Landscape | Spring 2023 Issue

The Passing of Lions

The passage of time: Jerry Brown in retirement, Dianne Feinstein preparing to leave

By Jim Newton

CALIFORNIA’S LEADERSHIP IS CHANGING. Just a few years apart, the two dominant figures of this state’s last 50 years are moving off the main stage. Jerry Brown, California’s longest-serving governor, left office in 2019. Now, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, its longest-serving senator, has announced her plans to depart at the end of her term in 2024.

It can be a cliché to declare eras as ending, but in this case, a wealth of history is wrapped up in the lives of these leaders, who together have indeed defined an era. Not because they are identical. In fact, Brown and Feinstein are very different — one Catholic, one Jewish; one born into politics but initially determined to avoid it, the other captivated at a young age and never away from it since. But their lives and careers have intertwined professionally and personally to make California the place that it is.

Through the work of these two officials, California has acquired its modern identity — serious, broad-minded, environmentally aware, supportive of immigrants, skeptical of guns. It has moved from the fringe of the left to the center of liberal leadership and become the fifth-largest economy in the world (indeed, it may already have become the fourth), a powerhouse of innovation, growth and environmental stewardship.

The state’s future leaders are eager to step up, and they already are. As they ascend, they do so on the shoulders of greats.

Both Brown and Feinstein grew up in San Francisco. Feinstein was born in 1933, Brown in 1938. Their families knew each other. Brown’s older sister, Cynthia, went to high school with Feinstein, who attended Stanford, as did Brown’s younger sister, Kathleen. Brown’s father, Pat Brown, gave Feinstein her start in public office, appointing her to the California Women’s Parole Board in 1960.

As a boy, Jerry Brown tried to avoid politics, slightly appalled by his father’s work (Pat Brown was San Francisco’s district attorney in Jerry’s early youth). He opted for the deeper work of the priesthood. But he thought better of it and, after leaving the seminary and graduating from law school, made his first forays into political life in Los Angeles, where he ran for a seat on the newly formed community college board in 1969. He finished first out of 133 candidates.

Thus began their sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting careers. Feinstein served as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Brown was elected secretary of state; then, in 1974, governor. Feinstein came to national attention in the tragic fall of 1978, when Jonestown rocked San Francisco. Then, terrifyingly, the city’s mayor and first openly gay elected supervisor were murdered on the same day — Nov. 27, 1978 — by former supervisor Dan White. As governor at the time, Brown grappled with the state’s other momentous event that year, the passage of Proposition 13, which reordered California’s tax system.

In 1982, Brown was defeated in a halfhearted bid for the U.S. Senate, losing to San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson. Feinstein came up short in her campaign for the governorship in 1990 to the same person, who was by then Sen. Wilson, and when Wilson vacated his Senate seat to become governor, Feinstein replaced him in a special election to the Senate.

Brown has held the governorship twice, from 1975 to 1983 and again from 2011 to 2019. Feinstein has held her Senate seat continuously since 1993. Feinstein beat Brown’s former chief of staff, Gray Davis, to win her first Senate race in 1992. Feinstein and Brown have never run against each other.

Brown, famously a bachelor in his first terms as governor, married Anne Gust in 2005. Feinstein officiated at their wedding.

Some commentators, recounting the Brown-Feinstein overlap in history, have emphasized an overlap in their politics as well. That is true, up to a point: Although both are unambiguously Democrats, both defied party orthodoxy — Brown on budgets and Feinstein on judicial nominees, among other things.

But they think for themselves, and their greatest achievements are monuments to work that emphasizes unity: Feinstein, who came to office in the shadow of an assassination, gave America long relief from assault weapons. Brown, who came of age in the early years of California’s modern environmental movement, did more than any elected state official of our time to take the lead in the fight against climate change. Their achievements in those two areas should remind us that party loyalty is not the ultimate ambition of politics. Progress is.

Still, Feinstein and Brown are different. Feinstein throws back to the politics of old Washington, when officials fought it out on the floor and then socialized afterward; where disagreements were contested in a larger atmosphere of respect. Feinstein is bipartisan in the old sense — a Democrat but a deal-maker, backed by one of Washington’s most highly regarded staffs, respected by colleagues and even adversaries. She is formidable.

Brown, meanwhile, exists not so much between the parties as outside of them. He was drawn to environmental issues in part by their depth of consequence and their indifference to more ephemeral political struggles. As Brown likes to note, referring to Paul in Galatians, God is not mocked, nor is the environment. For Brown, its commands are deeper than the struggles in conventional political debates. Brown, too, is formidable, but he also is iconoclastic. If Feinstein is at the center of American politics, at least as it was, Brown is somehow above those politics altogether.

Today, Brown contributes to the culture of his state from his outpost in Colusa. Feinstein holds office in Washington, D.C., but she has begun to prepare for her return to San Francisco, where she has been holed up in recent weeks, recovering from a bout of shingles.

They are leaving the state to younger, more conventionally liberal successors. Gov. Gavin Newsom, another San Franciscan, holds Brown’s old office in the state Capitol (Newsom is featured in this issue of Blueprint). Newsom champions many of the same causes as Brown, although he approaches them more predictably than his predecessor. To take just climate change as an example: Newsom is no less committed than Brown to addressing that issue, but Newsom is unlikely to reach for Galatians to explain his views.

Those who would come after Feinstein include three prominent members of the California congressional delegation: Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee (two of whom have appeared in past issues of Blueprint, Schiff in the fall of 2020, Lee in the spring of 2021). Any of them would pull California modestly to the left, replacing the centrist Feinstein with a more progressive senator. There is no chance that the Senate seat from very blue California will be held by a Republican or anyone to Feinstein’s right.

So, what does it matter, then, if one liberal Democrat is replaced by another? Maybe it’s just the tug of nostalgia, but it’s sad to see these lions return to their dens. When Jerry Brown and Dianne Feinstein first moved into the leadership of California, this was the state of granola, cults and hot tubs; it was dangerous, sometimes fun, but not to be taken seriously.

Largely because of them, it is now.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author, teacher and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of four critically acclaimed books of biography and history, including "Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown." He teaches in Communication Studies and Public Policy at UCLA.

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