Jerry Brown Biography

Governor, Attorney General, Lawyer (1938–)
Jerry Brown has served four terms as governor of California as well holding numerous other political offices.


Born in San Francisco, California, in 1938, politician Jerry Brown has devoted much of his life to his home state. After initially considering the priesthood, Brown graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and Yale Law School before finding work as an attorney. In 1970, however, Brown won his first political victory when he was elected secretary of state for California. Four years later, he was elected to his first term as governor and set about implementing the liberal policies that would earn him the nickname Governor Moonbeam. After several failed bids for the Democratic nomination for president and a brief hiatus from the political arena, Brown returned to politics in 1998 when he was elected mayor of Oakland. After serving two terms, Brown once again joined the state government, this time as attorney general, and then in 2010 for a third term as governor of California. He was elected to an unprecedented fourth term in 2014.

A Golden State Legacy

Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown Jr. was born in San Francisco, California on April 7, 1938. His father, Edmund G. Brown Sr., was an attorney at the time of his birth and was later elected to be both attorney general and governor of California. The younger Brown did not set out with an interest in politics, however. After graduating from St. Ignatius High School in 1955 and attending the University of Santa Clara for his freshman year, Brown transferred to the Sacred Heart Novitiate Jesuit seminary.

Brown would go on to complete his theological studies, even taking his sacred vows before choosing a more secular route and enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied the classics. Brown graduated from the famously liberal school in 1961, and after a brief period of travel abroad, enrolled at Yale Law School. He earned his Juris Doctorate in 1964.

Becoming Governor Moonbeam

Law degree in hand, in 1964 Brown returned to his home state and clerked for California Supreme Court Justice Mathew Tobriner. (Tobriner had been appointed by Brown’s father, who at that time was serving his second term as governor.) Following his clerkship, Brown then relocated to Los Angeles, where he worked as an attorney at Tuttle & Taylor and in 1969 defeated more than 100 other candidates to serve on the board of trustees for Los Angeles Community College.

Brown’s tenure on the board was short-lived however, as he was elected California’s secretary of state the following year. In this capacity, Brown devoted much of his time to campaign and election reforms before making a successful run for the governorship in 1974. Replacing Republican governor Ronald Reagan, Brown set about implementing a liberal, progressive agenda that included the passing of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the setting of statewide energy-efficiency standards and the establishment of the California Coastal Commission. He also pushed for government funding of alternative-energies research, higher education and small businesses.

Despite a failed 1976 bid for the Democratic nomination for president, in 1978 Brown was elected to his second term as California’s governor, during which he continued the left-leaning policies that had earned him the nickname Governor Moonbeam.

There and Back Again

After a second failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980 and an unsuccessful Senate run in 1982, Brown left politics for a time. During the next five years, he traveled the lecture circuit, studied Spanish in Mexico and Zen Buddhism in Japan and did charity work with Mother Teresa in India. Ultimately, however, Brown returned to politics, moving back to California in 1988 and becoming chair of its Democratic Party the following year. But setting something of a pattern, in 1991 Brown resigned his post and took another shot at the presidency, winning a few states’ primaries before ultimately losing out to Bill Clinton.

Despite these defeats, Brown did not stray far from politics, founding the grassroots activism group We the People in Oakland, California, which included a radio show hosted by Brown. Brown’s involvement in the community there no doubt did much to help his successful campaign for mayor of the city in 1998. He would ultimately serve two terms in this new post and is credited with doing much to revitalize Oakland, which had fallen into neglect over the preceding decades. The revitalization of its downtown area, a significant reduction in its crime rate and the founding of the Oakland School for the Arts and the Oakland Military Institute are among his many achievements during this period. In 2005, Brown also married for the first time, to businesswoman Anne Gust.

California Son

In 2006, Brown added to his lengthy political resume when he was elected California’s attorney general. In this capacity, Brown proved characteristically liberal, going after the purveyors or risky loans, pushing for workers’ rights and fighting against legislation that attempted to overturn the legalization of same-sex marriages in the state.

By the end of his term as attorney general, however, Brown had already turned his eye back toward the governorship and was elected to a third term, nearly 20 years since he last held the office. Reelected in 2014 to a historical fourth term, Brown has continued to build on his legacy of environmental consciousness, investment in education and social equality while also focusing on cutting the state’s budget.

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