Jerry Brown’s inaugural address was a political homily that invoked a pioneer philosopher and his own ancestors’ journey westward to argue that California’s only way forward from chronic gridlock and fiscal morass is “loyalty to the community.”
After taking the oath as the state’s 39th governor, Brown not only offered an unvarnished look at the intractable political and economic condition of California but also pledged to confront these challenges without flinching.
“Choices have to be made and difficult decisions taken,” he said. “At this stage of my life (a refrain from his campaign commercials), I have not come here to embrace delay or denial.”
Having set low expectations for his address, Brown soared over them, as he delivered a 16-minute speech that was interrupted 14 times for applause by a crowd of supporters and elected officials packed into Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium. Long known for his disdain for self-discipline and tradition, Brown displayed a serious and, at times, formal style as he shocked pundits and political hacks alike by showing up on time and actually speaking from a printed text.
Alternately sober, funny and inspiring, his elegant speech made a post-post-partisan appeal for a commitment to shared sacrifice that transcends politics. Brown recalled the courage and values with which his great-grandfather August Schuckman survived his arduous 1852 wagon train journey to the Golden State, saying that “the people of California have not lost their pioneering spirit or their capacity to meet life’s challenges.”
“It is not just my family, but every Californian is heir to some form of powerful tradition, some history of overcoming challenges much more daunting than the ones we face today,” he said. “From the native people who survived the total transformation of their way of life, to the most recent arrival, stories of courage abound. And it is not over.”
The 72-year-old Brown reportedly wrote the speech himself and was introduced by his wife and closest adviser, Anne Gust Brown. In it, he acknowledged the state faces dire circumstances, but insisted that California remains, as Cary McWilliams labeled it, “the Great Exception.”
The state’s rich and vibrant history demonstrates how the outsized energy, imagination and innovation of its people provide a legacy of hope that will outstrip the blight of recession, joblessness and chronic budget crisis, Brown said, as he summoned the beliefs of Josiah Royce, born in1855 in a mining camp that later became Grass Valley.
“We can overcome the sharp divisions that leave our politics in perpetual gridlock, but only if we reach into our heart and find that loyalty, that devotion to California above and beyond our narrow perspectives,” Brown said.
The new governor connected Royce’s “philosophy of loyalty” to the problems of today, which he insisted can only be surmounted if the politics of polarization and deadlock of recent years are set aside in favor of a commitment to the common good:
“Without the trust of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle and democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void,” he said, pivoting to the specific issues he and the Legislature now face.
“The year ahead will demand courage and sacrifice. The budget I propose will assume that each of us who are elected to do the people’s business will rise above ideology and partisan interest and find what is required for the good of California. There is no other way forward. In this crisis we simply have to learn to work together as Californians first, members of a political party second.”
His presentation was not without its humorous notes. As Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye swore him in, the crowd murmured a laugh at the notion that he was taking the oath “without mental reservation” at which point Brown smiled, looked to the audience and said “really – no mental reservation.”
He later noted that he was not only following his father’s footsteps, but “my own” as well. And when he introduced his 99-year old Aunt Connie Carlson he warned those who are “hankering after my job, it may be a while. God willing, the genes are good.”
But it was passion and seriousness of purpose that set the tone for most of his address:
“This is a time to honestly assess our financial condition and to make the tough choices. And as we do, we will put our public accounts in order, investments in the private sector will accelerate and our economy will produce new jobs just as it has done after each of the other ten recessions since World War II.”
While hopeful rhetoric filled much of his speech, he also touched on some specific issues that he highlighted during the campaign:
Budget: In confronting the immediate challenge of a $28 billion budget deficit, Brown said he would work to forge a strategy in line with the basic principles he set forth in the campaign:
“First, speak the truth. No more smoke and mirrors on the budget. No empty promises. Second, no new taxes unless the people vote for them. Third, return – as much as possible – decisions and authority to cities and counties and schools.”
Energy: Brown echoed his call during the race for new forms and expanded use of alternative forms of energy:
“As Californians we can be proud that our state leads the rest of the country in our commitment to new forms of energy and energy efficiency. I have set a goal if 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020 and I intend to meet it by the appointments I make and the actions they take.
Education: Despite his concern for the state’s budget woes, Brown promised to public schools a centerpiece of his efforts to lead a comeback for the state.
“Aside from economic advance, I want to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that our schools are places of real learning. Our budget problem is dire but after years of cutback, I am determined to enhance our public schools so that our citizens of the future have the skills, the zest and the character to keep California up among the best.”
Returning to his philosophical tone at the end of his address, Brown noted that “many of these issues have confronted California one way or another for decades, certainly since the time of Earl Warren.”
“I have thought a lot about this and it strikes me that what we face together as Californians are not so much problems but rather conditions, life’s inherent difficulties. A problem can be solved or forgotten but a condition always remains. It remains to elicit the best from each of us and show us how we depend on one another and how we have to work together.”
Brown’s speech was a big hit with politicians sitting in the front row at Memorial Auditorium – almost none of whom matter in Sacramento.
Outgoing governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pronounced the speech “fantastic.” Former Gov. Gray Davis said Brown offered the right mix of realism and inspiration. U. S. Senator Dianne Feinstein agreed with the notion of giving responsibility and authority back to local government.
And the guy who mattered most, Senate Democratic Leader Darrell Steinberg, predicted that he’d be able to push Brown’s plans for the budget and taxes through the Legislature without going to a vote right away.