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Jerry Brown Called 'Trailblazer' In New Biography

May 6, 2013 1:33 p.m.


Author Chuck McFadden, is a veteran Associated Press reporter based out of Sacramento. His biography of Governor Brown is called "Trailblazer."

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CANAVAUGH: The passage of proposition 30 last November known in the process the governor's tax initiative is seen as a major victory for Gov. Jerry Brown. A new biography that covers the victories, defeats at the centricity's of California's chief executive is out. Author Chuck McFadden is a veteran Associated Press reporter based out of Sacramento. His biography of Gov. Brown is called trailblazer. And Chuck, welcome to the program.

CHUCK McFADDEN: Thank you, Maureen

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, how big a when was this for Jerry Brown

CHUCK McFADDEN: Proposition 30, was a very big win for Jerry Brown, the conventional political wisdom is that if your initiative, if your proposal is not above 50% as the voters are preparing to go to the polls you are dead. Jerry's proposal was hovering around 50%. In the weeks leading up to the balloting. It did not look good. But, Jerry on the date before people went to the polls Jerry Brown rocketed around the state visiting five cities, boosting proposition 30 and he won, and he won pretty convincingly. So it was a big personal victory for Jerry Brown.

MAUREEN CANAVAUGH: In the last chapter of your book trailblazer, you references when in what sounds like prophecy now you say that Jerry Brown would be emboldened to take on other controversial issues and apparently Jerry Brown was to revolutionize the way that K-12 education is funded in California. Does his new focus on giving more money to underserved school districts, does that surprise you?

CHUCK McFADDEN: No, nothing that Jerry Brown does surprises me. If you look into the guy's life, he's a bundle of contradictions. There's really no telling which direction Jerry Brown is going to head.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This controversy. Also develops another thing that's the last chapter of trailblazer that even with the huge Democratic majority in Sacramento. He may have some really big legislative battles ahead. Why did you think that?

CHUCK McFADDEN: Well, Jerry Brown has had for 40 plus years a reputation as a skinflint, social liberal, but a skinflint fiscally. He now has a super majority. No one knows how long it will last, but right now he has a super majority in the California legislature and there are those among those Democrats in the legislature, among the Democratic supermajority who would like to spend more money on social programs, restoring social programs, they argue, then Jerry Brown would. So, there may be a battle among Democrats, an intraparty battle between Jerry Brown and his presumed to usual allies in the California legislature and among the Democratic Party over spending levels.

MAUREEN CANAVAUGH: So you see him as a conservative, fiscally conservative Democrat.

CHUCK McFADDEN: Yes, and he's very proud to be that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, with the title trailblazer, Chuck, are people to think that this book lionizes the accomplishments of Gov. Jerry Brown?

CHUCK McFADDEN: Oh my gosh, I hope not, Maureen.

MAUREEN CANAVAUGH: Why did you choose that word?

CHUCK McFADDEN: Jerry Brown is a trailblazer in many respects. He appointed a great many women and minorities to high state positions when he was first elected governor. People who have been around California for a well remember the appointment of Rose Berg to the state Supreme Court. He also blazed a trail in wedding collective-bargaining rights for farm laborers. He was an intellectual trailblazer as well. I know how many politicians in California or across the nation for that matter droplet freezes into their political speeches. But Jerry does, so he was a trailblazer socially when he was first governor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As to those Latin phrases, people who are not old enough to remember Jerry Brown when he was California's governor the first time around might also not know how unusual his younger life was. At one point, here comes the Latin, he was studying for the priesthood. How did he turn from that to decide to go into politics?

CHUCK McFADDEN: That's a very good question, Maureen. And a lot of people have wondered about it. Here's a guy who studied for 3 ½ years to be a Jesuit priest, abandoned that, decided to go into politics, moved down to Southern California, Los Angeles, went to work for a law firm (Puttle) and Taylor, got himself appointed to the Los Angeles County juvenile Justice commission, ran for the newly formed Los Angeles then Junior College District Board of Trustees, and started up the political ladder. This was not too long after he was busy studying to be a Jesuit priest. Those are the two parallel things that have run through Jerry Brown's life. He is concurrently deeply idealistic and a very canny, ambitious and opportunistic politician. One of the fascinating things about Jerry Brown are those two, current teams running through his life.

MAUREEN CANAVAUGH: Is that one of the reasons do you think, that sort of attention that you since at least the early Gov. Brown, that he got the Gov. Moonbeam moniker back in the 1970s people really could not pin him down?

CHUCK McFADDEN: He still is a very difficult person to pin down the moment being named legend was given to him by his longtime girlfriend Linda Ronstadt, who affectionately called him and him moonbeam. And then of course it was picked up by Mike Reiko, the legendary Chicago newspaper columnist found out and (inaudible) across the country.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It certainly does. And I remember when Gov. moonbeam with solar powered rickshaws in California.


MAUREEN CANAVAUGH: You wrote about his unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senate and president. Why do you think Gov. Brown was not able to get elected outside of California?

CHUCK McFADDEN: Well in 1976 he came fairly close he won a number of primaries and he became a fairly popular national figure. He had only been in the governor's office in California for roughly, give or take about a year when he decided to run for the presidency, which was a bit presumptuous of him, at least in the minds of some people. And he just probably did not have enough running room, did not have enough runway to vault into the presidency after one year in the governorship of California even though California was and is the biggest and most important state in the union.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now in your book trailblazer. I'm wondering, you studied his rise to power when he was younger and then the lull between his being active in politics in the 70s and 80s in the 80s and 90s, what changes do you note between young Gov. Brown and old Gov. Brown?

CHUCK McFADDEN: Pat Fagan, who is Jerry Brown's Press Secretary during his first time as governor, told me that Brown is now a little less hard-edged. A little less, a little more forgiving of other people. A little softer, maybe. Then he was when he was a brash young governor of California. A little more, dare I say it, a little more mature.

MAUREEN CANAVAUGH: Now, before Jerry Brown was elected in 2010 I know that pundits were writing that California had become ungovernable. Has that changed? And if it has is it because of Jerry Brown?

CHUCK McFADDEN: California in the minds of many pundits is being victimized by a broken system of governance. Just to give you one example the California Constitution runs 110 pages right now. It has been amended 485 times and counting. Among other things, it specified that California school teachers had to be paid at least $2400 a year. There are also those that believe that the Legislature is pretty much becoming more and more irrelevant because of what J Michael, the California medical Association redoubtable lobbyist once called, he coined the phrase lobby lock. And that is fine a major piece of legislation is introduced to address a major California problem it is almost sure to do economic harm to some major interest. And the Legislature is set up in such a way that a major special interest can pretty much kill a major bill if it hurts the major interest economically. So major California issues are not addressed in the Legislature usually so people go around the Legislature and they go the initiative route.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry to interrupt you, but has Jerry Brown made any difference in that. And I have very little time.

CHUCK McFADDEN: No he has not, he doesn't seem to be interested. That is grubby wonk-ish work reforming California governments and he does not seem to be interested.

MAUREEN CANAVAUGH: I want to let everyone know I've been speaking with Chuck McFadden. He is author of trailblazer, a biography of Jerry Brown, thank you very much, Chuck.

CHUCK McFADDEN: You're welcome my pleasure.