Jerry Brown gave us lessons, not legacy. How he avoided big mistakes and stayed authentic

Take a look back at Jerry Brown’s California legacy

Jerry Brown leaves office on Jan. 7, 2019 as California's oldest and longest-serving governor.
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Jerry Brown leaves office on Jan. 7, 2019 as California's oldest and longest-serving governor.

Gov. Jerry Brown strongly denies the suggestion that his four terms as governor created a legacy. Some beg to differ.

I, for one, think we should trust him on this. When Brown takes an odd position, it’s usually because he knows more than you.

His disdain for the notion of “legacy” is most likely rooted in his deep knowledge of ancient history, Latin phrases and Zen Buddhism.

A student of the ancient world, Brown views history in terms of hundreds or thousands of years. He knows that the Latin root of legacy – legatus – means a deputy to whom one delegates power, a definition that later expanded to include “money or property that is given to you by somebody when they die.”

It’s unlikely that many will remember California’s governor a thousand years from now. No one would describe Gavin Newsom as Brown’s deputy. And the multibillion-dollar surplus Brown leaves behind will quickly evaporate in a mild recession.


So, no legacy here – at least not in the technical sense.

Zen, which Brown studied in Japan, emphasizes the temporary nature of all things. Emptiness is the only legacy. Most people find such thoughts upsetting, but Brown finds them stimulating.

Gil Duran fitted.jpeg
Gil Durán

So, there you have it: no legacy. Yet his successful governorship does provide simple lessons that other politicians would be wise to remember, lessons Brown himself learned over decades of trial and error. Among them:

Be honest. In his 2010 campaign, Brown promised voters: “I’ll tell you the truth. No more smoke and mirrors on the budget. No more puffy slogans and platitudes.” Most politicians campaign in a halcyon haze of impossible promises. Brown did the opposite. He laid out the brutal realities and suggested that fixing them would be tough but possible. He believed, correctly, that people need more than empty optimism.

“You deserve the truth, and that’s what you’ll get from me,” he said.

As a result, people trusted him. Because they trusted him, they were willing to follow his lead. Trust equals credibility, and it’s a leader’s most powerful asset. Once it’s gone, it’s nearly impossible to get back.

So, don’t sugarcoat reality or promise easy solutions to difficult problems. Don’t hide failures or missteps. Hit them head-on. Be straight with people. Own up. Who knows? They just might trust you to do your job.

Be focused. Brown wasted lots of time running for president in the 1970s. His reward: Nearly two decades in political exile after leaving Sacramento. This was hell – or at least purgatory – for a political animal like Brown. But the cost to society was much greater than the cost to his career. In order to appeal to conservatives and sound tough on crime, Brown supported the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Law in 1976.

As a result, California’s prison population exploded from 21,000 in the 1970s to 170,000 when he returned to Sacramento in 2011. His focus on criminal justice reform over the past eight years has been an attempt to undo that grave – ahem – legacy.

California governor is a crucial role. If you take your eye off the ball, you make big mistakes and miss big opportunities. Voters tire of you.

This time around, Brown fully embraced the motto the Jesuits failed to instill in him at the seminary: age quod agis. Do what you’re doing. He focused himself completely in the present, achieved some miraculous results and would be a 2020 frontrunner … if.

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the annual Sacramento Host Breakfast Thursday, May 24, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif Rich Pedroncelli AP

Be authentic. Many politicians don’t know what they think until they read their talking points. This style worked in the past, but people these days want a stronger and more genuine connection with their leaders.

“What we need is not a scripted plan cooked up by consultants or mere ambition to be governor,” said Brown in 2010. “We need someone with insider’s knowledge but an outsider’s mind.”

Not everyone can be as smart or experienced as Brown, who thinks his own thoughts and writes his own speeches. Yet every elected leader brings innate talent and lived experience to the table. Use those to connect with people on a deeper level. Listen and learn. Be open, be vulnerable. Escape the bubble of power and seek knowledge in new places. Ask questions. Think for yourself.

The problems of our time won’t be solved by empty suits or overwrought speeches. It will take real engagement from dynamic leaders to reach people on the level of their values and inspire them to act.

Not everyone liked Jerry Brown, but nobody doubted that he was the one actually governing.

Brown has a lot more wisdom and energy to share, but only he can decide what’s next for him. Come Tuesday, he’s got plenty of free time to write a book – or to finally get to work on that legacy.

Gil Duran is California Opinion Editor for the Sacramento Bee.
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