The first time, Gov. Jerry Brown wanted a satellite that would link government agencies around the state and allow rural doctors to consult with city health experts — and even monitor the environment.
In retrospect, it seemed a pragmatic idea, one that might have even saved money in the long run. But in the late 1970s the idea of a state launching a satellite was far from the norm. It was so ... out there. The proposal eventually was overshadowed by one of the most enduring nicknames in politics, one that it helped generate: Governor Moonbeam.
The moniker made the rounds again last week when Brown, in defiance of the Trump administration’s cuts to NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, declared California will launch “our own damn satellite.”
Brown’s vow, which he first used nearly two years, was a rallying cry at the close of Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. A co-host of the conference, Brown was perhaps the most in-demand person there, cementing his position as an international leader on combating climate change.
That was a far cry from his first suggestion to launch a satellite, which often was met with skepticism and derision. The launching of a satellite these days is no big deal; governments and private companies do it all the time. Not so back then.
Initially, Brown talked about the state having its own satellite. Then his administration proposed the state buy into one with other agencies. In addition to providing fast and broad communication, especially during emergencies, the governor wanted to explore whether such an investment would save millions the state was spending on travel costs. The proposal didn’t become reality at the time.
Brown already had displayed great interest in the possibilities of space, and the satellite gambit crystallized an image of a brash, somewhat eccentric young governor in the mind of legendary newspaper columnist Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times. He coined the term “Governor Moonbeam.”
Royko came to regret what he later called a throwaway line and publicly disavowed it. He did so because Brown had earned his admiration.
“During the 1980 Democratic convention, Brown made a speech that was far more sensible than any of the other babblings at that grim gathering,” the late Royko recalled in a 1991 column. “So I wrote a column renouncing the Moonbeam label. I not only renounced it, I denounced it, rejected and declared it unfair, inappropriate and outdated.”
He expressed his disappointment that despite his efforts, the name stuck.
“It was probably a pretty damn good idea back then,” David Doak, a retired political consultant who worked with Brown in his latter campaigns, recently said about the satellite proposal. “And he got a bad rap for it.”
Royko wasn’t the only skeptic Brown eventually won over during his first stretch as governor from 1975 to 1983. A former Jesuit seminarian, Brown was frugal in his own life and with the state’s purse. He eschewed many of the trappings of office. Instead of a limousine, he walked to work or drove around in, yes, a pale blue 1974 Plymouth Satellite.
The American Conservative said the young governor was more of a fiscal conservative than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Brown favored a balanced budget amendment. He opposed the property tax-cutting Proposition 13, but how he responded to its passage earned him praise from Howard Jarvis, the crusty author of the landmark initiative. Jarvis even appeared in a television ad for Brown’s re-election in 1978.
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“I wrote Proposition 13,” Jarvis said, “but it takes a dedicated governor to make it work.”
(Brown’s fiscal moves haven’t always gained such accolades. The wisdom and financing behind the more recent high-speed rail and twin-tunnel water projects have been widely questioned. His gas-tax increase is the target of a November referendum.)
In his first two terms, Brown was known for a lot more than his fiscal dexterity. He worked to advance the rights of minorities, women and gays along with pushing environmental protection policies, including the creation of one of the first-ever tax incentives for rooftop solar panels. Those once-cutting-edge concepts, like launching satellites, are now commonplace.
Brown was a three-time presidential candidate who also ran for U.S. Senate, losing to then-San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson in 1982. He dropped out of politics for a while and went to Japan to study Zen Buddhism and to Calcutta to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s mission. He returned to politics and became the head of the California Democratic Party, then mayor of Oakland, state attorney general and governor.
Now finishing out the last of his four terms as governor at age 80, Brown has taken on the image of elder statesman since he was elected California’s chief executive again in 2010. He may be the best thing the so-out-of-power Republicans have in Sacramento, as he keeps a check on some spending proposals by fellow Democrats.
He continues to mix politics and philosophy, but he comes off as more of a pragmatic crusader than an eccentric one. After hundreds marched in San Francisco Thursday protesting the governor’s oversight of the state’s oil industry, Brown chided them for having their heads in the clouds.
“Without a doubt, California has the most aggressive green energy plans in the Western Hemisphere,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “In the world of dreams, you can do a lot of things. In the world of practicality, there’s a way it works.”
After bristling at the Mooonbeam label over the decades, he has come to embrace it.
“Moonbeam also stands for not being the insider. But standing apart and marching to my own drummer,” he told The New York Times when he ran for governor in 2010. “And I’ve done that.”
He’s become one of the leading critics of President Donald Trump and his policies, particularly the efforts to roll back environmental regulations. In December 2016, he honed his message at a gathering of the American Geophysical Union.
“Some people say they’re going to turn off the satellites that are monitoring the climate,” he noted. “Remember back in 1978, I proposed a Landsat satellite for California. They called me Gov. Moonbeam because of that. I didn’t get that moniker for nothing. And if Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite! We’re going to collect that data.”
Brown didn’t deliver the line quite so cleanly in San Francisco on Friday. He later took to Twitter to drive home his mantra that is at once pro-science, pro-environment and anti-Trump: “We’re launching our own damn satellite!”
Have they printed up the T-shirts yet?