SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Gov. Jerry Brown is drawing praise and glowing reviews from the national media for his deft political maneuvering in closing a $25 billion budget deficit and restoring some of California's financial luster after years of recession.
The state's credit rating is on the rebound, schools are expecting an infusion of money this fall, and the budget for the new fiscal year even includes a modest rainy day fund after years of deficits forced billions of dollars in program cuts.
Yet Brown's legacy remains uncertain as he finishes his third term in the governor's office and prepares for a likely re-election campaign for a fourth and final one.
The $6 billion a year in sales and income tax increases he persuaded voters to approve last fall will be expiring by the end of his possible fourth term in 2019, leaving the same type of budget headaches he inherited. What Brown has called California's "wall of debt" remains, including an estimated $200 billion in unfunded public pension and retiree health care liabilities.
And he is pushing two infrastructure projects that could saddle the state with additional debt for decades to come—a $68 billion high-speed rail system and a $24 billion water plan that includes freeway-sized water tunnels under the Northern California delta.
Despite the criticism over long-term spending, Brown has managed to turn the national conversation about California, which was often portrayed as a sort of "paradise lost" during the recession.
In a May profile, The Atlantic called Brown a "ruthlessly practical" governor who was "embracing his inner politician to restore the California dream." Journalist and Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, in an essay posted late last month on realclearpolitics, noted the "remarkable comeback" of both Brown—the former "Governor Moonbeam"—and his state.
The latest incarnation of Jerry Brown is a far cry from the unfocused maverick who served from 1975 to 1983, when his presidential ambitions often distracted him from the job of managing the nation's most populous state. At 75, the approach of the former Jesuit seminarian is softer and some say more congenial.
Regarded as aloof during his first two terms, Brown has made small gestures to avoid his earlier mistakes, such as inviting lawmakers from both parties to catered dinners at the historic governor's mansion.
By comparison, his predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, often had a strained relationship with rank-and-file lawmakers. Members of his own party once wore name tags when he attended a caucus meeting.
Nearly everything about the way Brown operates is different than Schwarzenegger, who was more interested in broad, sweeping policy ideas than the minutia that excites Brown. As a political novice, Schwarzenegger often sought to prove his gravitas, while Brown at times seeks to soften his, partly through the clever deployment on social media of the docile family dog, Sutter, a Welsh corgi.
Schwarzenegger installed a smoking tent in the courtyard of the governor's office so staff, visitors and invited lawmakers could kick back with a cigar. Last month, members of Brown's staff used the courtyard to practice yoga.
Brown also is married now, to a former corporate counsel for the Gap, Anne Gust Brown, who serves as his chief adviser. Gust Brown also has helped her husband understand the effect of state policies on the business community.
"I have a husband who thinks that his job is like a vacation," Gust Brown told a luncheon crowd in May. "He loves what he does, so to come home and talk about it incessantly is just nirvana for him."
Schwarzenegger's public appearances were meticulously arranged for maximum TV impact and his handlers were quick to respond to relevant news reports. Brown sometimes gives just 30 minutes of notice before holding an event, and his small press office often leaves reporters' calls unreturned.
"He's not really one to be managed. He likes to pretend he's managed, but he's not very easily managed. He does what he wants most of the time," Gust Brown said.
Brown also operates in a far easier political landscape than Schwarzenegger did, beyond being a Democrat in a Democratic-controlled state.
Thanks to a voter-approved initiative, the Legislature can now pass a budget on a simple majority vote rather than the two-thirds majority that was previously required, and lawmakers lose pay if they do not pass a balanced budget by their constitutional deadline. Democrats also have had a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature this year, allowing easier passage of bills that still require a two-thirds vote.
Even so, Brown does not avoid confrontation with his party or its core supporters.
Environmentalists are upset with him over his proposed delta water tunnels, support for oil drilling and willingness to overhaul the state's environmental quality act so it cannot be used as a hammer to stop development.
Matt Cate, who served as corrections secretary under Schwarzenegger and then Brown, said Brown is always looking for creative solutions.
"He expects you to know not only what's happening in your agency, also what's happening in the rest of the country, the world, in your policy area," said Cate, now executive director of the California Association of Counties. "You need to bring new and thought-provoking ideas to the forefront, and that's what he expects. And that's not easy when you're running an agency at the same time."
The prison system Cate once ran is among the most visible examples of Brown's political creativity, his pugnaciousness and the obstacles he sometimes creates for himself.
He is engaged in a long-running feud with the federal judges who oversee the state's prison medical and mental health operations and he is appealing their latest order to reduce the inmate population to the U.S. Supreme Court. The judges have threatened Brown with contempt.
At the same time, Brown has implemented one of the most far-reaching criminal justice changes in the state's modern history, pushing through a law that sends lower-level offenders to county jail instead of state prison.
While the move is helping the state comply with the court order to reduce the inmate count, it is raising concerns that counties may be unable to handle an influx of hardened criminals who are supposed to serve lengthy sentences. Republicans have seized on any problem associated with Brown's so-called prison realignment policy and threatening to use it against him in next year's re-election campaign.
Brown remains unbowed and has vowed to push ahead with the reforms and public works projects he says are necessary to position the state for the future.
Among his successes this year is major change to the state's K-12 funding formula that will send more money to school districts with high levels of disadvantaged children, a policy he pushed through over the initial objections of Democrats who represent suburban and wealthy communities.
"I think it's fair and I think it's just," Brown said in announcing it. "I think it has great moral force."