California Roadmaps: Part I

Narda Zacchino chronicles California’s comeback under Gov. Jerry Brown

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For most of its history, the constant for California has been change. In many ways, the state has been a laboratory for the rest of the nation, grappling with evolving demographics, birthing new ideas and industries and testing its power as the world’s fifth-largest economy. Two of the best thinkers about the state of California are Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at USC, and Narda Zacchino, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle who is now a fellow at the USC Annenberg Center. Each has recently written a book about where California currently stands and where it’s going. Alta asked them to review and comment on each other’s work.

The United States seems to have rediscovered its fascination with California. Long viewed as a sort of off-kilter Left Coast and the harbinger of the nation to come, the state has enchanted observers with its sense of policy and personal experimentation and frightened naysayers with its often-dystopian realities of poverty and overpolicing.

The newest focus on California has come partly because of the national disaster that confronts us: the election of Donald Trump and the rise of forces seeking to drag America back to a fabled time of “greatness.” Against the collective plunge into political darkness has stood 21st century California: comfortable with diversity, protective of the environment and seemingly unafraid of a future in which change is the new normal.

If California currently offers an alternative to Trumpism — with sanctuary for immigrants, concern for the planet and a willingness to raise taxes, hike the minimum wage and direct more funds to struggling schools — the path we took to get there may offer a way forward for the nation.

In a remarkably prescient volume (its spruced-up second edition builds on a pre-Trump version), Narda Zacchino’s “California Comeback: The Genius of Jerry Brown” offers a key part of the road map to change, with a focus on Brown’s leadership as governor. The narrative arc broadly traces Brown’s evolution from his early political meanderings through his two stints (and four terms) as governor, but subplots are explored in depth: Zacchino’s account of the ups and downs of the Enron-triggered energy crisis and the damage it did to Gray Davis (and to the state) is itself worth the price of admission, while her chapter on education is a tour de force.

In addition, her occasional reportorial asides provide intriguing details to the broad strokes of other accounts. One of my favorites: When she ran into Brown at a birthday party for Larry Flynt where the governor confidently conveys that a high-stakes tax hike will be supported by voters, excitedly discusses a state Supreme Court ruling on “dark money” in electoral politics and then gleefully ignores scantily clad dancers (it’s a party for Larry Flynt, after all) to engage tablemates in a discussion of a book focusing on a 14th century nun. It’s vintage Brown — and we get to share Zacchino’s ringside seat.

Where the book leaves some gaps is in its lesser attention to the larger structural forces that have steered change in California. The story that the subtitle suggests — that the California Comeback is largely due to the genius of Jerry Brown — is belied by the evidence, including what Zacchino herself offers. This is not to say that Brown did not play a key role in the state’s comeback, but the impact of demographic change, shifts in political rules and the changing economy could use more play in her work. So, too, could the grassroots organizing that shifted California’s political terrain to the left and made it possible for a revamped Brown to seem like the pragmatist in the room. That said, what Zacchino gets exactly right is how such pragmatism played perfectly in a state whose self-confidence had been rocked by dysfunction in the legislature and a state economy gone sour.

Zacchino’s writing also displays a touch for the common Californian that progressive analysts too often lack. When she turns to explaining the passage of Proposition 13, the property tax-cutting measure that wrecked state finances, she starts with her mother, whose home was threatened by skyrocketing assessments. And when she turns to education, she offers superb analysis but also the view from her own son’s experience teaching in Oakland.

It’s exactly this sort of human focus and real-world nuance that makes this book a must-read. “California Comeback” fills in details my own writing passes over, offers a counterpoint to my own reluctance to focus on individual political figures, and still shares in my optimism about where we can move forward as a state. Readers will be well rewarded if they take the time to savor a fine account of the recent arc of change in California.

California Comeback: The Genius of Jerry Brown

  • By Narda Zacchino
  • 344 pages, Heyday, 344 pages, $18
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