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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Jerry Brown: ‘A Legacy of Failure?’

We find Meg Whitman's attack ad fails to tell the truth.


Republican Meg Whitman is making false claims about Democrat Jerry Brown’s "lifetime in politics" in an attack ad. The two are battling to become the next governor of California.

  • The ad claims that "crime soared" while Brown was mayor of Oakland. That’s false. The total number of crimes actually went down by more than 13 percent.
  • Also false is the ad’s claim that Brown "damaged the school system so badly the state had to take it over." As mayor, Brown had almost no control over the school district, which was run instead by an elected school board.
  • A charge that Brown "lobbies for a corporate polluter" is highly misleading. Brown wasn’t a paid lobbyist. The claim is based on a phone call he made for a past campaign contributor, and it had nothing to do with pollution.
  • The ad claims Brown worked to "send California jobs to China," but that’s unproven. The claim rests on an 18-year-old newspaper story that Brown strongly denied.

Some of the ad’s other claims lack context. For example, it’s true as claimed that California had unemployment of 11 percent when Brown finished his time as the state’s governor. But the ad fails to mention that the national unemployment rate was 10.8 percent at the time.


Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., the Democratic candidate for governor of California, has been involved in politics for more than four decades. And it’s all been a "failure," according to an ad from Meg Whitman, his GOP opponent. But it’s Whitman who fails when it comes to the facts.

This 60-second attack ad first appeared June 22:

[TET ]

Meg Whitman for Governor Ad: "The Real Story"

Announcer: The Jerry Brown Story. The real story.

Forty years in politics, and failure has followed him everywhere. In the ‘60s, Brown enters politics and later serves two terms as governor. His big spending turns a surplus into a billion dollar deficit. Brown appoints liberal judges who fight the death penalty, supports billions in new taxes and leaves the state with record unemployment of 11 percent. Failure. In the ‘80s, he runs for Senate, but Californians say no. He lobbies for a corporate polluter and works to send California jobs to China. Failure. The ‘90s saw Jerry run as a presidential candidate against Bill Clinton.

Clinton: You know, he reinvents himself every year or two.

Announcer: Failure. And in the 2000s, Jerry was mayor of Oakland where he taxed everything from garbage to cable TV, crime soared and he damaged the school system so badly the state had to take it over. Another failure. Jerry Brown. A lifetime in politics, a legacy of failure. [/TET]

Soft on Crime?

The ad’s claim that "crime soared" while Brown was mayor of Oakland, Calif., is wrong. When Brown exited as mayor, the number of crimes reported to police was actually down by more than 13 percent from the year before he came into office.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, there were 37,182 crime offenses in Oakland in 1998. But the number of crime offenses declined to 32,250 in 2006.

Whitman’s claim rests on the fact that the number of murders in Oakland doubled from 72 in 1998 to 145 in 2006. There were more robberies and auto thefts when Brown left office, too. But decreases in forcible rapes, felony assaults, larceny and burglaries drove down the overall total.

Furthermore, Oakland’s 13 percent decrease in the number of crimes was actually higher than the national trend. According to FBI data, there were 12,542,142 criminal offenses in the U.S. in 1998, but only 11,462,617 offenses in 2006. That’s a decrease of less than 9 percent.

Responsible for State Takeover of Schools?

The claim that Brown, also as mayor of Oakland, "damaged the school system so badly the state had to take it over," is also false.

California, under former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, did assume control of the Oakland Unified School District in June 2003, but not because of Brown. California school districts are governed by independent school boards, whose members are elected directly by district residents. And the school districts are run by superintendents who are appointed by the school boards. It’s a point Brown emphasized in a June 10 interview with an ABC News affiliate in San Francisco:

Brown, June 10: In California, the school district is a separate government elected directly by the people and it makes its own decisions; the mayor has absolutely no control of an independent school district.

At one point, Brown actually considered having voters give him the authority to appoint every member of the district’s school board. Instead, he opted for having the power to appoint three new members in addition to the board’s seven publicly elected ones. Voters agreed to allow the extra appointed members in 2000, still only giving Brown a minority voice on the board.

According to multiple news reports, the Oakland school district’s history of financial trouble — and an $82 million debt under then-Superintendent Dennis K. Chaconas — led to the takeover, which was a condition of the $100 million bailout the school district received from the state. Moreover, Brown actually opposed the school board’s selection of Chaconas, who was replaced as superintendent during the state takeover.

Pollution Lobbyist?

The ad claims that after his failed run for U.S. Senate in 1982, Brown "lobbies for a corporate polluter." But, in fact, Brown was never a paid lobbyist for the firm.

The ad’s claim rests on a single telephone call that Brown made in 1988 to a powerful member of Congress who later complained that Brown was "lobbying" him. But the call had nothing to do with pollution. Furthermore, Brown called on behalf of the parent firm, not "the corporate polluter."

The "polluter" the ad refers to is ICN Biomedicals, a firm that manufactured products used by medical researchers studying diseases such as cancer and AIDS. The Los Angeles Times reported that the company was once "California’s largest producer of low-level radioactive waste." Brown served on the firm’s board from 1987 until his run for U.S. president in 1992, but he was not employed as a lobbyist.

The Whitman campaign bases the lobbyist rap on a phone call Brown made on behalf of Milan Panic, a campaign contributor, and the founder of ICN Pharmaceuticals (now Valeant Pharmaceuticals International), the parent company of ICN Biomedicals. The pharmaceuticals company was then being accused by the Food and Drug Administration of false advertising of Ribivarin, an antiviral drug the company produced. ICN later settled the case, agreeing to pay hefty fines to settle civil charges, but admitted no wrongdoing.

Brown admitted to calling Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the then-chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, to ask what he knew about the case. Waxman told The Washington Post at the time that he "looked at if as Jerry Brown calling to lobby me for his friends and supporters." Strictly speaking, Brown was not calling on behalf of ICN Biomedicals, the "polluter" the ad refers to. It was a subsidiary of ICN Pharmaceuticals and was not involved in the FDA case.

Overseas Jobs Pusher?

The claim that Brown worked "to send California jobs to China" rests on a disputed news account from 18 years ago, which Brown strongly denied at the time.

Brown visited China in the late 1980s while serving on the board of ICN Biomedicals. In 1992, the San Francisco Examiner reported that Brown had been in China to set up operations for ICN. The paper quoted former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and members of a San Francisco Bay Area trade commission, claiming they recalled Brown telling them that he was in China on business for ICN. But Brown denied this, and told Bob Schieffer, host of CBS News’ "Face the Nation," that he was in China for other reasons:

Brown, April 5, 1992: As a matter of fact, the reason I was in Hong Kong was to secure equity capital for investment in California. That’s why I was there. I was with a particular company from Sacramento and those records are available. … I was there to secure equity capital. And it’s true that I was formerly affiliated with a company that wants to sell its pharmaceutical products in China to combat river blindness and the Chinese army, I believe, is buying some of the–that drug that cures that, but I was not looking around for land or anything of the kind.

According to The Washington Post, Brown said that he was in China on behalf of a real estate firm headed by Jeffrey Berger, another financial supporter, who, according to Brown, paid the former governor to accompany him to Hong Kong. However, that story is contradicted in the same Post article by Richard H. Keatinge, a partner at the law firm Fulbright & Jaworski, who oversaw the firm’s work for ICN. Keatinge told the paper that he believed that the Examiner’s explanation of Brown’s visit to China was accurate based on his recollection of conversations with ICN officials about why Brown went overseas. Keatinge, though, told the Post that nothing actually came of Brown’s trip, although ICN later reached a tentative deal with a Chinese medical company to build a manufacturing plant in Shanghai.

Did Brown work "to send California jobs to China"? Perhaps so. But based on the murky evidence, we conclude that the ad’s claim is unproven.

More to the Story

Some of the ad’s other claims are mostly on point, but could use some explanation. For example, the ad claims that Brown left the state with "record unemployment of 11 percent" when he exited as governor. It’s true that the unemployment rate for California was 11.1 percent in December 1982, Brown’s last full month in office. What the ad fails to mention, however, is that the U.S. was coming out of a more than yearlong recession around that time, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. California’s unemployment rate was actually not much higher than the national rate, which was 10.8 percent in that same month.

The ad also claims that when Brown was governor of California, the state went from having a surplus of $6 billion to a deficit of $1 billion. We haven’t been able to verify those exact numbers with either the California Department of Finance or the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. The Whitman campaign bases the claim not on actual budget documents, but on an interview Brown did with CNN’s Larry King in 1992, where he claimed to have had a $6 billion surplus at one point, and a New York Times article from the same time period that reported that the state faced "more than a $1 billion deficit" when he left office. That may be true, but according to the same Times report, the disappearing surplus was caused by several things, including Proposition 13, a measure state voters approved — and Brown opposed — that cut residents’ property taxes, and reduced state revenue:

New York Times, April 5, 1992: Mr. Brown is widely criticized for not heading off a taxpayers’ revolt that produced Proposition 13, the ballot measure that in 1978 slashed property taxes and sent the state’s finances reeling. Had Governor Brown been more attentive to angry citizens whose property taxes were soaring at a time of huge government surplus, critics say, he might have crafted tax relief legislation that was less severe. The loss in revenue from Proposition 13 has been blamed for contributing to crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded schools and understaffed law enforcement and public health departments. …

With Proposition 13 a fait accompli, Mr. Brown directed $2.2 billion of the state surplus to the schools and $1.85 million to the counties and cities as emergency relief, actions which make it possible for him to accurately make the campaign claim today that taxes were cut and financing for schools increased in his administration.

But seeing that government’s response to their demands for limits was resulting in a handout of the surplus, voters rose up again in 1979. They passed another ballot measure that placed a lid on government spending, tying it to inflation and forcing government to receive voter approval for increased taxes.

Because the state constitution grants the governor the power to veto appropriations, Mr. Brown was eventually able to slash $2 billion from various budgets. But overall, state spending increased by nearly 120 percent during the Brown years after Proposition 13, even as the measure pushed down the individual state taxpayer’s burden from $158 per thousand of taxable income in 1978 to $108 per thousand when Mr. Brown left office in 1982.

By that time, Proposition 13 had cut average property tax rates to $1.13 per $100 of assessed valuation in 1982 from $11.24 per $100 in 1972, and forced $7 billion in spending cuts. The budget surplus had evaporated into a deficit of more than $1 billion and the state’s general fund reserve had fallen from nearly $2 billion to zero.

The ad’s charge that Brown supported "billions in new taxes" as governor — $7 billion according to a graphic that appears on screen — rests on a quarter-cent increase in the state’s 6 percent sales tax that he proposed in 1981, and a bill he signed that year that raised the state tax on gas by 2 cents a gallon. The sales tax hike, the "first tax he has ever proposed," according to a 1981 article in The Economist, was estimated to raise $5 billion over 10 years to help fund local police departments and finance an expansion of the state’s prison system. And The Los Angeles Times said that the gas tax increase — estimated to bring in $2.5 billion in revenue — was implemented "to keep the state’s highway system from going broke."

— by D’Angelo Gore and Kelsey Ferguson

Update, July 2: We initially failed to note the year that Brown called Waxman about  ICN. It was 1988. That information is now included in the story.

Correction, July 2: This article originally referred to former Gov. Gray Davis as a Republican. He is a Democrat, and we have updated the story to reflect that.


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