My parents raised me with a consciousness edging on creepy hero-worship of Edmund “Jerry” Brown Jr., who was governor of California before I was born and ran against Bill Clinton in the Democratic primary for President of the United states when I was just a toddler. In my parents’ home, there is a small framed print of Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial portrait that has had a place on our mantel for as long as I can remember. Since coming to Mills my opinions of his policies, politics and persona has certainly widened and gained complexity – as opinions so often do at Mills – but I still tend to laud him to anyone who will give me the time of day.
When explaining my love of Jerry to friends from out of state, or anyone actually (I’m always surprised how few people know who he is), I tend to focus on the eccentricity, radical liberalism and foresight he exhibited as governor of California from 1975 to 1983. I recount facts such as: he rented an apartment across the street from the capitol building rather than living in the newly constructed governor’s mansion, slept on a futon, was driven around in a Plymouth Satellite from the state auto pool rather than the traditional limousine, and was often spotted walking the streets of Sacramento without any shoes on. I share that he got his derogatory nickname “Moonbeam” Brown, or Governor Moonbeam, for proposing that the state of California purchase an emergency communications satellite – something that is now a very normal part of state policy.
When someone asks me what he accomplished as governor, I first point out that sodomy was decriminalized under his governorship. He was very socially liberal for his time and for the office he held. He was especially concerned with environmental issues, he appointed more women and minorities to office than any previous governor, and he strongly opposed the death penalty.
In one (anachronistic) word, he was progressive. But it is important to recognize that fiscally he was strongly conservative. No, not the neo-conservatism we are so familiar with – I’m not talking about privatization of government programs. He cut costs, accruing a huge surplus in the budget, until Proposition 13 pulled the rug out from under city and county governments and he had to spend the surplus to keep us afloat (while continuing to cut costs.)
All of these things allow me to trust and adore him. What gives me pause are the policies he put in place attempting to gentrify downtown Oakland during his time as mayor. Plus, there is a scary edge of conservatism to his current campaign ads and some of his proposed policies. He bills himself as “tough on crime” which reads to me as “not critical enough of the inherent racism of our criminal justice system.” I recognize that some of this is reasonable pragmatism and most of this is probably political angling – but as a dyed in the wool progressive and a freshly educated academic idealist, I find these campaign tactics disconcerting at best.
When it comes down to it, I think he’s hoping that there are enough Republicans in this state who will see him on TV – a 72 year-old with a face like a bald eagle – and forget about his Moonbeam days, swallow his rhetoric and vote for him. Me? I’m going to vote for him because he’s qualified to do the job.