Gov. Jerry Brown no longer wants to run for higher office, but he wants to… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — For the first two years of his late-in-life second act as governor, Jerry Brown focused almost exclusively on California's woeful budget situation.
Now, with the immediate crisis having passed after a hard-won tax increase, Brown is back trying to change the world, like the Jerry Brown of yesteryear.
But instead of looking toward higher office, the three-times-unsuccessful candidate for president is trying to effect that change from the state Capitol.
As he works through hundreds of bills on his desk that must be signed or vetoed by Oct. 13, Brown has taken steps aimed at combating global warming, reversing growing income disparity and giving undocumented immigrants a series of new rights. The governor says California is forging a political path that could become a national model.
"Things happen in California that are not happening in Washington," Brown said after an appearance at an electric-vehicle expo in San Francisco last week. "We can do a lot of things in California to shift the [political] climate throughout the whole country."
Some are skeptical that laws passed in California — where Democrats dominate state politics — can do much to prompt action from politically divided Washington.
"It doesn't always work that way," said Sean Gibbons, a spokesman for Third Way, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "Just because a suit looks good on you doesn't mean it will look good on me. Some of the public policy that comes out of California is ahead of its time, but some of it is out of step with things that are possible or probable in Washington or in other states."
But Brown says he will continue to try.
The governor has said he plans to sign a bill allowing state driver's licenses for immigrants in the country illegally, completing the reversal of his position during the 2010 governor's race.
He said Washington's failure to agree on more comprehensive changes to immigration policy led to the change.
"Because Congress has been so slow, I think they need a good push, and that's what I think this driver's license bill does," Brown said. "It says California recognizes these human beings are very important to our communities."
Other measures to give those here without documents the ability to practice law or serve on juries also await his signature.
In April, Brown spent 10 days in China meeting with senior government officials and signing pledges to promote renewable energy technologies and help combat global climate change. Brown said last month that the state's relationship with China "can be the catalyst that shifts American policy and can be the catalyst to shift global policy."
Brown's second term ended in 1983. Since retaking office in 2011, Brown has raised concerns about growing income inequality across the country, calling it a risk for the United States' long-term political and economic stability. Months after persuading state voters to increase income taxes for those making more than $250,000 per year, Brown is now set to raise California's minimum wage to $10 per hour by 2016 — the highest in the nation.
Democratic leaders hope the changes in California could help build momentum for national change.
"This new law puts Californians ahead of the curve. Now, it's time for Congress to follow suit," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said after Brown signed the wage increase.
Brown has political advantages that leaders in Washington do not. In 2010, voters approved rules allowing state budgets to be passed by a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote, eliminating a key opportunity for Republicans to exert influence in a Legislature long dominated by Democrats.
Although Republicans' differences with President Obama caused the government to shut down Monday night, in California the GOP has been rendered powerless. In 2012, Democrats won two-thirds majorities in both legislative houses and swept every statewide office. Republican registration in the state has fallen to below 30%.
This time of year, Brown has been known to spend hours poring over bills in the AstroTurf-covered courtyard outside the governor's office, surrounded by top aides and with his Pembroke Welsh corgi, Sutter, at his feet.
Over the next two weeks, he will weigh in on more than 500 bills passed last month that are now awaiting his signature or veto. While he has already telegraphed his intentions on a number of key bills, he has been coy about other hot-button issues.
Brown has not said, for example, how he will treat more than a dozen bills on his desk aimed at regulating or limiting access to guns or ammunition, despite ongoing gridlock in Congress over firearm policy.
Brown, a gun owner himself, has also indicated that California already has the toughest gun laws in the nation and that he may not sign all the measures on his desk.
Still, the governor said he would continue to look for ways for California to be a political trend-setter, as it has been at times over the last several decades on everything from tax policy to environmental protections.
"California may be the lever," he said last month, going on to quote a Greek mathematician from the 3rd century B.C. "Archimedes said if you give me a place to stand, I can move the Earth. I don't know whether that works any more today, but we're certainly looking for it."