How Jerry Brown’s first California drought may help him address this one

April 8, 2015
California Governor Brown speaks with reporters after casting his ballot at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office in Oakland

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks with reporters after casting his ballot in Oakland, California, October 30, 2014. REUTERS/Noah Berger

California Governor Jerry Brown subscribes to the “canoe theory of politics” — paddle a little to the left, a little to the right and then glide down the middle. He is using this approach to get through the roiling politics created by California’s drought, the worst in the state since record-keeping began.

In Brown’s first go-round as California governor, from 1975 to 1983, he was regarded as an innovator with a political agenda. Now, Brown is a wise elder of 77 and a consummate crisis manager. His current tenure has been defined by the skill he displayed in addressing the state’s serious fiscal woes: He controlled spending and finally persuaded voters to approve limited tax increases. Brown’s stewardship during the state’s multi-year drought could emerge as another key piece of his legacy.

During the 1976-77 water crisis, the then-freshman governor called for a voluntary 25 percent reduction in personal water use statewide. According to the Sacramento Bee, Brown “reduced the spray of his shower head and, in a characteristic moment of stagecraft, replaced a pitcher of water at a news conference with a single cup.” It was in keeping with his mantra at the time: “Small is beautiful.”

A pool of water is pictured on the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir near San Jose

A pool of water on the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, California, January 21, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Today Brown wants to rally California by persuading everyone to pull together. He has already led — and partially funded — a 2014 ballot campaign to pass a “slimmed down” $7.5-billion water bond. The bond received only two “no” votes in the state legislature and was passed by California voters with an overwhelming 67 percent “yes” vote.

Brown was also able to push through emergency legislation, including the first groundwater regulations in state history. Republican lawmakers supported it as well. Political partisanship has not emerged on most recent water issues, though the longtime face-off between Southern California and Northern California still matters.

Brown 2.0’s governing style has been to push policy forward without fomenting virulent opposition from major interest groups. In dealing with the drought, for example, he is using kid gloves with the politically and economically powerful agribusiness industry, the state’s biggest water consumer.

In 1982, Brown learned the hard way about the danger in taking on the state’s agricultural interests. After Brown pushed through complex water legislation, two agri-business giants spearheaded a statewide campaign to repeal it. The referendum was thrashed by voters.

Brown’s current mandatory cutbacks don’t apply to agriculture, though farmers consume 80 percent of the water in California. Critics contend that Brown is bowing to special interests. But farmers have already experienced big cuts in their access to federal and State Water Project deliveries. Additional forced cutbacks, many economists say, could have a devastating impact on food supplies and prices in the state and the country.

JerryBrownInauguration1975

California Chief Justice Donald Wright (left) swearing in Jerry Brown as governor, January 6, 1975. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

Brown has also learned another crucial lesson: A leader must get out in front of a crisis. Brown saw what happened to his former chief of staff, Gray Davis, while he was California governor.

Davis inherited a state energy crisis in 2000 and 2001, but his apparent indecision and defensiveness destroyed public confidence in his administration. Combined with his subsequent perceived mishandling of state budget deficits, it sparked the recall election that installed Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governorship.

One big advantage Brown has in dealing with the drought now is his perennial role as a climate-change hawk. Although this fierce drought cannot be tidily attributed to global warming, most Californians believe that climate change is a real threat.

Brown’s reputation helps in the regional battle over water, too. Northern California has staunchly guarded its water. It seemed to prefer that runoff from heavy downpours flow into the Pacific Ocean rather than be diverted to the more populous, and drier, south.

This time, however, the entire state is hard-hit. And the public is looking at this crisis far differently. In the late 1970s, when California’s “Governor Moonbeam” talked about “climate change,” it was regarded as another of his kooky “new age” ideas. Californians, polls now show, don’t talk like that today.

One big reason that California has been able to grow and prosper for more than 50 years is the California State Water Project, the distribution system championed by then-Governor Pat Brown, Jerry Brown’s father. More than 50 years later, Jerry Brown’s water vision is likely to define the state’s quality of life and economic dynamics for the next 50 years.

No one can say that Brown never talked about environmental problems. But he is no longer ridiculed as Governor Moonbeam. Instead, Brown may now emerge as “Governor I-told-you-so.”

6 comments

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Baseless visionary rhetoric with no execution

Posted by ag10 | Report as abusive

go Jerry!!!

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

Give me ‘non-traditional’ and ‘new age’ vs. ‘stuck in the past’ and ‘outdated’ any day.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

Censorship from ideologues, who would have figured?

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I see that censorship is alive and well on your site. I will leave you alone then. This is for you censors, obviously.

Posted by goldminor | Report as abusive

I did not expect my comment to post yesterday. The reason for that was I had made a more extensive comment the night before and you censored that. That is why my comment yesterday, which immediately posted for some strange reason.

Posted by goldminor | Report as abusive