Jerry Brown’s Parable of the Rocking Boat

I first met Edmund G. ”Pat” Brown, Sr. in 1950 when he was running for attorney general and working the Topaz Room in Santa Rosa for votes. I was seven.  Brown won the election. My grandmother, a Republican, said after he left our table, “That Pat Brown. You can’t go out of doors and not run into him in an election year.” He was the father of California’s governor elect, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, Jr. The last time I saw Pat Brown was in the autumn of 1974. His son had a comfortable lead in his first race for governor, Pat had dropped by the state Assembly office where I worked, and I took him to the airport.

During the drive, he repeated one of his favorite sayings, “In this business, you have to seek either power or money. Nixon wanted both.” As was typical of the Governor, the story didn’t actually make too much sense. Neither Pat nor Nixon were poor men by that time although both had started poor. But it made excellent sense as a political story. In 1962, going for his second term as governor, Brown was struggling against Nixon, former vice president, when Dick Tuck had signs printed for a Chinese rally that said in English, “Welcome Nixon!” and in Chinese, “What about the Hughes loan?” referring to a loan Howard Hughes had made to Nixon’s brother several years earlier. Actually, Tuck told the New Yorker in 2004, the Chinese character was for “huge” rather than “Hughes,” but when Nixon found out about it, he had a tantrum and tore up some signs before the cameras.

Pat went on to a second term. The story, enshrined in Brown Family lore, was reminiscent of the recent illegal alien-maid story that reversed Meg Whitman’s momentum.

There was something pixilating retired San Francisco politicians in the summer of 1974.. A few weeks earlier, Jack Shelley, former congressman and mayor and presently, on a walker in ripe old age, lobbyist for the City and County of San Francisco, told me and a lobbyist a story that took Jack  three or four martinis and all of lunch to get through about the cement contract for Candlestick Park, a political epic involving major and minor city politicians, past and present, from the Depression to the probable election of Pat Brown’s son as the next governor.

As the lobbyist and I walked Jack – still finishing the last details of his cement story — slowly back to the Capitol that afternoon, I was completely torn. I had in memory the key tale of San Francisco politics. I knew I should have rushed back to my desk, thrown aside all work, and written it down. Equally compelling, however, was the completely opposite impulse because this was a true bit of the oral traditions of the tribe, and there was the strong sense as the lore was transmitted that “if you can’t keep it in your head without writing it down, Boyo, you don’t belong here.” To make that culture as complex as it actually was, you have to remember it all and never tell it until you are out of the game.

There are different kinds of shadows. We usually think of the shadow of the Successful Father over the son, and we certainly lived that one out in Jerry’s early years. But youth casts its shadow, too.  The son, at 36, ascended to the throne the father , 61, vacated eight years earlier, and the son hurled his battle cry, “Small is beautiful!” into the face of his father’s accomplishment, creation of the greatest hydrological development on the face of the earth, infrastructure for the population increase in quadrupled the population. In Pat’s last term, every time he mentioned the state he prefaced it with the phrase,  “the great big number one…” as surely as Homer’s sea was “wine dark.”

It is rare that history intervenes in the political consciousness of California, which typically looks resolutely into a “golden” future – visions thoughtfully provided by finance, insurance and the real estate industries. Recently, those visions have failed us with “historical” magnitude. Not long ago, California was inhabited by 30 million people, cheerfully climbing over each other to reach for the still visible Big Brass Ring. Now, rather suddenly, the former and future Governor of California, Jerry Brown, is looking at 40 million people, most of them nervous. Las Vegas may have the highest rate of foreclosure in the nation but it has only recently edged out several California cities and there is no doubt what state has the largest number of foreclosures in the nation.

Jerry is the “old man” at 72, in his third term as governor after a 28-year absence from that office.  As the 40 million nervous people hop ideologies like people used to hop churches, Jerry is not giving them any great clues about how he will govern. However, he told a meeting of county district attorneys last summer that he wouldn’t “rock the boat” (too much).

Californians are now thinking that it is enough that Meg Whitman was defeated, could not buy the governor’s office and retires from the field still a billionaire free now to hire as many illegal alien maids as she desires for the rest of her life.  In a state with nearly twice the population it had when he was first governor in 1974, Jerry Brown played the role of “not-eMeg” quipping his way through the campaign as a well-mannered, even charming old fellow with a background in politics so deep he didn’t need to be scripted. It is his life and it is a life of enormous political accomplishment. We find few indications of how he will govern in the campaign press coverage and a recent article in which an aide says that budget proposals shall be “transmitted” from the Governor’s office to the Legislature does not elicit even one crack out of the press about whether the transmission will be by email or from the astral plane.

Yet, this is a governor who in former terms in that office appointed: a chief justice of the state Supreme Court that didn’t believe in capital punishment;  a director of transportation that didn’t believe in freeways; a director of food and agriculture skeptical of the benefits of agribusiness;  resource officials that believed that the Department of Fish and Game was more than an association for the protection of game wardens and that the state’s forests and grasslands were habitat for wildlife the federal government was now protecting. This is the governor who established the most extensive campaign for alternative energy resources in the nation. He established the only agricultural labor relations board in the nation. He reestablished an old New Deal program, renamed the “California” Conservation Corps. He created an office of appropriate technology and made E.F. Schumacher and the phrase “small is beautiful” household words in California and beyond. When the Mediterranean fruit fly jumped the mountain range from the coast into the San Joaquin Valley, Brown send helicopters by night to Bay Area suburbs and sprayed backyards with organophosphates.  He was also governor during the worst drought in recent California history.

And the boy could dance. His performance around Prop. 13, which put a severe cap on property taxes and took their disbursement out of hands of local government was only matched by his tango on a peripheral canal for the San Joaquin Delta.

These are just surface recollections. The only other  memory I have of Jerry Brown is how he won the 1974 gubernatorial primary. His opponents composed a lineup of the heaviest hitters ever assembled in one race: Joe Alioto, nationally known mayor of San Francisco; George Moscone, charismatic majority leader of the state Senate; Rep. Jerry Waldie, who didn’t campaign too much because he was busy drafting and introducing the article of impeachment for President Richard Nixon; Bob Moretti, the equally charismatic speaker of the state Assembly; and William Matson Roth, the most interesting of all the candidates — a shipping executive, president of the Pacific Maritime Association, a long-time Democratic Party supporter and activist, developer of Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, trade ambassador for President Jack Kennedy, OSS officer during WWII and publisher, as an undergraduate at Yale, of Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi.

Each of these men were mature, experienced, and in the midst of successful careers. Jerry was the least qualified candidate for the position. But he had one thing they did not have: his name was Edmund G. Brown, Jr. He was running for governor eight years after Ronald Reagan had defeated his father, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown. And for the previous four years,  the public had been bombarded with official literature from the state Secretary of State (Edmund G. Brown, Jr.) . Secretary Brown felt this literature was vitally necessary education because 18-year-olds had just received the right to vote in 1971.

If he was once an apostle of unorthodoxy, he has reassured us that he is far from that now, willing to accept wisdom from wherever it may come. Last summer he told a curious story.

In a Tuesday address to the California District Attorney’s Association, Brown, for reasons that remain unclear, portrayed himself as the defender of the status quo, recalling a conversation he had during his first turn as governor with the late, long-serving state senator Randolph Collier:

When I was up there reforming and upsetting the apple cart, he said, “Young man, why do you stir all these things up?” … He said, “Don’t stir things up,” he said “Don’t try to make too many changes”…

I can’t remember his exact words, but it was “Don’t rock the boat,” and you know, there’s a lot of wisdom to that. There is. Now I’ll rock it a little bit because you got to get it on an even keel.

The Empire struck back within moments of the comment with a volcanic eblast attacking Brown for having “no plans to shake up the status quo.” The eMegs jumped him with the same play Wednesday, when he again left himself wide open to the charge that he’s a status quo insider, as he was pressed in a TV interview for specifics of how he would address the budget mess. — July 1, 2010,

The metaphor is unside down. The ship of state is capsizing as its bond rating plummets to junk status.  California is  battered by $10-15 billion annual debt, the largest foreclosure crisis in the nation and 12.5 percent unemployment heading into winter increases as seasonal employment dies, the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast turned into a death camp for endangered fish. To quote E.F. Schumacher saying he liked being called a crank because “cranks are simple, manual tools that cause revolutions,”  was easy and even fashionable among a number of influential Californians in the 1970s.  To quote Randy Collier, particularly on the subject of “rocking boats,” is of an entirely different order of political rhetoric. Its only reassurance is that Brown is still full of the well-known substance but his jokes are better.

State Senator Randolph Collier served in the Legislature from 1938 to 1976, switching parties from Republican to Democrat in 1962. By the time he button holed the young governor, he was acknowledged one of the leading curmudgeons of the Legislature. A senator told me once that when he was a freshman senator in early 1963, Collier approached him and said: “I’m the son-of-a-bitch around here and don’t you forget it.”

Collier represented several counties in the far north of the state including Del Norte, Siskiyou and Modoc on the Oregon border. He also represented the county where CounterPunch resides. These counties were in the thrall of a few timber companies, ranchers and fish canneries, there wasn’t a decent road in any of them (the north/south state highway was an adventure  but at least it was paved) and only a few fly fishermen and hunters among the state’s legislators and lobbyists had ever been to Collier’s district. In Randy’s early years as a state senator, most Californians believed civilization stopped at Santa Rosa on Highway 101, Sacramento on 99, and Reno on 395. Oregonian urbanites from Eugene, Corvallis, Salem and Portland held similar views about the southernmost counties of their state: those people don’t need roads – the loggers make their own and the rest of them travel by horseback, don’t they?

Enter the “State of Jefferson,” in one of its periodic revolts against the states of California and Oregon, a year before Randy was running for reelection for his second term. A few months before Pearl Harbor, San Francisco and Portland learned that citizens of these remote counties had revolted, had established armed checkpoints on the  highway connecting the two states, and were courteously with shotguns in hand, passing out stacks of the State of Jefferson Declaration of Independence to nervous motorists, urged to pass out the declarations wherever they stopped for gas or food “down there” or “up there.”  Stanton Delaplane, a cub reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time,  described the events to the larger world. It was classic Western journalism, half-PR, half-reporting, of a sort the Chronicle engaged in as late as Jerry’s first governorship when the paper launched its campaign to “Save Anguilla,” inspired by Leopold Kohr, the economist who taught Schumacher that small could be beautiful.

The secessionist movement in Collier’s district and Delaplane’s articles focused the attention of the state Legislature. Revolution got results! The Collier-Burns Act of 1947 was passed and Randy became known henceforth as the “Father of the California Freeway System.”

By 1970, legislative staffers were referring to Sen. Collier as a man “in the pockets of the cement industry.”  Collier’s interest was roads, which happen to be made of sand, gravel and cement.

These days, Interstate Highway 5 connects the territory of Collier’s and Burns’ old districts and much more besides — from San Diego to Seattle.

Collier proposed legislation to split the state along east-west lines in 1971, when Brown was in his first year as secretary of state, and again in 1975, in his first year as governor.

The last major battle between Jerry and Randy took place over the nomination of Adriana Gianturco, a young woman with a masters in planning from Harvard, to direct the state Department of Transportation. Collier opposed her nomination. “She is not competent in this field because she is a planner …” he said. Brown was not in favor of building more freeways. Collier, the cement lobbyists and urban planning departments dubbed Gianturco “Our Lady of the Diamond Lanes.”

The story negates its alleged meaning: that it is wise not to rock the boat. It is the story of an inter-generational conversation between two serious boat rockers. In its telling, Brown appears to be expressing as low an opinion of politicians’ promises as the public has. It’s quite funny if matched with Mega Meg’s promise “to treat you as adults.” Brown seems to believe that, in this stressful time, we would prefer a good story.

So, who’s the boat rocker here? Where’s the “wisdom”? Why was Jerry telling the district attorneys this story, purporting to be a glimpse into how he would govern if elected?

It’s nonsense, but told with respect and affection for an opponent in the Legislature that gave him a lot of trouble. But Collier was also an opponent he defeated: the state is still one; Brown was able to cut back on freeway construction; Collier retired in the second year of Jerry’s first term; yet while the media was accusing Jerry of being every kind of radical, it was Collier and his constituents in the far north of the state who were the revolutionaries.

I don’t know if a governor speaking in worthy of some of his father’s remarkable gaffs will improve the state’s financial, mortgage, unemployment and ecological crises, but it could be an improvement on the brain-deadening ideologies du jour. Brown’s life is imbedded in California history. On his campaign website there are pictures of him, his father and Earl Warren at a Colusa County duck club in 1961, a picture of black-gowned  Jerry and Frank Damrell, Jr. of Modesto, who he appointed as a federal judge, and their fathers at Sacred Heart Novitiate, Brown and Chavez after the signing of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board bill, Brown elected state Democratic Party chair, Brown’s 1992 run for president in which he raised over $10 million on contributions of no more than $100, Brown as two-term mayor of Oakland with dog, Karma, Brown with Oakland police chief and high-rise developers, Brown with students of the Oakland Military Institute College Preparatory Academy (OMI) and  Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) – both of which he played major roles in getting started. On election night, he used students from both schools as a living video tapestry behind him at a downtown Oakland movie theater he’d refurbished as mayor. In fact, he lectured us on the iconography of the kids behind him.

In Brown, whose birth and policies have always been in the purple rather than the red or blue, nervous Californians were offered a good choice and they took it. We hope he will concentrate on doing as little harm as possible. He has always intended to do good; the extent to which he realizes that intent is going to depend on political skill and much good luck. He brings a depth of institutional knowledge to California government unparalleled in these term-limited times. He won’t be facing any Randy Colliers –  first elected the year Jerry was born – in this state Legislature. His only competition for institutional knowledge will be a few old, wily lobbyists representing interests not always identical to those of the nervous 40 million.

The danger with Jerry is similar to the danger with Obama. They are both intellectuals seeking to do good. They both have tendencies to come up with “solutions” that aren’t solutions. Politicians, they both seek and inspire coalitions to ratify and effect their solutions. We respect, admire and support Jerry in general but will oppose him on specifics where he is wrong. We are not going to support a policies turning the Delta into a swampy saline “solution,” or blanketing the San Joaquin Valley with more prisons, new smog-belching cogeneration plants or endless fields of “green” corporate owned solar panels.  We have issues with bird-dicing windmills, too.  There is more to California than 40 million people and much anxiety.

In any event, things are going to change at the state Capitol. We are in a different place now from the day when a former Pat Brown travel secretary and campaign manager wrote his brief political economic critique on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election: “Austria wins!”

BILL HATCH lives in Merced, CA. He can be reached at










Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: