Jerry Brown, the only four-term governor in California history, is set to leave public life next January, when his likely Democratic successor will take his place in the governor’s mansion.
As he winds down one of the most memorable political careers in modern times, his critics and admirers are trying to define his place in history.
To many conservatives, he remains simply, “Governor Moonbeam”—an eccentric, liberal dreamer perpetually in pursuit of unrealistic ideas, more of a joke than a serious statesmen.
To his enemies on the left, he is a raging centrist, unwilling to make the necessary investments in education and social justice required to move California forward.
And then there are his supporters, who see Brown as a tough-minded chief executive using his vast experience and wisdom to guide California.
As one ally, Stanford Political Science Professor Bruce Cain, told the Atlantic in 2013, Brown has become “the most trusted, stable, and reliable leader around.”
Now, the question remains, which group is correct—the leftist critics, Brown’s conservative enemies or his admiring friends?
A glance at the evidence points to one possible conclusion: perhaps they all are. Brown’s public career is so supple, so full of substance and contradiction, that it lends itself to a myriad of interpretations.
He is a man who defies definition in a way that makes him stick out in today’s tribal political times.
When he agrees with the left, he is unafraid to use political capital to advance their interests, as when he signed legislation making California the first state to implement a $15 minimum wage.
“This is about economic justice. It’s about people. It’s about creating a little, tiny amount of balance in a system that every day becomes more unbalanced,” Brown said at the 2016 signing ceremony for the bill.
In addition, Brown has been a fierce advocate for another progressive cause: climate change. Since 2010, he has enacted legislation to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, obtained bipartisan support for the state’s cap and trade program and garnered carbon reduction commitments from over 200 governments around the globe.
But when the governor feels the evidence points against the liberals, he is just as unafraid to oppose their position.
Take the issue of higher education. Time and time again, Brown has allocated less funds to California colleges than state officials have demanded.
For example, in his 2018 budget plan, the governor proposed adding another $92.1 million to the California State University System, less than half of what CSU Chancellor Timothy White asked for.
“They’re not gonna get anymore. And they’ve got to manage. I think they need a little more scrutiny over how they are spending things,” Brown said at a press conference announcing his plan.
This fiscally conservative approach is a direct rejection of the legislature’s liberal Democrats, who favor substantial increases to state universities and community colleges.
All in all, Brown leaves a legacy that defies our modern conception of politics as being a battle between left and right. The governor is a man who contains multitudes and cannot be said to be wholly a member of either side.
Sometimes the liberal idealist, sometimes the fiscal conservative and always, uniquely, his own man, Brown is the sort of leader the founding fathers would have loved—a principled independent driven by the truth as he sees it, not partisanship and what’s politically convenient.
When he leaves office, this unique style of governance will go with him. Brown’s likely successors, Gavin Newsom, John Chiang and Antonio Villaraigosa, are all cautious men, whose positions align closely to popular opinion in the Democratic party.
Their campaigns to become California’s next governor have been characterized by insistent pandering to the liberal electorate, not the kind of independent analysis that is Brown’s trademark.
In policy terms, the candidates have spent much time promoting their support for typical liberal causes like universal health care, debt free college and engaging in active resistance against the Trump administration.
At the same time, little attention has been paid to concerns not prioritized by grassroots Democrats, like the need to reform California’s pension system and stabilize the state budget—two issues Brown devoted himself to.
Time will tell if this is a welcome change for the state or if voters find themselves yearning for the leadership of Jerry Brown once more.
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party.