By Julia Flynn Siler
The Wall Street Journal
Few families are as closely intertwined with the history of California as the Browns. In a multigenerational saga that focuses on governors Pat and Jerry Brown, veteran journalist Miriam Pawel has written a vivid history of a political dynasty that has governed the Golden State for nearly a quarter century.
“The Browns of California” begins in 1852, when Prussian immigrant August Schuckman arrived seeking his fortune as a transporter of goods for gold miners. He soon settled on a ranch in the rattlesnake-infested hills near Colusa, northwest of Sacramento. His fortunes grew quickly, but for Ida, the youngest of his eight children, life in Colusa proved too limiting. In 1896 the 18-year-old set off for San Francisco, which at the time called itself “the Paris of America.” It was there that she met the Irish-Catholic immigrant Ed Brown. A year later they married. Their first child, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was born in April 1905.
Displaying an early gift for oratory, Pat went straight from San Francisco’s elite public Lowell High School to attending law school at night. After a stint working for a well-connected Republican lawyer, he helped found a group that fought government corruption. During the Great Depression, he scraped together a living mainly by collecting bills. Buoyant and well-liked, Pat became San Francisco’s district attorney in 1943 and California’s attorney general in 1951. He was a Democrat who nevertheless had warm relationships with wealthy Republican donors and state Republicans such as Gov. Earl Warren—support that proved useful when Pat ran for the governorship in 1958.
Waging a “nice guy” campaign and benefiting from well-funded union opposition to a right-to-work initiative that conservatives had placed on the ballot, Pat swept into office with 60% of the vote and remained there from 1959 to 1967. During that time, California overtook New York as the nation’s most populous state. Pat was the first Democrat to lead California in almost two decades and is best known for expanding the state’s public university system, embarking on massive projects to bring water from the state’s rain-saturated north to the parched fields of the south, and funding California’s highways.
Pat’s son, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., followed his father’s footsteps into the governor’s mansion in 1975, at the age of 36. Through two terms, he put women and minorities into staff offices and placed an emphasis on environmental policies. After leaving office in 1983, Jerry embarked on what Ms. Pawel calls his “wilderness years,” spearheading a grass-roots effort to turn Oakland into a green “ecopolis”: He founded an Oakland commune that hosted Cosmic Rave Masses, a Martin Buber study group, sustainability workshops and yoga classes in a modernist warehouse he owned near Jack London Square.
Returning to politics in 1999, Jerry became Oakland’s mayor for eight years—the first white man in two decades elected to lead this ethnically diverse city—and state attorney general for four years after that. Then, almost three decades after leaving office, Jerry ran for—and won—the governorship again, returning to office in 2011. In January 2019, when he finishes his fourth term at the age of 80, Jerry will leave as California’s oldest governor, concluding a long run in Sacramento filled with dramatic highs and lows.
It’s a political career the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ms. Pawel elucidates with sparkling prose and telling details, especially about the influence of Jerry’s spiritual life in his public service. “The prospect of a life devoted to religion and service of God struck me as far better than making a name in business or law or acquiring material goods,” Ms. Pawel quotes Jerry as saying, in describing an alternative to his father’s commercial politics.
Ms. Pawel doesn’t ignore the less-than-flattering moniker of “Governor Moonbeam” that Chicago columnist Mike Royko first gave Jerry in the late 1970s amid the young governor’s efforts to launch a California space program. Or the glamorous images of Jerry traveling in Africa with then-girlfriend Linda Ronstadt in 1979. Or his role, during his second term as governor, in implementing the state’s Proposition 13, which sharply curtailed property-tax increases and led to the erosion of public services. Or the controversial high-speed rail project some call the “bullet train to nowhere.”
Deftly contrasting Pat’s era of boom-boom public spending with Jerry’s focus on fiscal restraint, Ms. Pawel paints a powerful portrait of this complex but loving father-son relationship. Strong women play a prominent role in the Brown family. There’s Jerry’s brilliant mother, Bernice, who earned her degree from the University of California, Berkeley, at the age of 19 and helped ease partisan divides with her elegant entertaining; and Jerry’s sister Kathleen, who rose from the Los Angeles board of education to state treasurer and was once described by Pat as “the real politician in the family.”
Then there’s Anne Gust, a former corporate lawyer whom Jerry married in 2005. “Anne provided the structure,” Ms. Pawel writes, “that Jerry always sought.” It was with Ms. Gust as Jerry’s de facto chief of staff that Jerry was able to find his way back to Sacramento in 2011, more focused and with a more realistic understanding of what it takes to govern a state that, if independent, would have the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Ms. Pawel recognizes the limits of attempting to write the definitive book on a family dynasty while its scion is still in power. “I leave it to future historians,” she writes, “to pass judgment on the Brown legacy, which will become clearer with distance.” Future historians may not treat the Browns so kindly. But Ms. Pawel, with her extensive interviews, deep archival research and brilliant synthesis, has made an enormous contribution to the historical record.
Ms. Siler is a former WSJ staff writer. Her next book, “The White Devil’s Daughters: The Fight Against Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown,” will be out in May.