William Smithers's 'The Wizard of Sacramento' | Credit: Courtesy

When he left the California governor’s office after a second two-term stint in 2018, Jerry Brown had a reputation as a climate champion. In October of his final year in office, Brown signed a bill establishing a goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2045, and until his final days, Brown’s administration was pushing back against the Trump White House’s efforts to undermine action on climate change. 

In his book The Wizard of Sacramento, Santa Barbara resident William Smithers paints a very different portrait of Jerry Brown, one that casts Brown’s environmental achievements in shadow. “Brown,” write Smithers, “has worn a public mantle that belies his behavior.” Relying heavily on press accounts and government studies, Smithers documents what he views as an all-too-cozy relationship between Brown and major oil and gas concerns such as Chevron, Sempra Energy, and Pacific Gas & Electric. For instance, rather than oppose the controversial practice of hydraulic fracking, which can contaminate groundwater supplies with toxic chemicals and possibly trigger earthquakes, Brown actively aided energy companies in securing permits to deploy the technique. What did Brown reap from his efforts? Tax revenue for the state’s coffers and campaign contributions for himself and the California Democratic Party.

My reaction to this book was mixed. I believe that citizens in a democracy have a right to know how deals go down, who benefits, who profits, and who pays. We should be troubled when politicians clear regulatory obstacles for powerful corporate interests in exchange for campaign contributions. What The Wizard of Sacramento lacked was a narrative frame. It relies too heavily on published accounts, though some of the accounts are damning. While the book usefully illustrates the difference between Jerry Brown’s reputation and his actions, one would be hard-pressed to find a political leader of whom the same can’t be said. 

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