Governor Jerry Brown of California is a new kind of politician with a new kind of politics. Liberal? Conservative? No labels, please. He was educated in a Jesuit seminary and went on to Yale Law School. He escapes occasionally to a Zen retreat and sometimes holds press conferences while sitting in the lotus position. On election night, the Sun Choir sang Hindu chants as he won the office his father, Pat Brown, had occupied eight years earlier.
It was assumed that California would return to Democratic free-spending liberalism. Not at all. Some of Brown’s austerity moves were largely symbolic. He refused to live in the Reagan-built, $1.3 million governor’s mansion and shunned the traditional limousine. Instead, Brown pays his own rent ($250) on a two-bedroom pad within walking distance of his office. For longer hauls, he uses a Plymouth from the motor pool.
Brown once dated actress Candice Bergen, but now keeps his social life absolutely private. “It bores me to talk about myself,” he says. “I’m sure all these personal tidbits would be amusing to the public, but I can’t subscribe to the fashionable notion that this has anything to do with the job that has to be done.”
Brown’s stewardship has been full of contradictions. He slashed the budget as if he were Ronald Reagan, but pushed through legislation to repeal the state oil-depletion allowance and other tax breaks favoring big business. He’s credited with bills to provide more low-cost housing. Simultaneously, by battling to prevent any major increases in the state budget, he so far has avoided any general tax increase. Brown also worked out a skillful compromise between growers, Teamsters and Cesar Chavez’s rival United Farm Workers to extend the right of secret-ballot union elections to long-abused agricultural employees.
His exchanges with the press and state bureaucrats are rare and often petulant. But all of this apparently makes sense to Californians. As his first year in office ends, the polls rate Brown’s popularity far above that of either Reagan or his own father.
But, along with his achievements—and surely central to Jerry Brown’s peculiar predilections—is a desire to transform the very spirit of the liberal ideology. His, as the governor himself phrases it, is the politics of “lowered expectations.” Brown explains his approach: “I’ll deal with the crises on an immediate basis, and hopefully that experience will illuminate a little more of the terrain. Look at the bills I sign or veto, the people I appoint. Out of that you learn the rules.”
As his name is bandied about by presidential fortune-tellers, Brown quickly renounces such aspirations with, “Hell no! It’s enough of a pain in the neck to be governor.” But the 37-year-old bachelor politician is nothing if not flexible. “I’m not locked into or out of anything,” he has said of his own career. “The only thing I’m locked into is a 3 o’clock meeting and a dinner tonight.”