CMA Capitol Insight: July 22, 2015

July 22, 2015
Area(s) of Interest: Advocacy 

CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Anthony York, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.

An international impact

Gov. Jerry Brown is at the Vatican this week, where he will join Pope Francis and leaders around the globe for a climate change conference. The gathering weaves together threads throughout the former Jesuit seminarian governor’s life that have all shaped him in profound ways.

Before Brown was an elected official, he was a student at a Jesuit seminary at Sacred Heart Novitiate in Los Gatos. He ultimately left the seminary, was released from his vows and assumed his role as a California political scion.

He returned to the governor’s office in 2011 after a 28-year absence, the entire enterprise had something of a redemptive quality to it. The former enfant terrible was now the tribal elder, using the type of insight and expertise that he decried as a younger man to help guide the state back onto stable financial ground after decades of mismanagement and misfortune.

Shakespearean stuff, to be sure.  

During his eight years as governor from 1975-1983, Brown ran for federal office three separate times, and was on the campaign trail more than he was in the state Capitol. He was distracted, and he delegated. Mistakes were made. He would not make those mistakes again.

So, Brown focused on the budget, pushing for deep cuts to state programs and convincing voters to approve a tax hike. But during that third term, Brown also picked up the climate change mantle from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like the Austrian-born Republican, Brown used environmentalism as a way to be relevant on the national and international political stage, even if he couldn’t ever be president.

Brown went to China, making a series of speeches on the environment and meeting with high-ranking Chinese officials. He signed memoranda with leaders from other countries and other states to establish a cap-and-trade market and carbon-reduction goals. At home, he pushed legislation to increase requirements for renewable energy and championed a politically unpopular bullet train project.

It’s fitting, and perhaps telling, that Brown wanted to be a priest before he wanted to be a politician. There is a connection with his current environmental ambition and religious thinking. Both are based on things that most people cannot directly see or touch. In embracing the science of climate change, there is a measure of faith involved, as well as a connection to something transcendent, something larger than the individual himself.

This week, the man who once wanted to be a Jesuit priest will head to the Vatican to meet with the first Jesuit pope. Both men have, in their own ways, been transformative figures who have embraced the cause of climate change as a call toward salvation – a call that is as political as it is humanitarian.

Jerry Brown is at home amid that texture, that depth, that richness. This convergence of climate and Catholicism is in many ways the culmination of a political career that has spanned six different decades, and an ultimate reminder that you don’t have to be in the White House to be a relevant, or even historic, political figure.

In 2013, after an electric car expo in San Francisco, Brown said that he was empowered by the realization that he could have an international impact from his perch in Sacramento. And he did it in a very Jerry Brown way, quoting a Greek mathematician from the 3rd Century B.C. "California may be the lever," Brown mused. "Archimedes said if you give me a place to stand, I can move the Earth. We’ll see if that still works.”


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