Gov. Jerry Brown Leaves Mixed Legacy As California Lurches Left

Brown wasn't exactly a secret libertarian, but libertarians might end up missing him.


After California Gov. Jerry Brown completed his bill signings and vetoes in the first year of his third and penultimate term as governor, this columnist urged the governor to release his "inner libertarian."

The comment was a bit facetious, given that Brown had a well-established political philosophy that generally favored a larger and more muscular state government, rather than the limited variety favored by libertarians. It was wishful thinking, perhaps.

But Brown had, on some occasions, expressed authentic-sounding skepticism toward government interventions and its many grandiose intentions. "Every year, on average about 1,000 new laws are enacted and most of the laws are solutions to the same problems," the governor said in 2011. "It means that no matter how many solutions are provided every year we have the same number of problems." I opined that he probably "gets it" at some level, although now is a better time to assess the record as he completes his final term.

Brown signed more than 1,000 bills this year. The governor Tweeted that he decided on nearly 20,000 bills in his 16 years. That encapsulates my frustration with his tenure. He's smart, forthright and blunt in the "laughing with you" way that Donald Trump could never achieve. But—and here's the big but—Brown's actions rarely lived up to his rhetoric, at least from a libertarian's point of view. He knows that most new bills do little, but his veto rate averaged only 9-13 percent.

Of course, libertarian ideas are rarely even on the table in Sacramento (or Washington, D.C., for that matter). Judging even by Brown's own fiscally frugal claims, he often disappointed. I loved those big charts that he'd pull out during regular budget press conferences warning about the evils of excessive spending given that recessions always are around the corner. Then he'd sign a record-setting spending budget, albeit one more responsible than whatever atrocity Democratic legislators had envisioned. And boy did he like to raise taxes to fix budget holes.

He also missed opportunities. Brown clearly understands the depth of the state's pension crisis. He passed an oh-so-modest 2013 reform law and his administration authored an impressive legal brief urging changes to a doctrine (the California Rule) that limits localities' ability to trim pension costs. But he never had the courage to take on the public-sector unions and achieve substantive reform. It could have been a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, given his close relations with those unions, but it happened only in my dreams.

Brown is smart and entertaining. So he convinces even people like me, who usually disagree with his politics, that he's about to do the right thing. The fault is with us, I suppose, for harboring unrealistic expectations. And don't get me started on his bullet train boondoggle, or his costly and environmentally destructive Delta tunnel plan, or his over-the-top rhetoric about global warming. These will be his main legacies. Like a movie that's getting long in tooth, but rallies at the end and leaves the audience applauding (or at least not booing), Brown's final scene had some redemptive moments.

In his first two terms of office, when crime rates were rising and the public was understandably fearful, the governor signed some tough-on-crime measures, such as the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act of 1976. Those laws reflected the spirit of the time, but they led to the prison-overcrowding situation that Brown was forced to deal with in his later terms through his controversial realignment plan.

In recent months, though, Brown showed real leadership for wide-ranging criminal-justice reform. As the New York Times summarized it, he "signed a bill to overhaul California's so-called felony murder rule, which has allowed accomplices to a homicide to be convicted even if they did not pull the trigger. A new law on how the police use photo lineups is aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. And last month, Mr. Brown signed a law ending cash bail, the first state to do so." I'm not comfortable with all of these signings, but it is time the pendulum swung back the other way.

He also signed Senate Bill 1421, which provides greater public access to police personnel files. It was desperately needed. Since a dreadful state Supreme Court decision in 2006 (the Copley decision), it's been nearly impossible to get information about police-misconduct allegations. Such secrecy has endangered the public because overly aggressive officers are shielded from accountability. The Times noted that Brown also signed an important bill requiring the release of body-cam footage within 45 days of a use-of-force incident.

In hindsight, there's little evidence that Brown ever had much of an inner libertarian, or at least he didn't release it very much. But he did so on a few important occasions. As Brown heads into the sunset (or to his Colusa County ranch) and the state paddles further to the left, libertarians might find ourselves missing his time in office.

This column was first published by the Orange County Register.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at

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  1. “It means that no matter how many solutions are provided every year we have the same number of problems.
    No, you actually created more problems.

    1. “the same number of problems”+1,000 new laws=something fucking negative, I’m pretty sure.

      1. I suppose, according to this author, Hitler was occasionally kind of Libertarian. You know, like when he let the folks go left or right in the line on the way to the “showers.” Or how about when the Soviets let folks decide where to stand in the freight cars on their way to the Gulag.

        Jerry Brown is probably very nice and fun to be with. But folks, Jerry Brown is no Libertarian.

        1. I apologize for my extreme hyperbole. I just couldn’t help myself.

        2. I would have loved to have been sitting at the table, and the forever laugh I’d have gotten out of it, with Jerry and his Parties BIG Commiecrat donors the night his worn out sphincter muscle finally gave up for good and he fouled himself right there. This is something all men of his chosen life style have to look forward to as they grow older. He said it was food poisoning which he, in all reality, actually blamed on the Mexican restaurant workers. The following day he demanded that his legislature form legislation forcing all restaurant and bar workers wear plastic gloves which failed to go anywhere. We Americans living in the California part of the State just love the San Francisco vermin.

      2. Careful. Phrasing things in the form of an equation might light the Hihn signal.

  2. If California lurches further to the left then that will just speed up the pace at which the state government crashes and burns.

    And that’s good. All the people who are actually net producers instead of net takers will have left during the process the rest of the country can leave them to wallow in their own mess.

    1. That’s not how that usually goes. Granted, I can’t think of an instance involving such a heavily armed populace. One thing is for certain, it won’t be boring!

  3. I doubt many libertarians are in the market for pointers from a Republican think tank.

    1. Damn… that may be the smartest thing you’ve ever said.

      1. Speaking of low bars…

        1. Is there such a thing as an underground bar?

          1. That’s where the Rev goes to “keep it on the down low.”

            Most gays are proudly open today, but when you are as self loathing as the Rev…

            1. Hey don’t you be mixing in my demographic with Kirkland.

              Baby don’t you do it!

    2. Is that greater or lesser than “libertarians in the market for pointers from Rev Artie Kinkland.”?

      ps) Does the “rev” stand for “Reverse”? “Revision”? Or are you just gunning your engine to impress that fat girl next door?

      1. Revolting.

  4. I really miss the flu, now that I have terminal cancer

    1. I’d say it’s more like, “I really miss Stage III cancer now that I have Stage IV cancer”.

  5. “Brown’s final scene had some redemptive moments.”

    It’s like Stalin checking out just before the inevitable part of the story.

  6. He vetoed between 9 and 13 % of bills? That is a lot higher than I would have expected.

    1. The media really does not discuss his first two terms back in the 1970s and I would bet that is when he vetoed more bills.

      California was overall very conservative politically, until the 1990s.

      1. Ahhh, if only I had grown up in California when my grandpa, or even my father did. NorCal really is the best place in the country, other than all the progs and bad politics it has now 🙁

        I hope everything crashes and burns, and then flips back around, so I can move back there someday.

        1. Way to be insensitive about the earthquakes and wild fires…

          1. Pshhh. I remember the “big one” in 1989. It knocked some shit off the shelves, but earthquakes don’t freak me out. I’m used to them. People always get used to the natural disasters that happen where they grow up.

            Now a hurricane… THAT would freak me the fuck out!

            The wildfires aren’t that horrible either. We just need to build a giant aqueduct to keep the state supplied with water for regular use, because not having water is a real issue there with so many people now… And the fires can largely be dealt with. Half the intense fires we have are because we never let fires burn through naturally for almost a century. But now that they let them burn along their natural cycles, in many areas they should be less severe in the future. Crazy global warming actually being a real thing withstanding.

    2. In other words, I would bet he was vetoing conservative bills that tried to cut California’s move to Socialism during the 1970’s.

  7. Warren Meyer from Coyote Blog weighs in:

    This is 100% the reason we have been exiting most of our business in CA and will not accept any new business there. All of our training time with managers there goes to compliance with a myriad of new interventions from the legislature. There is no time left to improve the business, serve customers better, or get more efficient. California has hit, at least for us, the regulation singularity where new regulations are written faster than we can manage compliance to them.

    Now all these veterans of California regulation madness are fanning out into national government. Beware.

    1. All those people should be on blacklists.

    2. I’ve started making an effort not to buy products made in Kalifornia, and you should too…

    3. The cancer metastasizes

  8. “Brown wasn’t exactly a secret libertarian, but libertarians might end up missing him.”

    Gives you a good idea of how low the bar is in CA.

    1. More specifically, it gives everyone a good idea of how awful Gavin Newsom will be as governor.

      Spending will go through the roof if Newsom wins, and they can’t tax the people much more without forcing the bulk of net taxpayers out of the state.

  9. Until Commifornia changes it Governor term restrictions rules again, allowing Jerry Brown to sign away even more Californian’s rights.

  10. But Brown’s actions rarely lived up to his rhetoric, at least from a libertarian’s point of view.

    So he’s the Daniel Patrick Moynihan of California.

  11. Am I the only one thinking Jello’s prediction might come through some day???

    AKA Brown is going to run for president? I don’t think he’d beat him in 2020, but he seems like the most credible Dem running around right now to me.

    1. Jerry Brown would lose his ass to Trump.

      As for 2024, its anyone’s game.

      The Democrats will have lost so many Congressional and justice seats by 2022, that many Democrat suicides will leave their ranks relatively empty.

      1. Brown will be 86 in 2024. Seems unlikely.

        After Trump/Clinton, I think that age cohort is done.

        1. Yeah, you’re probably right.

          I forget that in the next 7 years, Boomers will be in their 70s and 80s.

      2. Yeah, I don’t think he’d win against Trump. Frankly I can’t think of anybody who can that they have waiting in the wings. But he still seems like the most “credible” person to run that I can think of.

        Bloomberg or something is probably the next most. They just don’t have any quality people who can be taken remotely seriously available. It’s actually kind of sad, and LOLz at the same time. Haha.

    2. Pocahontas is the female candidate Hill was supposed to be. She can get the flappy uterus votes enough to challenge.

    3. Michelle obama is being actively groomed for 2020. The left is desperate enough and a minority candidate is they only way to stem Trumps fairly impressive in roads with the AA voting block.

      1. Well, sure… but what about the brave Senator Spartacus… or the honorable Senator from California, Willie Brown’s Cock Holster?

        Does their leadership in the courageous slander of Brett Kavanaugh count for nothing?

      2. And the remarkable economic genius senator from Massachusetts–I forget her name–isn’t she a Native-American?

        Talk about street cred!

      3. Imelda Marcos III

        Won’t the Left ever get embarrassed about hitching their wagon to women who only got their power by fucking the right men?

        Kamala Harris too.

  12. California lawmakers collect thousands on top of salary while absent
    Santa Rosa Press Democrat -September 20, 2016

    Gov. Jerry Brown to Mexican Illegals: ‘You’re All Welcome in California’
    Breitbart News-Aug 26, 2014

    Jerry Brown: California Taxpayers are ‘Freeloaders’
    Breitbart News -17 May 2017

    California governor, Legislature are now highest paid in nation
    Los Angeles Times-Dec 5, 2016

    Gov. Brown can largely blame himself if the state’s gas tax increase
    is repealed in Jun 28, 2018

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  16. “Lurches left”

    Thats an overly mild way to describe cali’s accelerating decent into a Latin socialist nightmare. Once they succeed in driving out business investment, going after hoarders and capitalist leeches will be the next step it seeing how fast a large western economy can replicate Venezuala’s plunge off the cliff.

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  18. He did veto the affirmative action bill (SB185) back in 2011, so that’s something I remember him for. California remains one of the few states where it’s illegal to discriminate in college entrance acceptance based on race.

  19. ” As Brown heads into the sunset (or to his Colusa County ranch) and the state paddles further to the left, libertarians might find ourselves missing his time in office.”

    It’s not that Brown wasn’t horrible, it’s that what’s next is going to be *so* much worse.

  20. “The fault is with us, I suppose, for harboring unrealistic expectations.”

    Yeah that’s right, it’s OUR fault for believing what Brown keeps telling us.

  21. Nope. No TRUE libertarian could ever support Jerry Brown.

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