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(Inside California Politics) — In early March, Inside California Politics visited former California Governor Jerry Brown at his ranch in Colusa County for a wide-ranging interview on his life after politics, current issues facing California and the nation, and what he thinks American politicians should be doing during the time they wield the power to make changes.

The complete interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Nikki Laurenzo: 
Governor, what’s life like out on the ranch? 

Former Gov. Jerry Brown: 
The obvious: it’s good. It’s a good life. It’s beautiful out here. There’s animals. There’s hawks. There’s eagles flying around. There’s wild boars, jackrabbits, squirrels, coyotes, and, of course, all the cows. And then there are over 300 different identified wildflowers right on this ranch and they will start coming out now— a few have come out already. So it’s a symphony of creation, which I’m right in the middle of. So I thoroughly enjoy it. 

Laurenzo: 
You have wildlife here. I imagine that you could probably describe being in the political arena as dealing with wildlife, just wildlife of a different kind.

Brown: 
Well, yeah, this is different and I must say that when I let my dogs out they go chase and often catch squirrels and they proceed to twist their neck so they’re sweet, but predators and yeah, the politics is a shark-infested environment as well. 

Laurenzo: 
So how engaged are you staying? I mean, are you watching cable news, scrolling through Twitter and reading all the newspapers? 

Brown: 
Well, I do have Twitter, which I haven’t watched for a few weeks, but I have that. We don’t have television, we’re off the grid and so there’s no wires out here. PG&E doesn’t come this far, but of course, I have apps on my phone, like the New York Times and The Washington Post, and we’re connected through the mail and we’re about an hour from Sacramento. But there is one neighbor around the corner and that is it for five miles. The difference here is that I know my neighbors. 

People who drive by they’re 7 miles away, but they’ll stop, they’ll wave, we’ll say hello or we see them. So I think there are fewer, but they’re more neighborly. When things break, you often have to look to your neighbor to help you.

Laurenzo:
So when your neighbors need help, it doesn’t matter if they’re a Democrat or a Republican.

Brown: 
It’s a conservative area, but people are very friendly, very neighborly and very helpful. 

Laurenzo: 
So who do you think politically has the toughest job in California right now? 

Brown: 
First of all, politicians don’t really have tough jobs. You know, they got a nice job, they got a pension. The salary comes in whether you do anything or not. You get a lot of attention. It’s exciting to some extent. Now there’s a lot of aggravation, so that’s a problem, I would say, well, in the city, the mayors with the crime and the tents, all that that is not really getting better, I don’t think at all. Maybe in some places, it is. So I think that would be tough. 

Of course, the governor’s job gets to be a problem. Now it can be very easy for a few years and then things can go south for you.

Laurenzo: 
You could have a pandemic and then a budget deficit. 

Brown: 
But yeah, you can have all of that. And we had Proposition 13, which cut the budget by 2/3, so that was real. 

Laurenzo: 
You were the mayor of Oakland and you understand the importance of having a strong mayor. A lot of the cities in California don’t have a strong mayor. Do you think if they had that, that we would be able to tackle an issue like homelessness, so that no matter where you are if you’re an independent, a Republican or a Democrat, you know it’s a problem? 

Brown: 
Well, I think a strong mayor is a good idea. Now, a lot of mayors aren’t strong even when they are supposed to be legally strong. Here’s the problem. Sacramento has tried it, it defeated it. The people, particularly a lot of interest groups and activists in neighborhoods, they like the council having the power. They don’t want a mayor who’s a little bit removed to have a lot of authority. But in a complex city you need that authority residing in one person, I believe. And then you have the counterpoint of the city council. But I don’t know that the people are gonna go for it. 

I got it in— it failed three times in Oakland and I got it because people were all fed up. And when I came in, it was after the recession, and crime, and downtown was empty. So I kind of came in as a real hope. And I got to the strong mayor by putting a popular initiative on the ballot, not through the city council, and I got it with 75%. But the advocacy groups have learned to fight that because they don’t want a strong mayor. They’re like a weak mayor and so that’s the problem. But without someone in executive authority to appoint the police chief, to make some decisive move, you’re not going to be able to solve a lot of these problems. 

Laurenzo: 
So since you left office the players have changed in terms of some of the politicians, but a lot of the same issues are there. 

Brown: 
Since I left office things have gotten tougher. The Republicans and Democrats get along less, more polarization and more people identify more strongly with their thing or their belief. Whether it’s Democrat, Republican, conservative or liberal, they all hold on. But the truth of the matter is life is complex enough that there isn’t one ideology or belief system that’s going to cover the complexity of our reality, and nevertheless, people pretend that they got an answer, which nine times out of 10 they don’t. 

Laurenzo: 
So is this freight train continuing to go and not stop in terms of the way politics is moving or do you think everything is cyclical and we’ll sort of have this course correction?

Brown: 
Well, I think it’s cyclical, but I would tend to think things may get a little worse. Things have evolved you know. You got a lot of drug dealing on the streets, even drug sales, and there doesn’t seem to be any remedy. So that’s the problem. I look at all these problems of people who can’t take care of themselves and engage in all sorts of problems in the streets. 

There are really three elements here: you need tougher laws giving authority for conservatorships. Or even for people who are severely mentally ill, you can’t let them sit in the tent and take fentanyl every day. And the second thing is you need someplace to put them. You need shelter and boy, that’s expensive. And thirdly, you need skilled people, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists. And we don’t have enough of those. So we don’t have the people, we don’t have the places and we don’t have the laws. I would say that means trouble ahead.

Laurenzo: 
So where do you start then? If you were making the decision, what would be step one? 

Brown: 
Well, I think they have to find a way to get enough shelter and then you need a law that says you can’t pitch your tent on the street. You gotta go somewhere. And then if you go somewhere, if you have any ability, you should have to pay for it in some form of work or some contribution back to your society. 

Laurenzo: 
What about the activist groups who will fight that and say you’re taking away someone’s rights? They should be able to be on the street. 

Brown: 
Well, yeah, very strong on rights. But people who sit in a tent and you know, shoot up various narcotics that destroy their body, they don’t seem to exhibit free will. They don’t seem to have that quality so they need to be helped and I think some kind of more authoritative mandatory setting is what they need. 

Now, we don’t have the laws for that, but we don’t even have the places to put them and we don’t have the personnel, the people, the nurses, the psychiatrists, whatever. So it’s not an easy problem and there are a lot of people who are not mentally disturbed or addicted. Now those people need income assistance, so they need help and you know, I don’t know why it seems pretty overwhelming. 

Laurenzo: 
That’s what I was gonna say, it kind of feels like our elected leaders at the city level, the county level, the legislature and the governor— no one really seems to know how to wrap their arms around this. They seem a little catatonic. What do we do? 

Brown: 
Catatonic is a strong word. That means they’re asleep. But yeah, it’s so big. I think people think they’re overwhelmed by it. And I think that the tragic part of this is leaving people on the streets is a cheaper solution than hiring high-paid professionals, building facilities that really are decent and humane, and changing the laws so that you really have the authority to get people into the kind of treatment they need. All three of those are big barriers. 

Laurenzo: 
Newsom’s trying. 

Brown: 
He is trying. The ‘care court’ is an excellent first step and the barrier there will be the facilities and the trained personnel. They often say the beds aren’t there. When they say a bed’s not there they mean a place, like a hospital, some kind of single room occupancy, some kind of a place where people can go. And then you just can’t leave them there. Maybe some of them you can, but a big number need supervision, they need professional care, they’re out of their minds and you gotta bring them back somehow. 

Laurenzo: 
And everything, all those tiers you mentioned, of course, costs money. 

Brown: 
They cost money. 

Laurenzo:
We’re in a time of deficit. I recall one of your budget presentations where you said you gotta save money or you lose the farm. 

And when we were seeing these surpluses a couple of years ago here in California, you put out a warning sign saying this isn’t sustainable. And look, here we are we’re looking at a $22.5 billion dollar— maybe exceeding that— deficit. When you came into office the second time around it was $27 billion. That’s a big chunk of cash. 

Brown: 
Yeah, the reason I could predict that is because I look back at all the other governors and with a couple of exceptions, any governor that hangs around for eight years runs into a recession, sometimes very serious, as it was with Schwarzenegger and Davis, and sometimes not so serious. So how bad this will be, I don’t know. But the Federal Reserve is jacking up interest rates, which is going to slow down business, which will raise the unemployment rate, which will reduce the revenue to the state and therefore you’ll get a bigger deficit. That’s probably a good bet. 

Laurenzo: 
So what advice do you have for legislative leaders? Because everybody wants what they want. Everyone says “we need to make cuts but not cuts to what I want.” 

Brown: 
Well, the reason why cuts are hard is the government is doing a lot of good stuff. When it comes time to cut, you’re cutting good stuff, not bad stuff. But it’s not an easy job. I just had lunch with the Senate Pro Tem and I listened. I didn’t offer too many solutions. 

Laurenzo: 
You didn’t? That’s unlike you, right? 

Brown: 
Well, I realize what a difficult job it is. 

Governor Newsom with his care court, that’s bold, but it’s just beginning. It’s a baby step and to get people to join in, a lot of people are pushing back for various reasons, either the money or the authority of government, which they don’t like, or some other reason. Or maybe the whole licensing structure that makes it harder to get the personnel to be available. 

Laurenzo: 
Housing is also still an issue. You had an ambitious plan when you were mayor of Oakland, the 10K plan. And now there’s a couple of lawmakers in the state capital who are trying to do that more of on a statewide level to just get more affordable housing, set certain goals and use laws in the legislature to circumvent [the California Environmental Quality Act]. We all know CEQA is tough and you’re dealing with the builders and unions and environmentalists and trying to negotiate is tough on that. What did you run into as mayor of Oakland and to those elected leaders who are trying to get this off the ground, what advice would you give them? 

Brown: 
Well, let me just tell you when I was mayor, I proposed a bill that— I drew a circle from Lake Merritt in Oakland to the freeway and up certain blocks. It is like 40 blocks downtown. I said “let’s be exempt from CEQA for three years.” No way. Couldn’t get one vote, even the person who was handling the bill dropped it. They were too afraid of something. 

But something like that. Why don’t they carve a circle in urban areas? Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, LA and then say we’re going to not have the CEQA there. We’ll have the city council, we’ll have certain standards and you decide. And then after five years, that bill will be sunset or some have a shorter period, have a smaller geographical area and then try to see what you can do and see. You know, I think that would be good because you could test it out.

Laurenzo:
Some negotiating instead of just— there has been a discussion of “CEQA needs to be ratified,” “CEQA needs to be changed.”

Brown: 
Well yeah, the problem is— CEQA is complex and if you got a lawsuit saying you violated one of its many, many provisions, then that holds up your project and some of my friends in the building trades, they like that because that’s a hammer. 

In fact, one time I was walking out of a building trades meeting and I heard one person say, you know, that CEQA is the best labor bill in the history of California. And what they mean by that is it’s a hammer. And with that hammer, we can get project labor agreements and other labor-friendly rules put in because the employer has no chance. 

He can’t move forward without getting the CEQA satisfied. Or you can get the suit dropped if you do what they want. So if you add that very powerful interest and then put an environmental overlay on it, that’s very hard to overcome that. But they’ve done it in some ways. 

Laurenzo: 
And I don’t believe that was the intention of CEQA when it was established under Reagan. 

Brown: 
Well, Ronald Reagan signed the bill. It was a modest bill, and then the California Supreme Court expanded it. It actually only applied to public projects, not privately-owned projects. And the Supreme Court applied it so it made a big increase.

Now it has a lot of value because you’re finding things out. But what I never got as mayor…we got the city council, we got the planning commission, we got the planning department. We have, as they call it, aesthetic review, where the neighbors got to come and look at your project. That’s all before you get to CEQA. So the city council’s had a lot of power there and I think, you know, I think they could — some of that authority should be returned to the cities. They don’t have it now. Now you have to go to a judge and the judge decides. 

Laurenzo: 
I want to move to sort of a national level right now as we’re getting into the presidential cycle. You were, when we talked before, a big fan of Joe Biden and thought he was the right president for the right time, even though progressive members of the party were like, “he’s not progressive enough.” Should he run for reelection even though he hasn’t announced yet?

Brown: 
Yeah, I’m not gonna offer “Brown says run or don’t run.” I’m gonna leave that to the gods. 

Laurenzo: 
If it’s Donald Trump on the other end… 

Brown: 
Oh well, Trump is unthinkable as a president. I don’t think he’s going to get it. He’s going to get knocked off in his own Republican primary. 

Laurenzo: 
As it looks right now, there’s not any sort of democratic challenger that’s stepping up.

***Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Marianne Williamson formally announced her candidacy. 

Brown: 
I think it’s a very uncertain two years, very uncertain. Republicans could win that. I think Biden’s on a track to run for reelection and it’s challenging. 

The thing that concerns me most of all— well a lot of things concern me— but the international field. This war in Ukraine, the danger of escalation to a full-scale war, even involving nuclear weapons. It’s a small chance, but it’s a real chance and right now we don’t know how dangerous it is. 

That’s why the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, of which I’m the executive chair, we moved the Doomsday Clock 10 seconds closer to doomsday. It’s a minute and 1/2 away, and it’s a metaphor, but it’s scientists telling people this is real dangerous. 

Now at the same time we’ve got this problem in Ukraine, we’re talking about defending Taiwan against China. So that could be another war in China. If somehow we encourage Taiwan to become independent or even close to that, then China may invade and we’re committed to go fight them. 

Now at the same time, Iran is getting closer to building a nuclear weapon and we said we’re going to go stop that. So that could be another war. 

And then if we have North Korea, if they keep going, we may have to go to war with them. So you have four potential wars all over the world, and I don’t hear many politicians talking about it. That’s the number one challenge as I see it. 

Laurenzo: 
Is that what keeps you up at night?

Brown: 
Well, it can keep me up here. Yeah, well, I have a lot of time to think about it. I do think that foreign policy is way far from the public mind. It’s not in the debate in the Democratic Party or— in some ways, it’s in the Republicans because they’re fanning the flames for more antagonism. I don’t think people realize how close we could be to war and what that would mean in the total disruption of our way of life. 

And I just wish these people in Washington would think harder about finding some modus vivendi with these other countries because we got to live on the planet Earth and we got all these nuclear weapons, and there is a real danger they’re gonna get used one of these days. 

Laurenzo: 
Well, I want to specifically ask you about China too, because it seems every day that goes by our relationship with them is getting more strained with the balloon and with arming Russia— 

Brown: 
Well, that’s the perfect example. A war with China would be unthinkable. I mean, it could go nuclear very quickly and we get excited about a damn balloon. The balloon is not a problem. They have spies. We have spies. They got satellites, they have people hacking into our phones. Our National Security Administration was hacking the phone of Angela Merkel from Germany. So they’re all doing it. The balloon, I mean, shut up. What we gotta do is we gotta find a way to work things out with China, or we’re gonna have a war and if we have a war, America will never be what it is today. 

Laurenzo: 
And you have said a way to keep the dialogue with China in the past, and you did this while you were governor too, was the climate. Have conversations about climate.

Brown: 
Work on climate, work on the virus. There’s some of these Republicans want to say, did the virus come from an animal or did it come from the lab? You know, it doesn’t make any difference. That virus is only the beginning, according to the epidemiologists that I read, of more viruses to come. 

And what we need to do is to have the vaccines and the technologies to protect ourselves. To do that, we need Chinese scientists and we need American scientists, and we need all the resources of the world to work on this next threat. It’s just around the corner. 

Instead, we’re worried about balloons. We worry about, you know, this thing or that thing. Yeah, I know, “we’re right they’re wrong,” But that’s not going to help. And when the nuclear bombs start coming, you would say, “gee, couldn’t we have made some arrangement? Couldn’t we compromise somehow?” 

I think we gotta come back and focus on America. We talked about homelessness. We talked about— we haven’t talked about it, for 20 to 30% of the people or more are living paycheck to paycheck. We have a changing climate. We have a real water shortage. I’m the chairman of a charter school. Public education in California has tremendous challenges. We’re underinvesting. So all that being said, let’s take care of business at home. Let’s not be stupid. But let’s be thoughtful about working with people who have a very different view than we do. 

And when the stakes are nuclear war, and that means hundreds of millions potentially dying, I think you’ve got to go a long way before you get close to that catastrophe, if you’re smart. 

Now, if you just think you’re king of the world, and hey, “whatever I wanna do, I get to do,” that’s blindness. That’s how we got into World War I. I think in many ways our hubris got us into Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that we were there for 20 years. 900,000 people died because of it. We spent $8 trillion or we will by the time we pay for all the benefits to the veterans. It’s not a good thing. 

So my view is, yeah, we got some problems here in California, but the big, international problems are not being addressed in a way that is maximizing our chance of avoiding disaster. I think we’re flirting with danger, and I’m afraid there are a lot of people asleep at the switch. 

Laurenzo: 
I have to get this question in because there’s this national conversation and it ties into what you’re saying of….politics where we don’t want to talk to each other, we want to talk at each other. 

…I want to ask you your thoughts on term limits. We were sort of the first in the nation to enact term limits in 1990— Peter Schabarum, the LA County supervisor, you know, it was sort of targeted at Willie Brown. He was too powerful, and corruption, and there have been some studies by the Public Policy Institute of California that It didn’t turn out the way he wanted to. 

And now at the national level, you have Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz saying we need term limits in Washington because we need new ideas and we need new people in.

Brown: 
Yeah, you know, he’s not serious. 

Laurenzo: 
Most of them aren’t because they don’t want to lose their job, but it’s— 

Brown: 
Well, to get term limits you need a constitutional amendment. He knows that he’s not going to get 2/3 of the Senate and the House and 3/4 of the states, so he can just— with complete impunity— put himself on the soapbox. 

Now I advocated for term limits when I ran for President. But when I look back, yes, Willie Brown was quite strong and did things. He said, “boy we need to rein him in.” Maybe, but the fact is, on balance he was a lot better— He was one of the best we’ve ever had. He knew what he was doing. He had skill and he had longevity. So that, I think it’s good now.

Of course, when I’m sitting here after being governor for 16 years, I can’t very well, like cutting off that career. So I guess I thought if we’re gonna have term limits, we should once, maybe every 25 years say “OK everybody runs, all bets are off. You can’t run this for two years or four years, start over again.” But the tight term limits of eight years or 10 years, that doesn’t make sense. I think there is in some ways, I have to say you have a choice. If you want people to be in all the time they think they own the place and you get arrogance. If you want to keep changing, you know just musical chairs, then you get ignorance. So do you want ignorance or do you want arrogance? 

Laurenzo: 
You got to pick your poison, right? 

Brown: 
You know, but I do think that’s—I’m being facetious. There is a lot of wisdom and skill and yes, people don’t like it because politics — you’re making compromises. That’s our problem with the international field. We’re trying to be so pure, which is also pretty bogus that we can’t make compromises. 

The Republicans or the Democrats, none of it they may believe is 100% right. They can make a deal and they should for the country but it’s very narrow. People are very identified, you know, “I’m a Republican. I’m a Democrat. I’m a progressive.” Well, a lot of that stuff is way overblown. You got problems. They’re complex. There are many different ways to skin a cat, not just Republican or Democrat. So I think we need to open up the system, but we’re not. We’re closing it down with more and more rigidity. 

Laurenzo: 
Out of all the positions you’ve held, you talked about being governor, mayor, running for president twice, Secretary of State, Attorney General— was there one that you liked the best?

Brown: 
Well, I think when I went back as mayor, I really enjoyed that cause I was in Oakland. I lived there, I could cover the whole city in 15 minutes. And it’s a real place. You saw condominiums being built, you saw restaurants being opened, you saw the police, you know, suppressing crime. I like that. Like schools, I started a couple of charter schools. Very concrete. So that was good. 

I have to say I like running for president. Then I could kind of expound on my thoughts about the world, and I did learn a great deal when running for president. You have to read and talk to people and interview generals and statesmen and the policy people so you learn a lot of things. So I do find that interesting but I did think being mayor was good. 

Now coming back to be governor, it was really good because they come back to the same office where I first went with my father, who was governor in 1959. I went to the capital there and coming back after I’ve been there for eight years and that was also invigorating and what I liked was there was one big problem called the $27 billion deficit. So everybody got focused and we got it solved in three or four years. Now it wasn’t all the skill of the legislature or my office because California was growing so we grew out of it. And a lot of what happens in government, these are big forces, macro forces, global forces and we ride them. But I would say coming back as governor and also restoring the governor’s mansion.

I really— I know most people would never go into the governor’s mansion, but I was there as a young man. I studied for the Bar there and it’s a beautiful building and meeting with legislators there— I think it’s historic. It’s serious. There’s a certain gravity. So I like that. 

But I also like restoring the Mountain House because when I was a little boy, my grandmother, Ida Schuckman was her name, she would read me Bible stories and she would also tell me about the Mountain House and how wonderful it was. And people would come by this road right out here, which is Leesville Rd. They would come by this road and stagecoaches and they would stay at the hotel that was right 100 yards from where we’re sitting, and she said it’s very special. 

So that kind of echoed in my mind, I said OK, that’s right. That’s where I want to be. So I’ve restored this. We’ve got solar collectors, we’re off the grid. You know, we’ve restored the barns. We have a well, we got water, there are tanks up on the hill. The water comes down by gravity. So that’s good too. So not one thing, not one job. But a life that I found very fascinating. 

Laurenzo: 
My final question to you is, as a governor that ran for president, what advice would you give to a governor who has presidential aspirations? 

Brown: 
Well, I have to say running against an incumbent is something you should think long and hard about because I ran against Jimmy Carter and that did not help. I probably would have been elected to the Senate had I not challenged the President and been away from my job.

People said, “Hey, we just elected you and here you’re running off to another job.” So I think you got to be really careful about challenging the incumbent but if you’re governor of California you want to be president. They all do, the question is how do you get there?

And we’re 3000 miles away, you can’t slip out of the office like if you lived in Connecticut or New Hampshire.

It’s too far to be in Washington and come home in an hour, it’s challenging. California is such a big complicated place, I think it breeds presidential fever and I think they all have it.