Jerry Brown's Tough-Love California Miracle

By Tim Dickinson - Rolling Stone
August 29, 2013 7:00 AM ET

As wind turbines spin like massive, inverted egg-beater blades against the bluest California sky, Jerry Brown steps into the sun. Since he took office in 2011, Brown's hawklike brow has been cemented in a scowl as he battled to stave off bankruptcy for the Golden State. But as he high-steps to the microphone today, the 75-year-old governor is loose and smiling. Soon he's riffing about his first stint in Sacramento in the 1970s as "Governor Moonbeam," joking of the nickname, "I earned it with a lot of hard work!"

Brown has come to a warehouse district just south of Oakland to cut the ribbon on the Zero Net Energy Center – the first large-scale commercial building in the nation to be retrofit to consume no more energy than it produces. With function following form, the building will house a green-energy training program, where apprentice electricians will earn union wages while learning to install things like solar-power inverters and electric-car charging stations.

In recent years, California industry has received intense lobbying from Republican governors like Rick Perry of Texas – who has been trying to lure companies to his state by promising low taxes, cheap labor and minimal environmental regulations. For California's governor, the Zero Net Energy Center stands as proof that such efforts are "really screwed up" and that America's economic progress need not be a race to the bottom. "We're trying to make it work for everybody – corporations, workers and the environment," Brown says. "This is the wave of the future, and we're going to push it right across this country, and right across the world."

Just two years ago, the idea that California could be a global model for anything was laughable. When Brown took office, the state was staggered by double-digit unemployment, a $26 billion deficit and an accumulated "wall of debt" topping $35 billion. California was a punch line for Republican politicos – a cautionary tale, they said, of the fate that awaits the nation should it embrace Left Coast-style economic, social and environmental liberalism. On the campaign trail in 2012, Mitt Romney joked that "America is going to become like Greece, or like Spain, or Italy, or like . . . California."

But in astonishingly short order, America's shrewdest elder statesmen blazed a best-worst way out of California's economic morass. With a stiff cocktail of budget cuts and hard-won new taxes, Brown has not only zeroed out the deficit, he's also begun paying down the debt. "Jerry Brown's leadership is a rebuttal to the failed policies of Republicans in Washington," says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. "California is proving you can have sane tax systems, raise revenues, eliminate structural deficits and have economic growth."

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