‘Governor Moonshot’ – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Jerry Brown and California

‘We are living inside the mouth of a shark! We’re sleepwalking!” railed California’s almost-termed-out Governor Jerry Brown, to Al Gore, John Kerry, Michael Bloomberg, plus 4,500 mayors and diplomats at his Global Climate Action Summit recently.

“So we’re launching our own damn satellite!”

Brown was pushing the state’s first go-green spacecraft, pledging squeaky-clean carbon neutrality by 2045 as his last hurrah. Guests debated wildfires, red flags, droughts, floods, mudslides, hurricanes, earthquakes, and also asked if there’s time or too late?

While Brown pointedly car-pooled to his summit to save energy, as attendees flew in on carbon-spouting jets.


Washington is snorting full steam ahead for fossil fuels and jilting climate accords, regardless of actual coal costs. President Trump has derided as “disgusting” Brown’s liberal views on healthcare, free college, prison reform, zero carbon emissions, immigrants. Brown has always been pro-immigrants.

But all Brown’s critics concede he’s a wizard. Most of all they’re grateful he put the state $16 billion debt back into black, after wallowing years over $9 billion in the red.

Yes, his original high-speed bullet-train link between San Francisco and Los Angeles was a nice dream (Two hours! No airports! $50 downtown to downtown!)

But instead we’ll have a “Rainy Day” weather fund for upcoming disasters, a riverfront Californian Indian Heritage Centre in Sacramento – and a satellite.

Provocatively, Brown swore it’s not too late and California will be carbon-squeaky by 2045.

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In the same feisty, outgoing mood, he gave a six-figure job on a workers’ compensation board to old pal Juan-Pedro Gaffney. Gaffney is the founder of Coro Hispano and reviver of forgotten fandangos, danzas and boleros of Spanish California.

“No plum. Hard work!” claims Gaffney, who’s very Irish yet Hispanic by inclination (“Reading Irish history made me want social justice here!”) and was raised in formerly-Irish Castro, near Hispanic Mission Dolores. The Browns lived nearby off Fillmore.

Juan-Pedro was Brown’s schoolmate at “SI” or Saint Ignatius, a Jesuit cradle of future politicians and judges (cops and firefighters go to Archbishop Riordan High School). Asked what qualifies him, Gaffney ripostes “Intelligence!”

In keeping with Brown’s own past as a three-year-plus Jesuit seminarian, he’s moved from the governor’s mansion to the equivalent of a silent cell – a solar off-the-grid one-room retirement cabin a hundred miles from anywhere, with shoji screen, air mattress, and distant outhouse, wife Ann Gust and dog Colusa.

It’s on the Brown family farm and was loathed by his father, beloved former governor Pat Brown – rattlesnakes, wild boars, dust, winds, no pool, spectacular lack of amenities! Brown’s beloved pop was different from Jerry: a schmoozing, backslapping, baby-kissing, golf-playing family man who defeated Nixon then was defeated by Reagan (over capital punishment).

Brown’s non-Irish great-grandfather was a Prussian farmer here. He loves isolation: a natural result of 50 years in public life?

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Brown’s known for his “canoe theory” of politics: “paddle left, then right, then straight”.

Most Californians have come to admire his caution. He’s no longer known by the derogatory “Governor Moonbeam” jab.

It would all have been different if he were still in his “youngest governor” term at 35 back in the seventies, instead of 80 and oldest in his fourth.

Fifty years of campaigning, three failed presidential bids and a senate run, and public life have made him craftier.

It’s clear he would’ve loved to see that high-speed train take off (his father Pat Brown introduced highways) and also save “water security” forever (water is California politics).

Eighty years full-tilt, fifty of them in public life and running for president or senator – an undeniably exciting life. His girlfriend for years was singer Linda Ronstadt, a great fundraiser. Maybe he’s tired.

Fame was always a burden; but mingling with Hollywood starlets was part of a toxic cocktail.

When Jerry was once en route to a starlet, a friend asked him to give her all his love. He retorted, “No I won’t; because I’m aiming to give her all of my love.”

The former Jesuit novice was once a marching comrade of the Farmers Union’s Cesar Chavez, a Kyoto temple monk, Mother Theresa’s hospice volunteer, mayor of Oakland – that was toughest (and we could’ve used him as mayor of San Francisco).

Not until he was almost 70 did he marry Ann. Funny tales fill Miriam Pawel’s “The Browns of California”.

The Brown family remains legendary for its stinginess. After Jerry’s father Pat died, his always-freethinking mother Bernice requested the cheapest coffin, a plywood box. When it came, they were surprised yet undeterred to find a big Star of David on it.

Jerry may be termed out, but still idealistic. The lesson of his life is that failing and failing means trying and trying again.

I for one don’t begrudge him his isolation. But we’ll all feel a lot less safe without him among wild fires and mudslides.