Court nominee. For the first time since 1986, when voters ousted three of Brown’s original appointees, a Democratic governor—Brown—had appointed a majority of the seven-justice Supreme Court. Count it as a misstep he has fixed.
“That was pretty noncontroversial,” he said, so much so that he didn’t watch the confirmation hearing.
“These people I’ve appointed are extraordinary in their intellect, their understanding of the law and their growing wisdom,” he said. “I think they will grow into the job over time to be a very important force in the scheme of California governance.”
The governor wanted to fix the criminal sentencing system and, he believes, he made progress. His goal was to undo the determinate sentencing system by which felons are sent to prison for specific terms, the result of a law he signed when he was governor in 1977.
Now, thanks to legislation he signed and the voter-approved Proposition 57 he sponsored in 2016, certain inmates can earn their release by taking classes, gaining job skills and following prison rules. The new system is called indeterminate sentencing, and it was the old system before he changed it 40 years ago.
“The incentive power of the indeterminate sentence is crucial and something I really didn’t pay attention to back in 1977,” he said.
A governor running for higher office probably would not have taken the steps he took. It means felons will get out and some will re-offend. But he believes it’s best to trust parole authorities to decide whether to release felons.
“Sentencing should not be the play toy of ambitious politics,” he said. “It ought to be the judgment of serious minded individuals who are not running for office but have in mind public safety and have in mind the changes men and women can make over time.”
As fewer people are incarcerated, he worries about increases in crimes such as shoplifting, car burglaries and open use of hard drugs on the streets: “Totally unacceptable.”
“There is plenty of work for the incoming governor.”
Then there’s the issue of housing: “The best way to make housing affordable would be to cut the value of your house in half—and that would create a revolution. … You’ve got to get smaller. You’ve got to get denser. Go to other areas.” There’s opposition to all that.
Again, the incoming governor will face that issue.
Then there are the issues he could not fix, the biggest of which is the risk of nuclear war. “Very few people are thinking about it.” Upon leaving office, he will serve as executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group best known for setting the Doomsday Clock, which estimates how close we are nuclear annihilation.
And climate change: “The world is not doing enough. Yeah, I’m not doing enough. We have to do more.” Why not declare that there will be no more internal combustion engines in five or 10 years? Donald Trump won’t do that, he says. Maybe the next president will.
And automation: “What are we going to do about jobs. How do you put people to work?”
He stepped into his all-terrain vehicle to take a tour of his land. As is his habit, he didn’t buckle up. As is her habit, Colusa rode shotgun. He motions to the west to where there once were sulfur mines and hot springs that attracted tourist, and Indian burial grounds. His nearest neighbor is way down there, in the next valley.
He expects Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom will have a tougher four or eight years than he did.
“The economy is going to be tougher,” he said. And inevitably that means budget deficits. Then there are various interest groups, Newsom’s allies, that will seek more laws. It’s tough to stand up to allies.
“The governor is like the governor on a machine.” Without a governor, the machine will run out of control. “You’ve got to say no.”
Newsom has not yet stopped by the Browns’ home. It’d be worth the trip, if for no other reason than to hang out in the bar barn for an hour or two.