California's 'Up-Wing' Governors: Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis

Governor Jerry Brown has just turned 76. An increasingly timeless figure, as focused on the future of civilization today as the nation's oldest governor as he was when he was its youngest after his first election 40 years ago, Brown is getting a tremendous amount of credit, mostly deserved, for turning around California's once crisis-plagued state government by cutting the budget, raising revenue, and encouraging economic growth.

With the state's deep chronic fiscal crisis over, thanks finally to the landslide win for his Proposition 30 revenue initiative in 2012, Brown has been focusing on an expansive agenda of major future-oriented issues he began pushing even when the state's massive budget deficit still existed. (He's also grappling with a long-term danger, that of an over-promised/under-funded system of retiree benefits for public employees, many of them working for local districts, but that's a matter for another time.)

This future-oriented agenda -- renewable energy and energy efficiency, controlling climate change, high-speed rail, new vehicles, bioscience, cutting edge research, space commercialization and exploration, water conveyance and conservation and containment, regulatory reform, reform of education, even a dollop of the political reform with which he first made his name in the 1970s -- is something Brown intends to keep California in its traditional position at the edge of history. Think of it as providing the new infrastructure for what he and other future-oriented leaders see as an ever renewing economy.

While Brown himself thought of many of these issues decades ago, during his first go-round as governor and after, it's important, even with his birthday, to bear in mind that he is hardly alone in promoting this agenda.

For it's an agenda which his two most immediate predecessors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, in large measure promoted themselves, providing a sense of future-oriented continuity amidst all the fiscal distress and hyper-partisan tumult which marked the last decade-plus here.

And had they not, the fact is that Brown couldn't hope to attain some of his big goals in his all but certain record-setting fourth term as governor following his likely smashing re-election victory this fall.

They are California's "up-wing" governors: Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Gray Davis. My "up-wing" term, incidentally, is derived from something Gary Hart showed me a long time ago. He created a different sort of chart by which to characterize political figures, adding to the standard left-right spectrum a future-past spectrum. Which naturally runs from the up end to the down end of the chart, with the futurist end of the spectrum looking to new technology, creative utilizations of existing technology, and new structural forms to pursue enduring values and new visions.

Though they are very distinct personalities, Brown, Schwarzenegger, and Davis are not so much left-wing figures or right-wing figures as they are up-wing figures, i.e., political leaders who place a special emphasis on big think/think big future-oriented policies that position California on the global cutting edge even amidst some searing crises, some of them so chronic that they seemed permanent.

Big thinking, big ideas need not be about big items per se. In fact, some of the biggest thinking is about small things, or more accurately, how to bring smaller things into play to solve problems that big things might make worse. Take the solar panel, a classic example of small-is-beautiful thinking. Then take a million of them and slap them on California's homes and buildings, as in Schwarzenegger's Million Solar Roofs initiative. The small thing became the driver of the very big concept.

Brown, who has long loved to quote the classics as he contemplated a future replete with missions to Mars, a globalized California economy and polity, and new technologies powering and informing the lives of of individual Californians, is of course a quintessential up-wing figure. After all, the slogan of his second presidential campaign was "Protect the Earth, Serve the People, Explore the Universe."

Schwarzenegger, who did not merely visit Mars in one of his greatest movie hits but freed it, also proved to be an up-wing figure with his ebullient embrace of innovation and new technologies, global issues and political reform.

Davis was the more cautious seeming figure of the three, in part reacting to the controversies surrounding Brown's first two terms as governor. During seven of those years he was Brown's gubernatorial chief of staff.

But Davis proved to be an up-wing figure as well -- though he was a bit stealthier in his embrace of space, for example, than Brown had been -- playing a crucial role in re-launching the up-wing approach as the first governor to authorize stem cell research, creating four centers of innovation on University of California campuses, launching initiatives on renewable energy and climate change.

In his first two terms as governor in the 1970s and early 1980s, Brown blazed the essential early path on renewable energy and energy efficiency, rail, water, cutting edge research, even the beginnings of what has become known as human-caused climate change.

When his former chief of staff Davis ended 16 years of Republican governorships with his landslide victory over state Attorney General Dan Lungren in November 1998, he picked up the banner on renewable energy (establishing the nation's biggest renewable energy requirement), high-speed rail (getting a big bond act through the legislature), and climate (signing the nation's first law drastically cutting tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases).

Absent that 2002 bill, signed in a spectacular San Francisco setting overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, with Robert Redford joining Davis to preside over the festivities, Schwarzenegger and the legislative authors of the overall climate change program which was to come, state Senator Fran Pavley (author of the tailpipe emissions bill) and then Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, would have had to begin from scratch. Davis and Redford both declared on the day of the bill signing that they would defend the new law from a threatened auto industry effort to kill it with a statewide referendum. The industry then backed down.

It was this bill that would bring Schwarzenegger and Brown, as California's governor and attorney general in the late 2000s, together repeatedly in legal fights against the Bush/Cheney Administration. Bush and Cheney, seeing the effect the legislation could have on national policy given California's strategic market, an effect which was realized in the Obama Administration, were out to destroy the legislation. Schwarzenegger and Brown made sure they did not.

By that point, Schwarzenegger and legislative allies had made the tailpipe emissions law -- which makes cars more fuel efficient and cleaner all around -- a cornerstone of the state's landmark climate change program, signed into law in 2006 in another spectacular San Francisco ceremony, this time on Treasure Island with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair beaming into the festivities.

Schwarzenegger also dramatically ramped up Davis's already expansive renewable energy requirement, and became one of the nation's biggest champions of high-speed rail, pushing hard till the very end of his term. He also championed bioscience through California's world-leading stem cell research program and got the legislature to pass the first major water bond program since the days of Pat Brown. That bond is now being recalibrated to remove some of the pork required to pass it at a time before the historic drought California now finds itself in.

Some imagine that Brown is at last embracing the way of his father, the legendary late Governor Pat Brown, widely credited as the builder of modern California, in developing what might be called an Edifice Complex. But that's wrong.

Jerry Brown famously differed with his father -- whom I knew pretty well, having vacationed with him and worked out of his office in LA's Century City -- earlier in his life but later developed more of an expressed appreciation for Pat's way of doing things and what Jerry called "the family business." But pop psychology doesn't capture the dynamic in question.

This Governor Brown is more into what might be described as developing the infrastructure of the future, which is about ideas as much as it is about concrete. Rather than preside over the building of dozens of nuclear power plants, as was the wont of the big utilities during his first tenure as governor during the 1970s and early 1980s, he put California on a course of energy efficiency (known in those days as energy conservation) and renewable energy.

As a result, California became for many years the most efficient user of power in the country. Republican governors kept on the efficiency path, though they strayed away from renewables, following the not especially subtle cue of President Ronald Reagan, who notoriously stripped the solar collectors from the White House after he took office.

After 16 years of Republican rule in California, Brown's former chief of staff, Gray Davis, renewed the renewable course, establishing the nation's biggest renewable energy requirement. Arnold Schwarzenegger, ramped things up even more dramatically, turning the path into a superhighway with an even bigger renewable portfolio standard. Brown is continuing that, even as he looks for ways to ensure that the controversial but, at least in California, longstanding practice of fracking to get at less accessible oil and natural gas reserves to achieve energy independence as the transition to renewables takes shape is carried out in the most scientifically advanced ways possible.

His focus on high-speed rail, which he shares with Schwarzenegger and Davis, is a focus not on expanding existing transport infrastructure, simply and rather stupidly perpetuating the old and increasingly expensive development pattern and the fossil fuel economy which underlies it, but developing a new path. A new path in America, that is. In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail is well-established.

California's high-speed rail agency was actually begun under then Republican Governor Pete Wilson in the '90s. When Democrat Davis came in, he ramped things up and got a major bond issue passed by the legislature.

That was deferred to the favorable election year of 2008 by high-speed rail champion Schwarzenegger

Schwarzenegger then aggressively pursued billions in federal funding, partnering with the Obama Administration as more conservative Republican governors listened to the Tea Party instead.

A Tea Party-dominated House Republican caucus has blocked more federal funding, at least for now, and die-hard opponents mount delaying actions in the courts. But Brown proposes to use some of the revenues from the state's new carbon market, a key element of the climate change program. In any event, this is a decades-long endeavor, the ultra-right won't run the House forever, and others are likely to see investment opportunity over time.

This is a struggle that has taken place, on and off, for decades, as the rest of the advanced industrial world moved ahead with rail. The same sorts of folks who hit Brown on high-speed rail hit him during his first governorship for being a "Moonbeam" by pushing renewable energy and satellite communications.

Actually, and quite ironically, you don't have to look much farther than the crowning infrastructural achievement of the old energy economy to see that the course of huge infrastructure projects does not run smooth.

That's the Interstate Highway System, naturally. Originally slated to be completed in twelve years, it took three times as long, at five times the projected cost.

The course of infrastructure development frequently does not run very smoothly, even with something as simple as building highways in the long ago age of cheap oil.

Brown is also pursuing education reform, focused on a new approach on school funding which is now redirecting some funds from rich school districts to poor ones, including those with students challenged by the English language, even as all school districts receive more funding as a result of the passage of Brown's Proposition 30. It also provides much more local control over spending.

All this and more is what can be pursued and achieved if one is not frozen into immobility by the presence of crisis.

Each of these governors was confronted with crises which threatened to overwhelm California state government. Each grappled with such crisis, with varying degrees of success.

But all chose not to become transfixed by the potential abyss which confronted them. They continued to think about the future even as the present seemed to obliterate it.

As a result, with those seemingly endless storms now past, California's future agenda is back on course.