The Issue Is: Discussing coronavirus with California's longest serving governor Jerry Brown

This week, grim economic news out of California.

First, a revised budget proposal that would see cuts to the likes of public education as the state works to fill the $54B deficit caused by coronavirus-shutdowns. To fill that hole, the state is also looking for aid from the federal government.

This, as Governor Gavin Newsom predicted the state’s shutdown-induced unemployment could peak as high as 25%, some 1 in 4 Californians out of work.

As the state looks to reopen, navigating the virus, economic strife, and new guidelines for dining, retail, and others businesses, Elex Michaelson is joined on The Issue Is by an expert on California, the state’s former four-term Governor, Jerry Brown.

The conversation kicks off with a discussion about coronavirus, and what steps need to be taken to adequately reopen.

“The problem is we don’t have enough testing,” Brown said. “With more testing, we need more tracing, and then with the tracing, we have to identify and isolate all the people who have, potentially, this virus, and keep them quarantined for two weeks. That’s what Taiwan did, very early, and they really nipped it in the bud.”

Brown said that Governor Newsom has done what he can, testing roughly 30K Californians a day, but that that number needs to be elevated to at least a few hundred thousand a day, especially if students plan to go back to school.

The main way to bring that testing number up though, Brown said, is for the President to invoke the War Powers Act, mobilizing industries to produce quick and reliable tests, free of competition or rivalry. Brown cited FDR’s invocation of the Act after Pearl Harbor, utilizing the country’s workforce to build ships, planes, and tanks.

As China has announced plans to test 11 million residents of Wuhan, Brown wonders why America can’t ramp up testing, saying that it’s because President Trump has “abdicated” his duty as Commander-in-Chief, instead throwing the responsibility to state Governors.

“There is only one man who has the key,” Brown said. “The key is currently Donald Trump, and so far he’s not opening the lock.”

Brown, who serves along former CA Governors Schwarzenegger and Davis on Governor Newsom’s Economic Recovery Council, stressed that without being able to detect the virus through testing, it will make it hard to fully reopen without causing more fear and suffering.

“You’ve got to do the basics: test, trace, quarantine,” Brown said.  “You’ve got to be relentless about that, you cannot pussy-foot around, or you’re going to have this virus hanging on, destroying the economy, killing more people, and making more people suffer the horror.”

Brown further offered advice to the nation’s Governors, saying they need to approach President Trump, either at the White House or virtually, demanding not only increased tests, but also money, as a major financial investment is needed to bring America back.

“We need, right now, from our President, and the Congress, a fiscal investment, trillions of dollars,” Brown said. 

The money would partially go directly to struggling Americans, the other portion would be invested in jobs and infrastructure, filling the giant economic hole left by the fact that consumers aren’t spending money, and in many cases, now aren’t even able to.

Michaelson followed up, asking Brown what he makes of Governor Newsom’s comments regarding President Trump, saying that everything he has requested for California has been provided by Trump and the federal government.

“Yes, [Trump] gave some money, and he’s given hundreds of billions to California, hallelujah, that’s good, but that doesn’t get the job done,” Brown said, adding that the President needs to take more direct action, not decentralizing the response through states and localities, but by ramping up tests and putting out money at the federal level.

Sticking to the subject of Newsom, Brown told Michaelson he thinks his successor has risen to the challenge of the crisis, and has done a "good" job, even if he wonders whether America is doing good under the circumstances.

"He's got a lot going for him," Brown said of his former Lt. Governor. "He's bright, he's got experience, he was mayor of a big, complicated city, he's got a lot of good people around him, and he's got all this advice in the world. The big challenge is the cards he's been dealt are very difficult cards to play, even if you're Superman."

The next big challenge for Newsom will be balancing the budget, a budget which just last year had a $6B surplus and now, as already mentioned, sees a potential $54B deficit. So, in Brown’s opinion, what should be done to bring a back a balanced budget?

“First of all, you use that nice rainy day fund we built up,” said the former Governor. “Secondly, you don’t cut high-speed rail, you don’t cut investments in roads, in bridges, in hospitals, in schools, you keep the investment going, that’s why the Depression went on so darn long, they didn’t put enough money out to solve the problem… you’ve got to borrow, and you’ve got to invest, and that’s going to take the federal government helping us.”

From talk of coronavirus and state finances, the conversation shifted to Brown’s life. That, as the new biography “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown” by Jim Newton of the LA Times, hit stores this week.

But first, why a biography, and not an autobiography?

Brown said that while he’s done some writing over the years, political figures are not as heroic or gripping as one might hope.

“When you talk about General Patton, or you talk about someone who saves children from a burning building, there’s a drama there, there’s heroics,” Brown said. “But when you talk about politicians, what do they do? They want to get their mug on television, they go around talking to wealthy people trying to get money from them, they hang out with industry lobbyists that can finance their campaigns, they put out a lot of press releases, they do the obvious, because they have to keep half the people happy. So when you try to sit through a book and say ‘okay, let’s be deep here, what is the meaning of it all? What is authentic? What is going to touch someone’s soul?’ There’s not as much there as you might think.”

That’s not to say there aren’t interesting stories and lessons in Newton’s new book about Brown, especially given Brown’s personal life, as the son of former CA Governor Pat Brown, as a would-be priest who went through Jesuit training, and with his wife, Anne Gust, who he married in 2005.

From his father, Brown said he learned about being a builder, about thinking big, and about dealing with recessions, an economic fate that both Browns had to deal with on multiple occasions. 

“Dodge recessions, if you can,” Brown boiled the lesson down to. “Dodge deficits.”

When it came to his Jesuit training, Brown spoke of tearing through the noise and focusing on the fundamental things, those things that are actually important.

“My background has inclined me to go to the most fundamental, most profound issues, that’s why climate change has captured my imagination, because it’s so profound, it’s so irreversible, and it affects so many human beings and so much of nature,” Brown said, adding that of similar importance to him is the potential of a nuclear blunder, saying “there’s no room for accident.”

The exclusive one-on-one with Brown wrapped up with talk of legacy and the future.  

First, what does Brown think his legacy is, and what does he want people to think of when they think of him?

“I’m not going to try to guide [people] in that,” Brown said. “Overall, my most important work, and what I think I did more of, and more successfully, was work on climate change, the fact that we had 30% renewable electricity, the fact that we had half the electric cars in the country, the fact that we had the first building efficiency standards… this is an area that is global and it’s local, it affects everybody in all of nature.”

Looking forward, Brown had high hopes for California, especially seeing the innovation that has already come out of the state’s Silicon Valley over the years. He wonders if the state will get a hold on climate change, develop better battery technology, and figure out how to sequester carbon, all exciting prospects.

At the same time, the former Governor cautioned that there are still problems the state must deal with, including the rising cost of living, inequality and discontent.

“Like life, always, it’s open,” Brown said. “We’re not destined one way or the other, we have a lot of upside, but we have enough downside to keep us worried.”

The Issue Is: with Elex Michaelson is California's only statewide political show. For showtimes and more information, go to