• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

There is nothing quite like California politics.

This is the state, after all, that gave the nation Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But it also produced Willie Brown, Tom Hayden, Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi. And it’s no exaggeration to say that today’s antigovernment, antitax tea-party movement was actually born in California in 1978, with passage of Proposition 13.

But today California’s on the brink of performing its oddest political move of all: bringing back the man who was once the youngest governor ever elected to serve, this time as the oldest governor ever elected. Only Jerry Brown could pull off such a political miracle.

And California will be well-served when he does. Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to his opponent, Meg Whitman, who tells voters in one of her latest campaign ads: “Thirty years ago, anything was possible in this state. … That’s why I came to California, so many years ago.” Who was governor, 30 years ago? Jerry Brown!

California did, indeed, thrive under the first Jerry Brown administration. I know. I was there, as a member of the governor’s staff. From 1975 to 1979, I served as director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, with the combined duties of overseeing state and local planning operations and serving as the governor’s de facto policy director.

There was only one thing wrong with Jerry’s first tour as governor: He was way, way ahead of his time. But they were exciting times. He was the most popular politician in the country. He worked 18-hour days, driving himself harder than he drove his staff. He was cautious, yet at the same time bold enough to take on new ideas. He adopted ideas that the rest of the nation is just now catching up to.

Today’s debate over offshore drilling, for example, was resolved for California 30 years ago, when Jerry Brown initiated a ban on drilling in state coastal waters. He also signed legislation providing permanent protection for California’s magnificent coastline, enacting in law the safeguards earlier approved by voters in 1972′s Proposition 20.

Investments in alternative energy? When President Obama made it a big part of his stimulus package, he was only following Jerry Brown’s lead. The first state “green” building in the nation, Sacramento’s Gregory Bateson Building, was built under Jerry Brown and designed by State Architect Sim van der Ryn. Brown created the California Energy Commission, with special emphasis on wind, solar and geothermal energy. He pioneered development of more energy-efficient appliances, homes and cars through the nation’s first Office of Appropriate Technology.

To save energy and create more livable communities, the gospel among urban planners today is turning away from sprawl and, instead, creating vibrant, diverse, new urban centers. Look at San Francisco, Hoboken, Chicago, Portland and Baltimore. It started in California with Jerry Brown’s 1978 “Urban Strategy for California.”

Like most California politicians, Republican and Democrat, Brown snubbed legendary tax crusader Howard Jarvis by opposing his Proposition 13, which both cut and froze local property taxes – with continuing, disastrous results for local governments – and established tough, new rules for raising state taxes. But, once approved by the voters, Brown moved to implement Prop. 13 so vigorously that reporters dubbed him “Jerry Jarvis,” and Jarvis actually appeared in a campaign commercial, endorsing him for re-election.

Even the unfortunate moniker “Gov. Moonbeam,” which Brown will never shake, heralds an innovative Brown project. Columnist Mike Royko gave him the name after Brown proposed purchasing and launching a dedicated satellite to provide emergency communications for the state. Again, it was an idea way ahead of its time. California and several other states today depend on access to such satellites. Royko later regretted, and apologized for, what he admitted was a cheap shot.

In so many ways, the first Gov. Jerry Brown made history: enacting the nation’s toughest air-quality laws; appointing a record number of women, minorities and disabled to top government jobs; starting the California Conservation Corps; and establishing the country’s first agricultural labor-relations board. He then went on to outstanding service as the mayor of Oakland and California’s attorney general.

Yes, Meg Whitman’s right. Under Jerry Brown in the ’70s and ’80s, California led the nation in innovative ideas and a can-do entrepreneurial spirit. So this is one time that “Back to the Future” makes sense – with a new, older and wiser Jerry Brown, the sequel.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.