This year's presidential campaign reminds me yet again that California seems to have lived decades ago through much of what the whole country is going through in Trumptime -- and set a model for a relatively graceful escape from a dead end.
During the decade of the 1990s, freak out among the white electorate about losing their majority status in the state led to a series of racist ballot measures -- anything to keep the dark people in their place, even if it deformed California's prized university system, filled the prisons with Black and Latino men, and forced immigrant workers into an exploitative underground economy. Plus the state government was a mess -- hamstrung by anti-tax Republicans and their anti-tax legislative rules. In the beginning of the '00s, we elected a cartoon character, a Terminator named Schwarzenegger, as our governor, because people were just fed up with it all.
Unlike that man occupying our White House today, fortunately, Gov. Arnold proved to have some interest the job he won -- in more than smoking cigars in a tent outside the Capitol. He even did the state a favor by pushing for a nonpartisan redistricting commission. But mostly, gridlock continued and the Great Recession brought the state low.
Enter Jerry Brown in 2010. He was a used governor, having served from 1975 to 1983 beginning as a 37 year old, before reaching his term limit. He stormed back into office in 2011, at 73, and we got another 8 years out of him.
I canvassed a little for Jerry in the northern Central Valley in 2010. I had learned something about the area -- burgeoning bedroom communities for the East Bay -- while working to flip a Congressional seat there to an anti-Iraq war Dem in 2006. By 2010 the new communities were trashed, marked by unfinished housing developments and neighborhoods emptied by foreclosures. There was a Tea Party headquarters and not much else. This was a union canvas, mostly directed at state workers grimly holding on to newly precarious jobs. Those who would talk with us were utterly unenthusiastic about Brown, but I became sure that, if they turned out, they'd vote for Jerry.
Well they did, as did the cities. And it's not crazy to feel that old white guy Jerry was a good governor for a state that needed to get over conflicts which had been amplified by demographic and economic change and lost its way. He fought to enable the state to raise enough tax money to do its job and established a rainy day fund which California is now finding helpful. He was cheap about dribbling the new money out to new programs, but over this tenure parts of the progressive wish list got done including sanctuary legislation for undocumented immigrants, a right to die law for the terminally ill, and continued efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (though he never banned fracking). He shrank the state prison system by sending low level offenders to local jails.
My friend Tom Ammiano is tough
on Jerry Brown's penny-pinching budget choices:
"It's a class thing with him."
Often it was hard to applaud Brown as governor; he frustrated the dreams of his most progressive citizens. Nonetheless, California emerged from its second Brown era less divided and somewhat more just than it had been for decades. Trump's race-bating appeals can't get 30% here. We made the inevitable demographic transition and no "race" or ethnicity is a majority of us. (Now we have to figure out how to curb the plutocrats.)
So might Joe Biden be offering a similar kind of transition leadership to the nation? The two men are personally very dissimilar. Brown is a proud idiosyncratic loner; Biden is a glad-hander (too much so?) well suited to environments which require collective agreement, like the Senate and the Democratic Party. But they both offered anxious constituents unrivaled experience in government. Lots of pols claim experience, but what these guys knew and know is not just puffery.
Brown never lacked for guts, even when bucking his friends. Biden is going to need guts and decisiveness, facing a country trashed by corruption and the pandemic -- in the midst of a reckoning with its heritage of white supremacy, gender inequality, and a baking climate.
One of my favorite journalists, Walter Shapiro
, who has been covering Washington pols since 1969 thinks Biden might just have what it takes.
"Biden grasps the necessity for boldness in a crisis—while also intuiting the political risks of going too far too fast."
That just might be a national winning formula for this awful moment, much as something similar was for Brown in California.
We sure need some formula and it's likely to get worse before it gets better ...