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Remembering When Jerry Brown Pulled California, and His Political Career, Out of a Nose Dive

On Monday, in Sacramento, as outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown hands the reins over to fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom, the mood is celebratory. With approval ratings over 50 percent, the state budget sound, and major legislative accomplishments under his belt, Brown has a legacy that historians are already calling one of the state's finest to date.

But in the last year, as reporters have asked Brown about his legacy, the longest-serving governor in state history has performed a sort of disinterest. "Nobody ever talked about a legacy 20 years ago. It's a new meme," he told California Sunday in March of 2018.

In late 2012, however, the story was different. A year into his return to governing California (he was also governor from 1975 to 1983), things had begun to fall apart for Brown. His own party had turned on him after his six-month attempt to cater to Republicans in the legislature failed. Liberals in the state decried his budget cuts as austerity measures, while conservatives balked at his attempts to raise taxes. Boxed in, without support from allies or opponents, Brown stared down some of the largest fiscal challenges in state history: California was being pulled down by a deficit of over $25 billion, it had the worst credit rating of any state in the union, and its school system was crumbling.

When Pacific Standard interviewed Brown in August of that year, the governor was making what could have been his last stand. Politically alone, Brown talked about the necessity of both slashing budgets and raising taxes, even as such efforts made him persona non grata to almost everyone in the state:

California is living beyond its means. And we always have a crisis. We had a crisis in '07, '03, we had a crisis in the '90s, the '80s—they were crises and we called them recessions. Because the states can never build up a reserve. … And once they're in the hole, then they have to use borrowing and gimmicky accounting maneuvers. What I'm saying, after a hiatus of 27 years, is that I want to get on a firmer path, and that means the revenue you take in should be enough [to cover] the revenue you spend, and go beyond that to get a reserve. In order to do that, we need cuts and pension reforms, and taxes. And if we don't get taxes, we'll need more cuts. It's not a liberal agenda. It is an agenda of common sense that I believe the vast majority of people will agree with.

When Pacific Standard asked Brown the legacy question that day, the famously bookish governor answered with a character from literature: Meursault, "Monsieur Antichrist," the nihilist protagonist of Albert Camus' The Stranger. Laughing, Brown predicted that his legacy would end the same way as Meursault's story: "You can say that for all that I have tried to accomplish, all I ask is to be greeted with howls of execration on the day of my execution."

But as Brown leaves office, howls of execration are conspicuously absent. His approval rating, after careening into the 40s in 2012, has not dipped below 47 percent since October of that year. After President Donald Trump's election in 2016, Brown's approval rating jumped up into the 60s, with California acting as D.C.'s liberal foil on the left coast.

Brown managed to pull California's budget—and his own political career—out of a nose dive in November of 2012. That year, Brown staked everything on Proposition 30, a ballot measure that would raise personal income taxes on the wealthy in order to prevent billions of dollars in cuts to school spending. The proposition passed, and, since then, California's budget has soared. In January of 2018, a Wall Street Journal headline recorded Brown's legacy as a number: "A $6.1 Billion Budget Surplus in California."

Since those hard days in late 2012, Brown has regained the support of his party: With supermajorities in the state legislature at various points in his tenure, the Democrats and Brown have passed major legislation, making California a leader in addressing climate change (the state is now committed to some of the world's most ambitious cuts in greenhouse emissions), mass incarceration, and inequality. As Brown safely lands the plane, and gives control of the cockpit to Newsom, it can be easy to forget that, not that long ago, it all seemed doomed to crash.