The Worldly Observations of Jerry Brown

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In this morning's story on The California Report recapping the California Democratic Party's convention, I attempted to convey the top election year priority of many delegates -- jobs and the economy -- and how that concern might play out in the race for governor.

John Myers

Photo: John Myers

The story was complicated partly by the fact that Democrats are still grappling with exactly what kinds of economic solutions they prefer, and by the fact that the only thing on which they currently seem to agree is the villain: corporate America in general and Wall Street in particular.

But the other reason the story was complicated was because of Jerry Brown.

There's no doubt this key California issue was on the mind of the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, but there were also apparently a whole lot of other things on his mind at the same time. So many so, that it begs the question: can Brown stay on message in his quest for a third term as governor?

Brown had two major appearances at the Dem confab, plus visits with smaller subsets of the party faithful, from young Dems to organized labor. In the two major appearances -- an eleven minute address at the convention podium and a 15 minute conversation with political reporters afterwards -- everything about the iconic Democrat that makes him both compelling and confounding was on display.

First, the convention speech, umm, address. After starting off somewhat frustrated with the amount of time the crowd spent chanting his name ("Okay, thanks, good, we've got to move here"), Brown began by saying the job of Democrats was to defend the presidency of Barack Obama. The candidate then talked about all the bad things that have happened to the "American people" due to the economic collapse, and followed that up by defending the efforts of government. "Not only the U.S. government," Brown continued, "but the French government, the English government, the German government, and the Chinese government saved the capitalist system, kept it going."

At this point, the crowd was largely silent, perhaps unsure of where this was going. But at about three minutes in, he praised protecting families... and the crowd found something they could applaud. Phew.

Then Brown began talking about jobs -- and this would be the "specifics" in the address which he so vigorously defended to reporters afterwards (more on that in a bit). He pledged to cut "red tape" to get more "green jobs" building alternative energy infrastructure in California, though that "red tape" (which he also called "regulatory underbrush") includes some of the state's environmental review laws. And then, the biggest specific of the day: 20,000 megawatts of new alternative energy online by 2020.

The talk of jobs then moved to supporting university research of biofuels. "They need more investment, not less," he said. And then, a mention of jobs in the "health care" and "hospitality" industries. But there wasn't talk of how to create jobs in these sectors, just the sectors themselves. And then another jab at big banks and the need for more lending to small businesses and the need to "get this country moving."

We'll fast forward from there: his former administration's record on energy efficiency, his creation of the California Conservation Corps in 1976 ("That's jobs!" he said), then the big challenge to his GOP rivals to debate, more Wall Street jabs, more jabs at the extravagant campaign spending of the Republicans, another defense of Obama and Democratic ideals, and it was over.

The worldly observations continued in his news conference a few minutes later, even though reporters tried to steer him back to California. And in several news stories over the last couple of days, it's been mentioned that he quickly jumped on reporter who questioned the lack of specifics for fixing California in his convention address.

That reporter was me, and the exchange began this way:

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At that point, I tried to politely interrupt and point out that the things he was talking about are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, not the one he aspires to again oversee in California. Brown's reply?

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Brown later promised that voters will have plenty of time to evaluate his own prescription for curing what ails the state. "The people of California will have all the information they need," he said, "to decide who they want as governor."

The candidate later told the San Francisco Chronicle's Carla Marinucci that unlike us journos who write lots of stories, he has but one chance to "work through" the issues and present the right message. And then, after a few jokes and comments about his debate challenge, Brown again turned his attention to the world at large in a discussion of his campaign strategies are devised:

"They're coming from the spiritus mundi, as William Butler Yeats once said."

And one final attempt at getting him to speak specifically on state government, from Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star, elicited from Brown another rare nugget of detail -- on the need to return more power in California to local government.

"It works much easier if the Bakersfieldians decide their own issues and the San Franciscans also decide theirs," said Brown. "If I could quote the papal principle of subsidiarity, you want the smallest institution to deal with the problem that can most competently handle it."

And why does he believe that? "That's my tradition of Christian humanism," he said. "I know you didn't ask for that, but I'm giving it to you."

It's an understatement to say that Jerry Brown is no ordinary political candidate. That's probably one of his greatest strengths in this election. And in the end, it's no doubt also a strength to be so keenly aware of the big picture. But at some point, reporters and voters will begin to clamor even more loudly for some specific proposals to fix a systemically wrecked state budget and an economy that was built on industries which may not be coming back for some time.

And while there's charm in quoting Yeats, it's hard to see that charm as lasting long enough to win an election.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • S. Strand

    What a breath of fresh air to have a politician who understands issues on a deeper level, who isn’t compelled to dumb down the discourse, as is happening all through our society. Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to a very low level civil discourse, if you can even call it that, and here comes someone who is extremely intelligent, articulate, insightful, and wise.
    Jerry Brown is still the brilliant, compassionate visionary, only he has decades more experience all over the world, with many diverse constituencies… and we will be the beneficiaries of this wise man if we are fortunate enough to have him as our governor again. By the way, during his previous 8 years as governor, his tenure is considered one of the most innovative in all of American history. He ran a tight ship and also created 1.9 million jobs during his two terms.
    I feel so hopeful when I contemplate California under your leadership again, and I will do everything I can to support Jerry Brown’s campaign, as I did for President Obama.
    Jerry, you can’t come too soon to lead us in bringing California back… to the future!

  • E Ann Villemaire

    It seems like journalist John Myers is applauding our lack of depth and understanding rather than a clear critique, one way or the other, of Jerry Brown’s speach. What’s up with that?

  • John Myers

    My job is not to “critique” Brown’s comments at the convention, but rather to point out the fact that the candidate offered many fewer specifics of what he’d do as governor than might have been expected.