Commentary: Jerry Brown — political enigma

Meg Whitman spent much of the summer and a few megabucks trying to portray Jerry Brown as a failed career politician. As governor, her commercials say, he turned a $5 billion surplus into a billion-dollar deficit. During his term as mayor of Oakland, "crime soared" and the schools failed.

It's mostly baloney. The surplus vanished largely because the state chose to bail out schools and local governments after Proposition 13 passed in 1978, reducing property taxes by nearly 60 percent. Street crime and failing schools had darkened life in Oakland long before Brown ran for mayor.

And as to being a big spender, Brown has been a famous cheapskate ever since he first came to Sacramento, and not just because he chose a Plymouth rather than a fancy gubernatorial limo to ride around in, or because he moved into a rented downtown apartment instead of building a new governor's mansion. As a vocal follower of the small-is-beautiful ideas of people like E.F. Schumacher and the anti-modernism thinking of his friend and fellow Catholic intellectual Ivan Illich, he preached simplicity and frugality to his fellow Californians. This, he often said, was "an era of limits."

His administration was certain that adding yet more capacity to the state's freeways – and then still more – was an environmental offense that would never address California's transportation problems. Some people in the highway lobby called Adriana Gianturco, Brown's secretary of transportation (who first brought us diamond lanes), the "giant turkey."

Brown's new commercial talks about how education was great during his governorship. But that's baloney, too. Brown's budgets treated the University of California more shabbily than Ronald Reagan's. When academics complained that they weren't getting raises, he responded that they were getting "psychic rewards." Never, he said at one regents' meeting, "has education been more irrelevant to more kids." Rarely, he said at other times, had public institutions failed the society in so many ways. He was a good fit for the counterculture of the time. He might not be so far out of place at a tea party rally now.

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