THE BLOG
01/04/2015 03:21 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

On the Eve of Another Low-Key Inaugural, Jerry Brown Heads Into a High-Key Term 4

Governor Jerry Brown enters his low-key yet historic January 5th inaugural for a fourth term as California's governor with recent progress on major fronts.

There's more progress on the state's once disastrous budget front, with revenue running a few billion ahead of forecasts. Brown's imperative in good times is to keep spending under control to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

There's progress on the high-speed rail front in advance of Tuesday's formal groundbreaking in downtown Fresno at the site of a future train station.

And there's progress in a lesser yet important crisis area, that of the Public Utilities Commission's too cozy relations with energy utilities it's charged with regulating, most notably giant Pacific Gas & Electric.


My cinema verite video of Jerry Brown's 2007 Inaugural as California Attorney General in San Francisco, including portions of his address and his inaugural party, with behind-the-scenes footage. See the last minute of the video for the very end of the party with Jerry and Anne Gust Brown.

Over the holidays, Brown named Commissioner Michael Picker to be the PUC's new president, replacing the embattled Michael Peevey, who did some yeoman work in helping implement the state's very expansive renewable energy requirements. Picker, who cut his political eyeteeth as an organizer for the Campaign for Economic Democracy, served former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as senior advisor on renewable energy implementation before playing the same role for Brown. Earlier he served as a deputy state treasurer and as chief of staff for one of California's most promising Latino politicians, Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna, whose career and life were tragically cut short by cancer.

While Brown has been the ultimate champion of high-speed rail, which he first conceived of for the state back in the 1970s, it was his former chief of staff, then Governor Gray Davis, who got the ball rolling with passage of legislation approving the program and an accompanying big bond measure.

On Tuesday, Brown travels from Sacramento down the Central Valley to Fresno for the official groundbreaking on the state's very ambitious high-speed rail project. While some construction-related activities are already underway, this will mark an important milestone for a frequently embattled project.

Brown has fought off bullet train opponents at every turn, with the administration prevailing in various court cases, including success in getting the state Supreme Court to turn away a challenge to the project's funding. He also ignored many well-meaning folks who insisted he had to dump high-speed rail in order to pass 2012's revenue initiative, Prop 30, arguably the key moment of his renewed governorship.

So far, the 800-mile project, which will take well into this century to complete, is short of its full funding. But as I've written before, that's not all that unusual for major infrastructure projects. In addition to nearly $10 billion in state bond funds authorized by voters in 2008 and several billion more, largely won by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in federal funds, Brown has come up with a new steady source of funding through a yearly portion of proceeds from California's carbon trading market. It won't be enough, but it's a good start to gaining private investment funding. And more federal funds will come once Democrats get their act together and take back Congress.

President Barack Obama had intended for high-speed rail, in which the US lags Europe and Asia to a stunning degree, to be one of his major legacies. But most of the projects have lagged, leaving the stubborn Brown in charge of the last big project in the country. Ten train manufacturers, mostly from other countries, are preparing bids for the spring. The trains will be built here.

With the emphasis this week on rail, it's fitting that Brown's main celebration at this Inaugural as in January 2011 will be a party at the California Railroad Museum in historic Old Sacramento. The site is less than a mile from the Western terminus of the Pony Express and the station from which the transcontinental railroad first ventured eastward.

Brown is funding this Inaugural's very limited festivities -- his inaugural address, doubling as the annual State of the State address, takes place in the Capitol's very limited Assembly chamber rather than the customary expansive public space -- out of left-over funds from his low-key 2011 Inaugural. Other recent gubernatorial inaugurals I've attended, those of Schwarzenegger (naturally), Davis, and Pete Wilson, have been much bigger.

Brown's 2007 Inaugural as California attorney general -- his 18-point landslide win being the key intermediate step in his return to the governorship, as few understood at the time -- was also low-key, as you can see from my video above. (The sound on the speech is a bit faulty, due to the echo in San Francisco's City Hall Rotunda. The private party sounds from the venue across the street are fine.)

But Brown's inaugurals as mayor of Oakland, centering on the expansive Oakland Museum, were bigger. He saw those of community affairs. A gubernatorial inaugural is a different kettle of fish altogether, with its emphasis on vips and would-be vips.

Brown says he's not running for president again. In any event, he has a very expansive agenda in the renewing Golden State, as I discussed last month.

And he has much to do beyond Term 4. The issues Brown is championing, in some cases for 40 years and more, dating back to his first gubernatorial inaugural in 1975 and before, are in many respects issues about the future of not only California but also the world.

Brown's parents, paterfamilias Governor Pat and the ever sharp Bernice, both lived into their 90s. Brown is only 76, and quite health and fitness-oriented.

I had lunch with Pat Brown in the year before he died. His relationship with his son, whom he didn't always understand, had been not infrequently fraught. Nevertheless, though his son was then in the political wilderness, the elder Brown had faith that he would again do very important things, continuing throughout his life.

Who are we to suggest California's grand old man was wrong? Especially on the eve of Jerry Brown's consequential Term 4.

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